It's chemistry that always gets a reaction.
The subject of forensic science has taken hold of the public imagination – thanks in part to slick TV shows such as CSI Miami and the popularity of whodunnits in which experts effortlessly solve baffling cases by interpreting blood splatters and collecting bits of DNA from the crime scene.
Dr Steve Dobrowski knows all about the reality of forensic science – based on a distinguished 20-year career in research and teaching and through his current role as director of Castleview, based at Honley.
Steve has lived at Netherton since 1984, but was born in Manchester and later lived in Liverpool before moving to Diggle as a youngster and attending Colne Valley High School.
“I was mainly interested in art rather than science, but soon realised I wasn’t really at all arty,” he says. “I enjoyed chemistry. My parents bought me a Lotts No 2 chemistry set and I still have the first chemistry book I was given – Chemistry for Boys and Girls – which had really simple kitchen table-top experiments. My first successful experiment was to build a mound of iron filings and sulphur and put a match to it. It spat ferociously and left the iron filings embedded in the kitchen worktop. It was so fascinating, I wanted to carry on.”
Steve left Colne Valley High School in 1972 with A-levels in chemistry, physics and maths and went to Leeds University to study textile chemistry where he worked extensively with polymers. “The department of textile industries was just opposite the students’ union and 60 seconds away from the snooker table,” he says. “That was my mis-spent youth!”
Steven went on to gain a PhD and was offered a role working with the International Wool Secretariat examining wool for forensic purposes. He says: “I recall saying at the time that I didn’t think there was any future in forensics in the UK and turned it down!”
Instead, he went to work for his father’s metal finishing firm in Oldham before successfully applying for a role as research fellow at Bradford University. He took up an 18-month post looking at the chemistry of polyurethane. “I had been out of the lab for six years by then,” says Steve. “I was interviewed for the post and we spent about an hour-and-a-half talking about chemistry. At the end of the interview, they said they would be in touch. I had hardly got through the door at home when they range offering me the job.” Steve’s work involved research to see how polyurethane molecules were assembled. During the 18 months, Steve also wrote a computer simulation of the process.
Steve then got a job as a chemist at Leeds University’s physics department on a project to make polymers for lithium batteries.
After a couple of years, he took a teaching post at Stockport College of Technology, teaching polymer chemistry and thermodynamics. He later moved to Sheffield Polytechnic, now Sheffield Hallam University, teaching the same subject before returning to Bradford in 1990. In 1992, he took on additional responsibility for recruiting undergraduates to the chemical and technology course, where student numbers were falling.
“I suggested forensics as a possible ‘hook’ to attract students,” he says. “We worked with the pharmacy department and set up a chemistry with pharmacy and forensic science degree. It was launched a year earlier than expected and from that point student numbers went up. We were the first university in England to have a chemistry-based undergraduate forensics programme.”
Since then, forensic science has become hugely popular, fuelled partly by television, but also by the increasing number of graduates who cannot get a job in forensic science – but are getting jobs as teachers and are now “filtering” the subject down to schools.
Says Steve: “The TV shows are very dramatic with lots of pretty girls and quick results. But forensic science isn’t glamorous – it’s painstaking. The work can be very routine and not very exciting. You need to be highly motivated and you need to be a good scientist to build up the evidence that will result in putting the villain away.”
Steve says hunting for clues at the crime scene may be exciting, but Steve counsels youngsters taking part in CSI events that it’s just the first part of the process which then involves forensic investigation and the presentation of evidence to take to a court of law.
Steve’s 10 years at Bradford also saw him appointed director of forensic science and latterly acting head of department. He took early retirement in 2009.
Says Steve: “For the next year-and-a-half, every day was a Saturday – which is an interesting place to be when you have spent the past 20 years as I did. I am something of a workaholic!”
Steve undertook school visits and led training courses in forensics before deciding in April last year that “I really have to get down to doing something”. That led to him forming Castleview to “communicate forensics information to the profession, to education and to the public”. The company takes its name from the view of Castle Hill Steve gets from the window at his Netherton home.
“I am not a natural businessman,” Steve admits. “It is something I have had to learn. Working with my dad’s business meant I picked up some relevant skills, so I am not entirely wet behind the ears. I am not doing this because I want to become a very wealthy businessman – I want to provide a facility for the public to see some of the realities of forensic work and to provide resources for schools and colleges.”
The company is also involved in corporate training – offering a variation on the company away-day by using CSI as a vehicle to get people to work together and identify what works well. Local pubs and shops are also interested in Steve staging CSI events along the lines of the popular murder mystery evenings – with participants having to search for clues.
Steve has also launched a cleaning business, again drawing on the techniques used to clean up crime scenes in the wake of investigations.
When time allows, Steve gets away from work by returning to a boyhood hobby – photography. “I was introduced to photography when I was at high school,” he says. “I had a Russian 35mm camera and I did my own black-and-white photo processing.
“But I hadn’t used a camera for years and it only came out for holidays and special occasions. When I took early retirement I knew I needed something else to do, so I joined Holmfirth Camera Club.” Now he is chairman of the group, having served a two-year stint as vice-chairman, and has won several awards for his work. The club meets weekly at the Northlight Gallery in Armitage Bridge.