Heidi Nichols says her experience as a forensic photography major at Barry University provided her with the skills and work ethic to succeed as an essential part of the team at the Miami-Dade County Medical Examiner’s Office.
“I learned the fundamentals of photography, including the technical aspects,” Nichols said. Then she began to apply what she learned about white balance, depth of field, and understanding the equipment to forensics with an internship at the medical examiner’s office.
“I also took anatomy at Barry, and I use that every day as a medical examiner,” said Nichols, now Chief Forensics Photographer. Her education and internship helped Nichols develop a strong work ethic.
There’s a huge disparity between shows like CSI Miami and her real-world experience. “Forensics on TV seems like a very glamorous world. But it’s a lot of hard work and a lot of hours.” Part of the challenge is to remain meticulous with evidence at all times, even when working a crime scene outside in all the heat, humidity and heavy rains in Florida. “You have to be careful and very professional” because you only get one chance at getting it right, she added.
Nichols recommends students considering forensic photography do some job shadowing before they decide if it’s the right career for them.
Giving Back to Barry
Nichols regularly returns to Barry University to speak with Professor Gilbert Ellis’ Forensic Biology class. “She enlightens the students as to the significance of forensic photography and how it plays an important part in our criminal justice system,” said Dr. Ellis, an Associate Professor of Biology in the College of Arts & Sciences.
Her real world experience and expertise generate “great interest from the students. She uses real case studies to emphasize the photographic techniques involved in her investigations,” Dr. Ellis continued. “The students are excited about her work, and learn a great deal about the world of forensic photography.”
On a recent visit, for example, Nichols explained the advantages of alternate light source photography for forensics and the variety of photographic techniques she uses to document crime scene evidence. Ultraviolet and infrared photographic techniques can reveal imprints on a body from a hit and run accident, the presence of blood stains on various surfaces, and detect when documents are forged.
Nichols has worked at the Miami-Dade Medical Examiner’s Office since graduating as a forensic photography major. In terms of giving back, she supervises forensic photography students from Dr. Ellis’ class and others who come to Medical Examiner’s Office for their own internships.
“I love it. Professor Ellis has me on campus at least once a semester,” Nichols said. Her insights on DNA, fingerprints and bite wound evidence supplement what students learn in class. “It’s important to foster the future and give students an understanding of what forensic photography is really about.”
A Career That’s ‘Never Mundane’
Even so, spending time in the field, photographing crime scenes, and using advance technologies like alternate light source photography and the high speed gun range to help solve a case are aspects of her work she likes the most.
Her skills make a difference in many cases. For example, “I used alternate light source to photograph evidence and I got the name of a murder victim.” Investigators could not identify the victim at first; his fingerprints were not in the system. “It was a homicide, so it’s important to ID the victim,” Nichols said. “He had a piece of evidence in his pocket with his name on it. The alternate light source technology revealed his name, and then we used confirmatory methods like dental records and DNA.”
It’s clear to her that she made the right career choice. “Every day it’s something new. Every case is different and challenging, even after doing this for 15 years,” Nichols says. “It’s never mundane.”