In this interview, we sit down with Dr. Nicole Novroski, Assistant Professor at the University of Toronto Mississauga in the field of forensic genetics. She shares her journey from student to professor and provides advice for other young scientists considering this career path.
Dr. Novroski also discusses how the field of forensic DNA has changed over the years, specific challenges she faces, and what it’s like to be a young female in a STEM field inspiring the next generation of scientists.
We also get to learn about exciting projects her students are working on that may one day impact the medical field as well as forensics.
Laura: Hi and thank you for joining us for the latest International Symposium on Human Identification’s video series. Today, we’re with Nicole Novroski. Did I get that right, Nicole?
Laura: Ok, great! She’s a forensic geneticist and she’s here to talk with us today. Why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself and your work?
Nicole: Sure. Like you mentioned, I’m Dr. Nicole Novroski. I’m an Assistant Professor at the University of Toronto and I specialize in forensic genetics. Within my role as Assistant Professor, I have both a research lab, where I have a growing team of young scientists, and then I also teach within the forensic science program at the Mississauga campus.
Laura: Tell us a little bit more about what it’s like to be a forensic anthropology professor. What does that entail?
Nicole: Just to clarify, I am a forensic geneticist, but our forensic science program is housed within the department of anthropology simply because all of our directors had inherently been forensic anthropologists. So, we’ve been kind of stuck within anthropology, for all intents and purposes, within the administrative level. But, essentially, what I have developed since I’ve joined UTM’s faculty is a forensic science research program that specializes in forensic biology and forensic genetics, so I am the head of my own lab that focuses on forensic genetics research initiatives that are really trying to push the envelope further.
I also am the primary faculty member for the forensic biology specialist program for our undergraduate program, and within that capacity, I have developed a series of new courses, or, essentially I’ve rebuilt the curriculum, so that undergraduates going through the forensic bio-stream really can immerse themselves in a strong foundational understanding of forensic biology so that they’re better prepared for the future when they move on to other things after their undergraduate degree.
Laura: Ok, so just a little bit busy it sounds like.
Nicole: Sometimes, sometimes.
Laura: How did you get interested in the field?
Nicole: So, ironically, I am alum of the UTM forensic science program. I grew up in Canada. I did attend the University of Toronto for my undergraduate degree and I fell in love with forensics in 11th grade, when I wrote a paper on DNA fingerprinting and learned about Alec Jeffreys and everything that kind of sparked the creation or the initiation of the forensic genetic sub-discipline back in the 1980’s. Oh my goodness, time is flying by!
However, I joined the UTM forensic science program not really knowing what it was that I was truly passionate about, but of course, holding true, fell in love with biology and continued in that discipline for the undergraduate program. Once I left there, I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do, but I ended up working in a RCMP detachment, which then kind of re-sparked that need to be a forensic scientist.
Then I took my academic journey to the United States, where I did my Master’s degree and had the opportunity to work at the OCME in New York City, and then spent my Doctoral time at the University of North Texas Center for Human Identification. That’s when I really excelled and pushed the limits of my understanding of forensic genetics and really explored a variety of new technologies, chemistries, and truly developed a strong passion for forensic genetics in terms of driving my career forward.
Laura: That’s quite the career. How have things changed since you’ve started? What have you seen?
Nicole: Everything has changed in theory. So, the underlying foundation of forensic biology; extraction, quant, amplification, generating that DNA profile. All of that remains pretty standard and has been a standard form of practice for a couple decades. However, what we’re seeing is this implementation of new technologies and new chemistries that are really changing the questions that we’re able to answer. These technologies and chemistries really push our limits of understanding the practices that we already knew. We’re going down to less super low levels of sensitivity and specificity in terms of what we’re able to capture from what we’re given from any biological sample. We really have immensely changed our capabilities as forensic practitioners in terms of the questions we can answer and the sample types that we can process.
What I find particularly interesting is these new technologies really allow for the generation of information from the poorest quality samples or the lowest amounts of DNA and not always can you answer everything that you’re asking, but we have changed our potential capability of answering questions.
If you think of something like DNA mixtures, when a decade ago, or 15-20 years ago, it was very very hard to deconvolve even 2 person mixtures depending on the ratio of each person in that DNA mixture. Now, using probabilistic genotyping and other advanced software, we can deconvolve 5 or 6-person mixtures with some inherent probability for our assumptions or our predictions and that is truly remarkable in terms of how far we’ve come and how much we’ve been able to grow as a field, and essentially solve more crime in terms of our improved techniques and methodologies.
Laura: It is amazing how far it’s come. Is there anything that’s been the most surprising?
Nicole: So I love learning, and I love watching things change, and I love evolving with the times. So, I think as we continue to look at how things are improving, I am just fascinated at our increased capabilities. I don’t joke about it, but you think about that era of serial killers in the 70’s and 80’s and that was all pre-DNA, and since DNA typing has come online and our increased use of databases, we’ve really decreased, in theory, the number of violent serial offenders, or we’re better able to gather all of the evidence and really process those investigations and make connections between those investigations. So, for all those true crime lovers that are sitting at home, these are old cases, because DNA power is so prevalent now and we can really exploit our forensic technologies to help our society, our community. I am always excited and surprised at how much good we can do with the techniques that we’re bringing online and how many cold cases we’re able to solve because of our improved capabilities. Genetic genealogy and all of these cold cases that are using phenotyping or some kind of ancestry information to kind of piece together these missing or unanswered questions from the past, those always just bring such a smile to my face that closure has been achieved for those families and we can finally close those cases that have been outstanding for 10, 20, 30 or more years. That’s always remarkable and a big feat that I think that the community is giving back to society.
Laura: Absolutely. Seeing all of those cold cases that have been solved in recent years, recent months even, it’s remarkable. How about challenges? What challenges are you facing now? What do you think will happen as we go forward?
Nicole: So, as a young researcher, my challenges are always a bit different. I am growing my lab and I have students that want to go into a whole bunch of different directions and I’m still learning myself. So, as a young professional in the field, I’m really getting my grasp on what my skillsets are and where my knowledge is and how much I can still learn from my mentors and experts in the field. I think one of the biggest limitations is deciding what direction do you want to go into? So, there are so many different avenues or areas of research in forensic genetics, and you can’t do it all, but I have students that want to do it all, so one of my biggest hurdles right now is really trying to figure out how much I can achieve in my career in the next 1, 3, 5 years and what’s that going to look like and how that’s inherently going to contribute to the field of forensic genetics. But we’ll see. Every day is an adventure. If the pandemic has taught us nothing else, it’s to live a little bit more in the moment and to go with the flow, which I think is very hard for forensic scientists and individuals like me. I’m a planner. I like to be organized, and I like to know what my next year is looking like and I’ve really had to take a step back and pivot quite a bit, but I have a lot of amazing colleagues and I have a strong team back at the University of Toronto that are really trying to push our research program forward and keep answering what questions we can.
Laura: Yeah, you work with an amazing group of women. Can you talk more about your lab and what everyone is doing?
Nicole: Sure! Right now, within my lab, I have 3 doctoral students, 2 masters students, and anywhere between 4-6 undergraduate students working on their individual projects. Everybody is doing something a little bit different. Within our doctoral program, I have a student that’s very interested in human pigmentation, so thinking about those externally visible characteristics like hair color and eye color, freckling, etc. Her goal is really to better understand the genetic influences that contribute to the visible phenotype. I know that there’s a ton of work that’s been done in forensics with regards to that, so we are going to try to answer some new questions, without giving too much away.
I also have another student that’s taking me in a rather novel direction. She’s very very interested in the mitochondrial genome, so looking at the evolution of mitochondrial DNA use in forensics, you’ve migrated away from using only the hyper-variable regions 1 and 2, which are our standard practice to make human identity comparisons for kinship and identification purposes, etc. to looking at the entire mitochondrial genome. So, in her exploration of the mitochondrial genome and better understanding of how you can use it for human ID, we’re also extending into disease and looking at the mitochondrial genome within a psychiatric disease lens, so some new stuff there for me. A little bit outside of forensics, but working with post-mortem samples, so really still coming full circle and tying it back into the medical legal system.
And then, obviously a handful of other smaller scale projects. The masters students are looking at secondary transfer, some population studies, and a variety of more simplistic students at the undergraduate level. Answering some basic questions about serology and comparing different extraction kits, etc. Easy projects that have a quick turnaround in terms of a 1-2 year project timeline, but still hands on, engaging, hopefully leading to a small publication or presentation for them, and providing them the opportunity to really get into the lab and understand both the strengths and limitations of forensic biology.
Laura: That’s so fascinating and since you’re working with students on a day to day basis, would you have advice for anyone who’s entering the field or studying?
Nicole: Of course! So, I look at my own journey, which has been very lucrative, but has involved a lot of risk assessment. I always encourage students to determine what is it that is your priority? Is your priority to stay close to home with family? If so, that might dictate what job opportunities are available to you.
Is your priority to seek that cutting edge internship or placement with someone that you idolize in the field? If so, how does that work for you? How can you make that work?
My journey and experience has always been to go after that goal or that adventure or to try to get into that lab or try to work with that individual and it’s come at that compromise or consequence of giving up some of the more safer choices had I stayed back home. I always just encourage students wherever their path is going to take them, that it is inherently their decision to make. What is your priority? What is it that you want from life? This is your one chance to go after it and don’t hold back. If it’s something that you really want, everything else will kind of figure itself out, or that’s been my experience.
And sometimes it’s hard. I’ve lived in several different places where I showed up and didn’t know a single person, but humans are very adaptable. We figure it out, and if you’re passionate and you want to be there, that’s going to come through in your work. That will open other doors and you’re kind of driving your own success, so always just chase after your dream. I know it’s so cheesy to say, “Go after your dream”, but at the end of the day, it’s your career. It’s your life. You’ve got to hustle, and I hope that’s what my students take away from working with me. I hope that when students are sitting in my lecture or are seeing a recording of me; they think, “What is it that I actually want to do?” and that drives their decision forward, because everybody’s path is going to be different, so really just go after it.
Laura: I think that’s the best advice that you can give anybody and hopefully we’ve all learned to be a bit more adaptable in the past year or two, whether we’ve wanted to or not. How does STEM play a role?
Nicole: So, STEM being science, technology, engineering, and math, I really, as a female in STEM, I very much encourage young scholars to make the most of their academic experience, right? The STEM field is challenging. There’s a lot of adversity at a variety of levels. There can be disparities in hiring. There can be disparities in opportunities for funding. There are so many challenges that can exist, but ultimately, I look at myself. I’ve been trained by some of the leading forensic scientists in this field. I consider myself very fortunate to work with colleagues like Dr. Bruce Budowle, Dr. Michael Coble, Dr. Magna Bus. All of these really wonderful individuals that have crossed paths in my life that have really provided me with unique perspectives and different ways of approaching a problem and different ways of approaching the world and feeding that back into the raw science that we’re putting out into the community. Ultimately, forensic genetics is an applied discipline within science and as an applied discipline, it is perceived by other scientists as a perhaps a different lens, but when I think about my contributions to STEM, I think about the fact that the work that I’m doing, the publications that my team produces or that I’ve been a part of, are immediately contributing back to society. They’re immediately making an impact in the work that we’re living in and they’re potentially going to influence what’s happening in the courtroom either tomorrow, or next week, or next year, or in the next five years. I think that that is an incredible win. I hope to look back at my life and say that while I didn’t cure cancer, I definitely made an impact in the world, and I did influence lives and I really changed the course of some careers in a positive and upward direction. That is hopefully my contribution to STEM, and ultimately, I just really want to inspire young people to pursue a career in science or a career in STEM, because it is possible. You can go off to do great things, and you can leave an impact at both a local and large-scale capacity.
Laura: Clearly that is a win and one of the more rewarding aspects of your work. What are some other things that are both rewarding and frustrating, just to help people understand a little bit about what you’re working on?
Nicole: Teaching definitely makes me nervous. I love teaching. I love sharing my passion for forensic genetics. I love students coming to me with questions that I can’t answer that challenge me to consider new approaches to a problem and that just inspire me to work a little bit harder and a little bit more. So, having worked with some really fantastic individuals in the field, I’ve always been humbled by the smarter person in the room or someone always being able to ask me a question that I won’t always know the answer to that they may already know the answer to, and that is both acknowledging my limitation in my own knowledge, but challenging me to become a better scientist or to become a better professor or a better mentor. To become a better colleague.
I think what is maybe the biggest challenge or limitation right now has been navigating a young team through this pandemic. Bringing students into a graduate program during a pandemic has been a hurdle, because there’s no in-lab experience right now and expectations in terms of what their responsibilities are have been a little bit unclear.
But, I’m hopeful and I’m really looking forward to this upcoming year to really see that transition back to the classroom and back to the bench, where students are going to gain more hands-on experience. They’re going to be able to really excel in their own way and then that will, I hope, change our dynamic a little bit in terms of inspiring them to ask deeper questions and really push the envelope further. Hopefully we’re back here next year at ISHI and we have a little bit more science to present in terms of posters and presentations and seeing some of the things that we’re working on right now materialize in terms of successful projects. So, it’s been a time, right? I think we can all say that since we were sitting here in 2019, there’s been a lot of change.
Laura: Absolutely. It’s wonderful to have everyone here, but we’re just sort of getting back to that after being remote for a full year.
Nicole: There have been some labs that have seemed to be uninterrupted and there’s a little bit of envy there, but Canada, specifically, has approached the pandemic in a really unique way compared to a lot of different countries, so we have been in a shut down state for quite some time, but the power of Zoom and the power of making those remote and virtual connections I am thankful for and we’ll just continue to be resilient and persevere and adapt to this change.
Laura: Right, we keep finding a way. Well, what’s next for you? What does the future hold?
Nicole: Always hard to say. Always hard to say. I am always and will probably always be passionate about DNA mixtures. So a few projects that circle around that DNA mixture interpretation and exploring new markers in the genome. That’s not incredibly new in terms of my research background, but it’s something that can always be taken a step further. Moreover, just growing the lab and bringing on additional equipment and fostering collaboration. At the university of Toronto, I’ve really had the pleasure of working with some external agencies, so the local crime laboratories that are in Canada and some fantastic biotech partners, and then building internal collaborations with our faculty of medicine, and there’s a bit mitochondrial DNA group at the downtown campus at the University of Toronto for that mitochondrial disease project. I’ve only been in this position for 3 years, coming straight from the Center for Human ID, and I look back at my 3 years at how transformative the experience has been and how my collaborations and the number of colleagues I’ve acquired has exponentially changed and I can only hope that my next 3-5 years continue to be as prolific as my first 3 years have been in this role and that we really continue to see a great team mentality. We continue to see publications that are worth-while and that we’re really addressing the needs of the forensic community while still providing an educational experience for our incoming students that will hopefully impact them to become better forensic scientists in the future. Ultimately, as anybody who’s done an undergrad program knows, you can do your 4 years and still have no idea what you want to do. But, what I have found to be quite remarkable is that I’ve had students enter my 3rd year class and by the time they leave their 4th year or their senior year, they’re like, “You know, spending time with you and taking your courses has really inspired me to pursue this field.” And those comments are truly significant. The fact that I’ve impacted those lives to pursue a career in forensic science. If that’s the only difference that I make, that’s still a huge contribution to the field I hope. Keeping on that train of positive influence and contribution is hopefully what the field will bring. Like I said, one day at a time and I’m just here for the ride and going with making impacts where I can I suppose.
Laura: Well I know we can’t wait to see what you and your students do going forward.
Nicole: Yes, I know we’ll be back next year, coming full swing hopefully.
Laura: And have you been to ISHI in the past?
Nicole: Yes, so ISHI is by far my favorite conference. I’ve been attending ISHI now since 2014, I believe was my first year, and I’ve only missed a couple due to prior commitments, but Tara, Carol, everybody is just so fantastic. I haven’t seen Ann yet, but hopefully I’ll see her. Everybody has been so supportive and the conference is so well put together and all of the colleagues that I get to see here on an annual basis and the venues are always so fantastic. I just am so thankful every time that I get to come and reconnect and visit and see all of the great work that’s happening around the world, because really, this is one of the few international conferences that focuses on forensic DNA and it always brings the best of the best of the program to the table and I always appreciate being able to come to listen and contribute to this great conference. So, glad to be back and looking forward to future years and continually grateful for the connections that I’ve been able to make through the international conference.
Laura: Well, thank you for sharing that. I know we’re so happy to have you and now that we’ve spoken, I’m sure we’ll be reaching out to you again to see how things are going as we progress. Thank you so much for taking time to come in. We really appreciate it.
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