By Rob O'Connor '95
Somewhere between CSI and
Celebrity Chef, there's Chris Harrison '95. As chief illicit laboratory chemist
at the Arkansas State Crime Laboratory, he is the Emeril Lagasse of illicit
Harrison joined the state crime lab as a forensic chemist after
completing the coursework for a master's degree in chemistry from the University
of Arkansas at Little Rock in 1997.
At that time, Arkansas was the number
one state per capita in the manufacturing of methamphetamine. Harrison was on
call at least two weeks a month, collecting samples, aiding in interrogations,
and — calling on his experience as a former photo editor for The Profile —
taking crime scene photos.
"We were gone all the time," said Harrison, who
estimates he's worked more than 700 crime scene investigations during his
"It's really fun to respond to crime scenes to help officers," he
said, describing how his job resembles the image that people may see on crime
television shows. "That part is exactly what we do, but we're state employees,
not law enforcement. We drive unmarked trucks with equipment, not SWAT-style
Hummers, and we don't carry a weapon, because we're not sworn law enforcement
officers. So it's a little different, but there's still a lot of adrenaline."
At crime scenes, Harrison discovered that suspects feel a curious kinship with
"Clandestine cooks identify with us because they're chemists as well,"
Harrison cut his teeth on crime scene investigations before the
advent of digital photography and Google maps, which help law enforcement
officials locate illicit labs. Technology has made it easier to assist
investigators, and Harrison routinely takes calls after hours from officers
asking him to evaluate photos.
He enjoys finding unknown processes that
require him to research what suspects are up to.
"Those are really fun
moments," said Harrison, recalling a particularly complex scene that had federal
and local law enforcement agents puzzled. Within a day of testing and retesting
in the lab, he cracked the case. "No one knew anything about it, so that was
really fulfilling. Eureka moments make it exciting."
While Arkansas has long
been on the cutting edge of cooking methamphetamine, until recently, no one was
cooking pseudo ephedrine clandestinely.
Harrison told federal Drug
Enforcement Agency agents that they would find it in Arkansas. About two years
ago, his prediction came true. To be sure, Harrison called on his Hendrix mentor
and chemistry professor Dr. Tom Goodwin, who helped him reproduce the process.
"After two hours in the lab at Hendrix, we figured it out," he said.
Replicating illicit processes is essential to supporting law enforcement
efforts, as Harrison follows many cases from the crime scene to the courtroom.
"Every time we testify we have to be able to reproduce it. We have to cook
meth," he said. "We can't testify about something we can't do."
given more than 60 testimonies and enjoys the opportunity to explain chemical
processes in a courtroom.
"I love it, it's my second favorite part of the
job," he said. "You get challenged about everything you know and how you
communicate it to someone who doesn't know much about chemistry."
foray into public speaking was a presentation of his senior chemistry research.
"That presentation was one of the best experiences I had at Hendrix," he said,
also citing the positive impact of persuasive and public speaking courses he
took as an undergraduate. He also took an acting class and acted in a production
of All My Sons.
"It made a difference in explaining how a reaction mechanism
works," he said. "If you can't speak, you're not going to be a good forensic
Alongside his lab work, Harrison advocates the role of chemistry in
crime scene investigation as an expert faculty member at the University of
Arkansas Criminal Justice Institute in Little Rock, which offers four-year
degrees as well as technical job training for law enforcement personnel. He
offers five different classes about 10 times a year to students in the narcotic
officers' certification program.
"We talk about pharmacology and anything
drug-related, as well as crime scene and photo evidence collection as it relates
to narcotics," he said. "It's awesome."
He also speaks frequently to college
students through the state, including American Chemical Society members at
"It's a small portion of what I do, but I do it as often as I can,"
he said. "All of that is because of my first presentation experience at
A North Little Rock native, Harrison first set foot on campus as a
student at Arkansas Governor's School, where he met several future Hendrix
"I was sold after Governor's School," he said. "It was Hendrix
all the way."
Originally a biology major, Harrison didn't even take chemistry
his freshman year. After meeting Dr. Warfield Teague in General Chemistry, he
switched to chemistry but insists his early emphasis on biology has helped him
in his current role.
"I took at least one biology class each term, so I had
20-plus biology hours, which has helped out a lot here," he said. "I can talk
DNA and the serology side ... and it's made me a more well-rounded chemist and a
more well-rounded forensic analyst."
In Dr. Teague's advanced inorganic
chemistry course, Harrison enjoyed "micro-scaling" and recreating experiments
from science journals, something that has also served him well at the crime lab.
"That's how meth lab chemistry works," he said. "Every day we work a case, we're
doing an experiment. Every case is tied to proving or disproving something. If
the outcome doesn't come out the way you think it will, then you have to rethink
it and do some other test."
Harrison enjoys the intersection of chemistry and
crime scene investigation.
"I like the fact that we do ultimately serve law
enforcement and the community," he said. "The crime lab is an important part of
law enforcement and vital to the prevention and treatment of drug abuse. It also
serves as a good check and balance to the legal system. The crime lab is not
interested in innocence or guilt, only the facts of a crime, however that may
influence the outcome."
"I plan on being here for the rest of my career," he
said. "This agency has treated me well. We're like a family."
his wife Jan Green Harrison '97 live in North Little Rock with their two