An odontologist is a licensed dentist who specializes in forensic dentistry. He or she frequently works with law enforcement professionals and forensic science laboratory technicians to help identify bodies and catch criminals. An odontologist often conducts careful investigations to match dental records, photographic evidence, and x-rays to teeth or bite marks found at the scene of a crime or an accident. Professionals are typically required to present their findings to law enforcement officials and judges, and give expert testimonies at court hearings.
When either pieces of teeth or bite marks are recovered from a crime scene, an odontologist might be called upon to determine the identity of the perpetrator. He or she takes samples to a laboratory to check them against dental records of suspects in an investigation. An expert might also analyze bite marks present on a victim to help police gather sufficient evidence for an arrest. Odontologists usually write detailed reports about their findings and present evidence at trials to put away criminals.
It is often difficult or impossible to identify victims of fires, explosions, or disfiguring accidents without the aid of trained odontologists. Teeth may be the only body parts left intact after such incidences, and professionals are needed to analyze them in forensic labs. An odontologist might use microscopes, DNA extraction equipment, and dental records on computer databases to identify victims. When decayed human remains are found, odontologists investigate pieces of teeth and jaws to determine their identity.
To become an odontologist, a person must typically meet the same educational requirements of other dentists, gain experience through assisting other professionals for a certain period of time, and pass extensive licensing examinations. Hopeful odontologists are usually required to complete four-year bachelor's degree programs as well as three to four years of dentistry school. Upon graduation, individuals typically assume internships or residencies where they learn more about the specifics of forensic dentistry from established odontologists. Licensing procedures vary by states and countries, though most new odontologists are required to pass written and practical examinations before practicing independently.
The field of forensic dentistry is relatively small, and competition for positions in research labs and law enforcement agencies is generally very strong. Odontologists frequently supplement their income from criminal and accident investigative work by offering other types of dental services. Many odontologists are also licensed orthodontists, oral surgeons, or cosmetic dentists. Some individuals choose to become part- or full-time professors at dental schools.