We know that it takes a special kind of person to choose forensic science as a career, and this year, we’d like to recognize a few of the students who are making a difference in the field. We’re excited to introduce this year’s ISHI Ambassadors! These students are all pursuing degrees in the field of forensics. They will be participating in this year’s 33rd International Symposium on Human Identification in Washington D.C.. Follow Andrea, Justin, Noelle, and Chastyn on social media as they share highlights from the ISHI workshops, presentations, and poster sessions. We’ll also hear about the fun moments in between the scientific sessions including the Welcome and Wednesday Night Events. We look forward to seeing the meeting through their eyes, and learning more about their research and career aspirations.
Andrea Ramírez Torres– MPS in Forensic Science, Biology Track at Penn State University
Ni una menos, vivas nos queremos. As I grew up in Puerto Rico, this phrase became more and more pertinent in my life. Not one more, we want us alive. The incidence of femicides and violence against women was rampant by the time I began college in 2017. That year, I was forced to evacuate the island when Hurricane Maria was an imminent danger and relocated to Miami. After the hurricane, I decided to continue my studies at Florida International University. Education was my way of connecting to my home and the crises people still faced there. I was determined to become an advocate for the women in Puerto Rico, regardless of how far away from home I was.
As I was serving on the planning committee for FIU’s Sexual Assault Awareness Month creating programming focusing on the current sexual assault kit backlog, I came across a paper on forensic science efforts to decrease the backlog. The visualization of a career where I could serve sexual assault survivors through science was fascinating. It felt right, and I pursued it with drive and passion. I joined the McCord research lab in the Department of Chemistry at the beginning of my junior year, where I began investigating the genital microbiome for applications in sexual assault cases, designing and validating a Real-Time PCR assay for genital microbial signatures. I decided to also pursue an undergraduate certificate in Women & Gender Studies. By the Fall of 2020, I had completed my first research project and began transitioning to a leader in my lab, working alongside Ph.D. Candidate Mirna Ghemrawi to publish a manuscript entitled “The genital microbiome and its potential for detecting sexual assault” in Forensic Science International: Genetics.
I graduated from FIU in the Fall of 2021 as a Real Triumphs Graduate with my B.S. in Biochemistry, and I will be joining Penn State’s Forensic Science Master’s program this Fall 2022 on a full-ride scholarship for the two years of the program as a Wieland Graduate Scholar. As an ambassador for the International Symposium on Human Identification, I will present my current work on studying the genital microbial transfer between individuals. Having attended ISHI in 2021, I know the value and importance of communicating with leaders in the forensic field. Communicating the work I am doing in the lab is the way to get it introduced into the field, and ISHI would be the ideal place to receive feedback as well as exposure on how the genital microbiome could be integrated into forensic labs. I aspire to innovate new methods for human identification for applications in sexual assault casework so that there is ni una menos.
fun fact: i like building houses in the sims 4! it’s my way of de-stressing.
Justin Rivera, MSFS in Forensic Science, University of New Haven
I always wonder what it would have been like if I had started my forensic science education earlier. Yes, I know unveiling one’s passions is no easy task; but my one wish is that I discovered this path was attainable much sooner. My undergraduate university only offered one forensically relevant course, in which I was barely able to enroll. Thinking back to my time in forensic botany, I never realized how much of a ‘domino effect’ it was from that point on. After this experience, I began to reframe my educational goals around learning more about forensic science and genetics, the one aspect of biology I fell in love with. As I grew more comfortable with advanced topics, I decided to pursue the path that combined the two fields I felt I belonged in. Upon graduating, I applied and earned a position in the MSFS program at the University of New Haven.
While my experience has only just started, I know that I am passionate to work as a forensic scientist. Even though I am only in the first year of my masters’ education, I do not regret pursuing this career path, even if it is an exacting and meticulous profession. At this moment, my academic confidence in forensic science has only been growing, no matter how fast-paced it has been. Beyond coursework, I have been able to instruct and guide other students as a teaching assistant, which has reaffirmed how eager I am for the next steps in my career. Alongside this, I have narrowed down further what type of forensic scientist I want to be: an investigative genetic genealogist. Ever since beginning my thesis work with Dr. Claire Glynn and the coursework within the forensic genetic genealogy certificate program, I have been consistently looking for ways to integrate myself into this field. I know that as I learn and grow more, I will one day be an asset to an investigative genetic genealogy unit.
Looking forward to next fall’s ISHI conference, my goal is to start integrating myself within the forensic DNA community. I see my attendance as an opportunity to network with others with different experience levels and one that builds upon my current knowledge of forensic DNA. Engaging with new types of research, technologies, and experts in the field will continue to inspire me and my future aspirations to devote myself to the forensic DNA career path. Attending this conference will allow me to connect with the leaders in both forensic DNA and investigative genetic genealogy, whose research and webinars I have engaged with. I will be able to gain new insights on how the fields are developing but also ones where I can learn the best way to take the next steps in my career.
fun fact: i am a hard-cover only stephen king book collector and plan to make an art piece with each of the book covers that come with them.
Noelle Neff – Masters of Science in Forensic Science, Towson University
From a very young age, I knew I wanted to pursue a career in the forensic science field. I remember rushing home from school to watch the television show CSI: Crime Scene Investigation with my dad, telling him I wanted to be a “CSI” one day. In high school, I took a forensic science elective course, but in college I truly fell in love with the subject. I became a member of Towson University’s Forensic Science Student Organization (FSSO) and eventually the vice president. With Towson’s FSSO, I was granted many hands-on learning experiences in the field. I have worked on several missing persons cases in Maryland and even traveled to Kentucky where I was granted the opportunity to work on a 40-year-old cold case. When working on these cases, I oversaw and led a search team through wooded terrain using line searching techniques, removed brush and ground surfaces in efforts to locate human remains, and assisted in the identification of human bones. Being a part of the FSSO showed me how valuable the forensic field truly is in both a scientific and compassionate manner, as I was aiding to investigations and helping the loved ones of victims gain some type of closure.
At Towson University, I also worked as a research student within an anthropology lab where I worked with human cadavers and as an undergraduate learning assistant in a molecular biology lab. While working in the molecular biology lab, I developed my interest in the field of biology, which allowed me to focus my graduate career path towards the biological side of forensics. Therefore, I am currently working on my master’s in forensic science at Towson University, focusing on DNA analysis. After graduation, I aspire to become a DNA analyst. I have also considered the idea of furthering my education to gain my Ph.D. and work in the research field of forensics.
When I attend this year’s ISHI conference, I hope to gain more knowledge of the research being performed in the forensic field and of the developing technologies and methodologies that aim to benefit forensic science. I believe that knowledge is the greatest thing I can gain in order to better my personal and career growth. The opportunity to attend ISHI and network with fellow forensic science students and gain a deeper understanding of current trends in the forensic DNA field will be an invaluable experience.
Fun fact: I love music! i can play a few instruments. i primarily play the guitar and bass, but can “play” some stuff on the drums, harmonica, piano, and ukulele.
Chastyn Smith – Ph.D. Integrative Life Sciences, Virginia Commonwealth University
My early fascination with television shows like Scooby Doo and CSI Miami initially sparked my interest in forensic science. Watching all the pieces of evidence fall into place for them to solve the crime caught my attention and sparked a latent interest in forensic science. Though entertaining, those exaggerated, and overly dramatized programs provided some of my early drive to gain exposure and a deeper understanding of real-world forensic science. Through academic and research experiences gained, my understanding of the field has matured; what started as The Mystery Machine and Dr. Alexx Woods has grown into a deeper, more intricate understanding of molecular genetics and related forensic applications.
Part of that maturation has come from my hands-on experience which have helped the realization(s) that forensic DNA work is exacting and meticulous – two qualities that I proudly embrace. While I aim for a career in the forensic DNA community, my journey has given me a broad exposure to other analytical forensic areas. My specific academic and research experiences have included forensic anthropology (undergraduate research, Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) 2015), immunology/toxicology (Math Science Investigators (MSI) program, University of Richmond, 2016), forensic DNA and biology (lab volunteer, VCU 2017). Collectively, these experiences provided clarity, helped solidify my enthusiasm for forensics, and motivated my enrollment in the Integrative Life Sciences Ph.D. program at VCU.
For many years, my post-graduation vision has been to work within the FBI as part of the Scientific Response and Analysis Unit (SRAU). However, I am now more curious about other avenues that may be a better fit for my technical (laboratory-based) skill set and life goals. In the end, I am open to new opportunities – including those that specifically help guide casework and research in other accredited laboratory environments – and believe that attending conferences, like ISHI, will provide much needed perspective and networking. Specifically, by attending ISHI I hope to gain knowledge about different careers that align with my career goals and technical background. Connecting with like-minded people will allow me to build a professional network that understands the demands of the occupation and that can offer insights about career options and alternatives. Moreover, this conference provides an excellent window to practice communicating scientific research and one which will, ultimately, help shape me into the distinguished forensic scientist I yearn to be.