From the days when Watson and Crick leveraged Rosalind Franklin’s x-ray diffraction images of DNA to identify DNA’s double helix structure, the contributions of women in the life sciences have often been overlooked or minimized.
Written by: Ann MacPhetridge, PRomega
UNESCO points out that women in STEM fields publish less, are paid less for their research and often do not progress as far as men in their careers.
My personal experience as a marketer in the forensics field is this is not necessarily the case in forensic sciences, so I interviewed eight female forensic scientists in varying points in their careers to learn more about their passions, challenges and advice for the next generation of forensic scientists. I left those interviews inspired and in awe of their brilliance and dedication to making a difference in people’s lives through the pursuit of good science and engagement and collaboration with their peers.
The Up and Comers: the Future Looks Bright
As part of ISHI 30 this year, Promega recruited four ISHI ambassadors—graduate students, who as part of their ambassador role, would share their experiences at ISHI via social media channels and present a poster on their research during our poster sessions.
I had the good fortune of interviewing the ambassadors—all four of them women—while at ISHI 30 and came away reinvigorated by their passion for forensic sciences and the wisdom they so generously shared with me during our time together. While from vastly diverse backgrounds, the shared aims amongst them astounded me.
One item that struck me when interviewing the ambassadors is they each have more self-assurance and self-awareness than most women of my generation at their age. Like many fellow Millennials, they are tech savvy, family centric, achievement oriented and team oriented. Each is driven to succeed and committed to giving back, whether it be to their families, communities, or students.
Excited by science from a young age, studying forensics appealed to them because it is meaningful work and challenges them in new ways. Family is very important, as evidenced by their common answer of what makes up a perfect day for them: seeing their families happy and healthy. Moreover, each plan to stay in academia after they receive their doctorate degrees to continue propelling the field forward through their research and their instruction of the next generation of forensic scientists.
Established Leaders: Role Models for the Future
My next set of interviews consisted of three women in leadership roles. Each has nearly two decades of experience in forensics at various laboratories in the United States, and have seen many changes in the field since they first entered the field.
While each woman took a different path to get to their current role, they all lead teams of scientists, and manage the day to day wins and losses, while maintaining their passion and commitment to science, their staffs, and their families.
Thoughtful and considered in their replies, it was evident throughout my conversations with them that each’s leadership style was founded in accountability, commitment and integrity.
A Retired Pioneer Looks Back
Cecilia Crouse, the former Lab Director at the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office Crime Laboratory, came to Madison in July 2019 to film the opening video for ISHI 30. While in Madison, she sat down with me to sharr her perspectives as a female pioneer in the area of DNA forensics.
Cece is highly respected by her colleagues and peers and is widely known for her work on various committees, interlaboratory projects, and publications in peer reviewed journals, as well as her wicked sense of humor.
Cece spent 26 years at PBSO, but her entry into forensics was a bit unusual. Her first job was as a high school instructor teaching health education to the football team.
Cece and her husband relocated to Florida where she worked in industry for awhile. Realizing that she would need a PhD if she was to be in a position to make decisions on where the company was to go, she studied human genetics, graduated and then did a post-doctoral fellowship at the Bascom Palmer Eye Institute at the University of Miami.
She took the job at PBSO to be closer to her husband (he was living in West Palm Beach at the time). She admits that she wasn’t a fan of forensics at first, “I was actually thinking how could a job be more, not boring, but repetitive? Something comes in, you test it, and it goes out. I thought of it more as a clinical lab kind of thing”.
Like the other women I interviewed, Cece admitted that the hardest part of forensics is the types of cases they’re dealing with. Early on in her career it was difficult for her to separate the science from the emotional aspect of the case.
Her advice to the next generation of forensic scientists is to “take that cup and fill it up!” And for those interviewing for a new role, she advises to be ready, be prepared, and whatever you do, don’t take that phone call in the middle of the interview.
Her last gold nugget of advice, “Just make sure that you listen before you talk, because there’s some people who have paved the way, and now it gets into court. So, don’t forget you have ideas. Don’t forget you can problem solve, but be cognizant of the standards that you need to keep. There’s a couple of things that you can’t teach…you need to be kind and you need to be generous with your time.”
As I reflect on each of these interviews, I can’t help but feel changed for the better by my time talking with these women. It’s so easy to get caught up in the daily frustrations of our jobs that we often are blind to the bright spots that permeate our careers. I left ISHI 30 feeling more energized and galvanized about the future of women in the life sciences, than when I arrived.
Other life science fields can learn from the example that forensics presents—an environment where collaboration, engagement, and mentoring is commonplace, not a rarity.
We at Promega occasionally engage in discussions on who will be the next John Butler. After interviewing these remarkable women, I’m more convinced than ever that it will be a female forensic scientist who will be up to the task to fill his shoes.
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