Inside the World of Chemistry, Calculations, and Clandestine Labs
Last Updated: Wednesday November 22, 2023
This is the eighth installment in a series of profiles featuring DEA special agents, diversion investigators, chemists, and more. Learn about the tough but fulfilling, fascinating, and vital work these DEA personnel do, as well as the many different ways to get involved in fighting drug misuse.
For our eighth profile, we will be interviewing Senior Research Chemist Joe from the Special Operations Division.
What motivated you to join the DEA?
I began work in a small forensic lab in Fort Worth, Texas. While the work I was exposed to was interesting and diverse, I wanted to grow. A colleague shared an employment offer packet with the stylized lettering “DEA Forensic Chemist.” Upon reading it completely, I knew immediately that was a challenge I wanted. I asked friends around the law enforcement community about any details they might share and learned of a passionate and smart team. To this date, I still love the decision to pursue this career with DEA and I still believe it to be one of the most fulfilling opportunities available in forensics.
What does an average day as a senior research chemist look like for you?
An average day involves me providing chemistry support for drug investigations and intelligence. Chemistry support involves calculations, organic chemistry, assessing precursor viability, and analytical considerations at the lab. This ranges from phone calls, emails, meetings, and even responding to drug crime scenes, such as clandestine laboratories. Additionally, I keep current with the trends in drug manufacturing and smuggling, as well as the evolution of forensic chemistry technology through peer-reviewed scientific articles. As DEA’s mission is global, I do spend a considerable amount of time traveling both domestically and internationally to meet with or present to investigators and other forensic researchers.
What has been your proudest moment as a senior research chemist thus far?
I’m quite proud of the collaborations that are ongoing with other research institutions. We carry a great many projects with universities and other federal laboratories, both domestic and foreign, that produce advancements in forensics, intelligence, as well as organic and analytical chemistry in peer-reviewed publications, posters, patents, and presentations. There’s a satisfaction that is gained from serving the public and a unique one to contribute to the body of science.
How can young people who wish to become a DEA senior research chemist best prepare themselves for the job?
There are prerequisites for the position of forensic chemists; however, the best preparation is mental. Be willing and eager to take on the most formidable, the most difficult, and the most ominous challenges in your professional career. It’s the culmination of your victories and lessons learned that make for an impactful career in public service. As a professional, learning is self-paced and requires discipline. Much can be learned, especially in Forensic Chemistry, by seeking these challenges directly.
The synthetic opioid fentanyl – often mixed into other drugs – is now responsible for tens of thousands of American deaths per year. How has the fentanyl epidemic changed your job?
The synthetic drug crisis owes its origin and duration to organic chemistry. The very same chemistry that can be altruistic is, in the wrong hands, for profit and peril. As such, DEA’s progressed to include more and more chemists in its day-to-day operations. This includes frequent input on policy, executive advisement, prosecution meetings, and certainly – public outreach. Given the very nature of the potency associated with novel synthetic opioids, forensic chemistry has had to adapt in many ways. Myself and my forensic chemist colleagues throughout the DEA lab system strive to provide the very best support and the most comprehensive analyses in support of investigations.
Aug. 1 Profile: Meet Special Agent Dave
Aug. 17 Profile: From Searching Tunnels to Undercover at a Rave...
Aug. 31 Profile: Fighting the Jalisco Cartel as an Intelligence Analyst
Sept. 14 Profile: Working With His Wife to Dismantle Drug-Peddling Prison Gang
Sept. 28 Profile: Meth Hidden in a Gas Tank? Helping DEA as a Chemist
Oct. 18 Profile: From Teaching English to Helping Capture El Chapo
Nov. 2 Profile: Phone Forensics: Diving Into Digital Evidence