The Science of Forensics

Ms. Sabrina Gast, York County Coroner
York County Coroners Office
York County Teen Science Café


What is Forensics?
by Hannah (Teen Leader) and Ms. Spratley

Sabrina Gast, a county coroner, talks to teens about forensics at a Teen Science Café.

Sabrina Gast talks to teens at the York County Teen Science Café about her life as the county coroner.

The November café was my favorite York County Teen Science Café so far, as it dealt with forensics, a long time passion of mine. We were visited by York County’s very own coroner, Sabrina Gast. I found this café to be equally educational and exciting. My favorite part of the café was when she showed us actual photographs! I learned that coroners in South Carolina are elected every four years for each county, similar to other elected politicians, and some get paid as little as $12,000 a year! Other states may appoint or hire the coroner without a political vote. Another thing I found out was that before 2012, a person did not need higher education to become a coroner, they only needed to be 21 years of age and a US citizen.  Some coroners today are funeral directors, nurses or may have no medical training at all.

Coroner, Sabrina Gast talked about how they can figure out a range of time in which the person died through the science of observation.  She gave three ways a coroner can tell the time of the death: rigor mortis, livor mortis, and bugs; there were two pictures of victims – one already had larvae about 30 minutes after death and the other had heaps of maggots two weeks after death!  Anatomy, math and communication are all skills that a coroner uses daily.  She talked about the hard part of the job like the smells and viewing strange and gross things. At the end, she gave us a scenario in which we had to ask questions to figure out what we thought might have happened. I felt really smart because I asked questions that actually gave important information to the case. Overall, I loved it and felt my passion for crime scene investigation grew even more.  When asked what the hardest part of her job was, she said, “Going to the home of the mother or father of a victim and having to tell them their loved one is dead.” She said that never gets any easier, but she feels it is a very important part of her job.

Hands on Activity

Forensics at Work:

We worked as a group to ask specific questions that would help us critically think about the science of forensics and how we could apply the science to the scenario that our speaker provided.  Our goal was to use forensics to uncover scientific evidence that would tell us what happened and maybe who did it. As we took turns asking questions the coroner would either answer or ask us a leading question to keep us on track.  She gave us a few clues and we ended up realizing how hard solving a case using only forensics evidence could be.  Guessing or assuming without solid evidence could cause an innocent person to be targeted for a crime they didn’t commit while the actual criminal would get away. Many things have to be recorded, photographed, observed, collected and discovered and then tested before detectives have enough evidence for a charge to be brought or a warrant to be served. We finally got very close to the correct conclusion, but the café as a whole showed us the huge contrast between CSI on TV and the real job. The forensic tools that are used in the field are much less sci-fi and there is so much attention to details that is needed that forensics can be a slow and tedious process. Most of the actual evidence goes to a lab to be analyzed. This activity was more brains-on than hands-on but we all enjoyed the challenge.