College is, for most people, a place to lay the groundwork for their eventual careers. Not Henry Swofford — his career in forensic science began all the way back in high school.
As early as his sophomore year, Swofford was contacting police chiefs across Georgia hoping to get some exposure to the real world of forensic science. “I stumbled across one chief who invited me to a meeting of the Georgia Association of Chiefs of Police,” he says. “He put me in the right networks and introduced me to some key people.”
By the time Swofford arrived at Georgia State University as a Presidential Scholar in what was then called the Honors Program (now the Honors College), he’d already gotten some experience in a police crime lab. With that kind of head start, it’s no surprise that less than a year after graduating, he was working in the U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Laboratory.
‘You Make Your Own Luck’
“I had a little bit of ambition. Arguably, that was probably a little bit dangerous,” Swofford says with a grin as he remembers his early attempts to get a firsthand look at a crime lab. He also admits that he got shot down plenty of times before he found success. “I was that arrogant kid who said, ‘I’ll make it work, I’ll figure out something.’ . . . I’ve always had the mentality that it doesn’t just come to you — you’ve got to work, you’ve got to make your own luck.”
When he first set foot on Georgia State’s campus, Swofford’s hard work had already earned him both the Presidential Scholarship and a part-time job with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. As his GBI work developed into a full-time job, Swofford says he was grateful for Georgia State’s flexibility. “When I started out, I just did three long days at the GBI and two days of piling all my classes in,” he says. “Each semester, I just kind of said, ‘Hey, this is my schedule, can we work with it,’ and they did.”
An even bigger boost, though, came from his scholarships. The Presidential Scholarship covered tuition, room and board, and a study-abroad experience in Germany, and the Biotechnology Scholarship paid an additional stipend. Together, Swofford says, the scholarships gave him the freedom to focus on research and his long-term career rather than fees and finances.
“The scholarships meant I didn’t have to focus on working for the purpose of having to earn income,” he says. “They allowed me to focus my priorities on strategically advancing my career goals. I know a lot of students who they have to work two jobs just to pay their tuition and support themselves, and I admire them a lot. I’m no better than them, I’m no better than any other person out there. I’m just very fortunate to have had scholarships that allowed me to focus on my goals.”
Swofford says he’s also grateful for the support and advice he got as a student in the Honors Program, particularly from Greg Chisholm, the administrative coordinator for scholarship programs. “If you had a question or something and he didn’t know the answer, he’d say, ‘I don’t know the answer with that, but I can connect you with someone who does.’ You can tell he cares.
“That’s the biggest thing — the faculty cared about me, and they showed it. The faculty and staff in general, they took a personal interest and focused attention on the individual students. That’s what I really liked.”
Not Quite ‘CSI’ — but Getting There
Today, as a latent print examiner and research coordinator for the Army, Swofford assists with criminal investigations, but he’s also heavily involved in research designed to advance the state of forensic science itself. He’s given presentations at conferences across the country on using technology to make the examination process quicker and more efficient. Not a bad job for someone who says he’s wanted to work in law enforcement ever since he was 10.
“It’s kind of amazing when you’re presenting to people who have been in the field 20 years, you’re saying ‘This is really interesting,’ and they’re listening to you, they’re writing down what you’re saying,” he says. “I’m helping to shape the future of forensics, and that’s really what makes it feel good.”
As for the obvious question — is your job really that much like “CSI” and all those other police-procedural dramas on TV? — Swofford says yes and no. “I really wish my co-workers were all supermodels,” he says, laughing. “On the one hand, it’s created a huge demand for forensic science. And that’s got a lot of universities catering to forensic science programs, which is good, because it improves the general base education of people coming in at the training level. The other side of that is it creates the ‘CSI effect,’ where you have juries in criminal trials with some level of expectation of what forensics can and cannot do and what police should or should not have done for that particular case. Even though their only training is what they can see on TV, which is kind of fictitious to start with.”
While the technology used on police shows is often miles ahead of what most forensic labs can actually do, Swofford says that’s not a frustration. If anything, for someone as heavily involved in research as he is, it’s a motivator.
“There’s a part of me that says never settle for ‘It’s impossible to do that.’ You look back and you think of all those old sci-fi shows, and people of the time said ‘That can never be done.’ And then you look 20 or 30 years later, and you see we actually have something similar to that in real life.”
Instead of shrugging and saying “We can’t do that,” Swofford says he’s more likely to ask, “Can we make it like that? Can we do something to increase the speed of fingerprint examination, automate it, improve the accuracy? It’s kind of an interesting dynamic: Even though a lot of those technologies don’t exist, that kind of culture, in my opinion, helps bring out the creative side of people. It makes them say, ‘Let’s try to tackle that issue.’”