Like fingerprints, no two sets of teeth share the same traits. Some scientists even believe teeth are more individual than DNA because identical twins--with matching DNA--still possess different dentition due to different chewing patterns or dental issues, according to a 2005 article in the University of Texas Health Science Center "Health Leader" magazine. Forensic odontologists--also known as forensic dentists--use those differences to help interpret dental evidence in criminal or legal proceedings.
Forensic dentists apply their dentistry expertise to help identify victims and perpetrators. They examine evidence such as teeth, dental work and bite marks. However, most forensic dentists consult only part time with police or crime labs and spend the majority of their time practicing clinical dentistry. Some forensic odontologists work full time in a medical examiner office, according to the 2004 report "Education and Training in Forensic Science" by the National Institute of Justice.
Forensic odontologists analyze many types of dental evidence for a variety of legal cases. They identify Jane or John Does by comparing postmortem dentition with dental records prior to death. In some cases, they extract DNA from tooth pulp and compare it the DNA profile of a victim or direct family member. Forensic dentists also identify perpetrators by taking photographs of bite marks on a victim's skin. They compare these photographs to molds of a suspect's bite and look for matches in teeth spacing and width, wear patterns, tooth alignment, missing teeth and biting edges, according to "Health Leader" magazine.
For child abuse cases, forensic dentists examine children for oral injuries and bite marks anywhere on the body. They also investigate signs of neglect, such as gingivitis, according to the National Guideline Clearinghouse "Guideline on Oral and Dental Aspects of Child Abuse and Neglect."
All forensic odontologists possess a doctor of dental surgery or doctor of dental medicine to practice dentistry, according to the 2004 report "Education and Training in Forensic Science" by NIJ. Forensic dentists also achieve certification through the American Board of Forensic Odontology, which enforces strict education and professional requirements, including a DDS or DMD, the observation of at least five medico-legal autopsies, experience with at least 25 cases--with minimum numbers of each type of case--and 350 qualification points for professional development activities and an exam, according to the American Board of Forensic Odontology website.
When forensic odontologists lend their expertise to legal cases, they may also testify in court. To hold sway with jurors, they must possess skills with simplifying complex and highly technical information so that jurors can understand, according to the Explore Health Careers website.
A career in forensic odontology requires dentists to stay on call for cases at all hours of the day and night--possibly even on holidays or weekends. Forensic dentists may have to examine corpses at the crime scene, which can expose them to disturbing situations or imagery. They also have to feel comfortable with high-tech equipment such as microscopes or computers, according to the Explore Health Careers website.
- University of Texas Health Science Center: "Health Leader": Forensic Dentistry
- National Institute of Justice: "Education and Training in Forensic Science"
- National Guideline Clearinghouse: "Guideline on Oral and Dental Aspects of Child Abuse and Neglect"
- American Board of Forensic Odontology: Qualification Application
- Explore Health Careers: Forensic Odontology
- Photo Credit Dentist at work in dental room image by Vladimir Melnik from Fotolia.com
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