Meet one of the young scientists who is propelling the field of forensic science forward. In this interview, we meet Justin Rivera, a student at the University of New Haven.
Like many other in his generation, it was tv that initially drew Justin to the field of forensics, but having never met a forensic scientist before, he had a hard time believing these types of jobs existed. Yet, during his undergraduate studies, he fell in love with genetics and had a deep desire to impact society for the better. When he learned he could marry the two interests as a DNA analyst, he knew that was his calling.
Taking it one step further, he’s inspired by the burgeoning field of forensic investigative genetic genealogy and those who perform the work. This has led him to research how degraded SNP microarray data files impact the top genetic matches within GEDmatch and the issues that follow downstream. Though he’s just been in this new area of FIGG for a short time, he’s excited to do more.
In this interview, Justin shares how obstacles he’s faced in the past have shaped his outlook for the future and provided him with perseverance, discusses what he likes most about FIGG, and his plans for the future.
Ann: Hi, my name is Ann MacPhetridge, and I’m sitting here with Justin Rivera, who is one of our student ambassadors this year. It’s great to have you here.
Justin: Great being here.
Ann: Excellent. Loved seeing you last night at the student reception. So, what was the biggest takeaway that you had from that reception last night?
Justin: I think the biggest takeaway was kind of to understand your own limitation when it comes to how you navigate your day and be able to push past that. I think I’m going to be getting into this field very soon, so I have a lot of reservations about how’s this going to work out and how’s that going to work out, but I think that one of the things that the panel taught me was to acknowledge them, but realize that you’re so much more than that and what you can bring to the table can actually push you through each day.
Ann: Yeah, I thought they did a great job and provided some really nice viewpoints about what it takes to be successful in this field and so forth and so forth. So, I really enjoyed it as well. How did you choose forensics?
Justin: So, I’ve always loved the tv shows surrounding it and part of me thought it was actually a made up career. I didn’t think forensic scientists were actually a thing, just because I’ve never met one. And when I was in my undergraduate university, I had fallen in love with genetics and I always wanted to be a part of the field where they have a profound impact on society and when I discovered there were programs and further education in forensic science, I thought, “I could become a DNA analyst” and my inspiration was really drawn a little bit from the tv side, but more understanding that there’s a practical impact that the field brings.
Ann: Yes, absolutely. So true. So tell me about your poster.
Justin: So, I actually just got into a sub-field of forensic DNA which is forensic genetic genealogy a year ago, and I took on this project that took on learning all the caveats about the field. So, my poster is about the impact of manually degraded SNP microarray data files on the top genetic matches on GEDmatch in the context of forensic genetic genealogy. So, it’s trying to understand what’s happening when you use a SNP data profile, which is kind of like your evidence item, if it’s incomplete or if it’s effecting some of the top genetic matches, because those top 10 matches are your biggest piece in a forensic genetic genealogy investigation.
Ann: So, do you think one day you might want to be a forensic genetic genealogist? Wow, that’s a mouthful.
Justin: Yes, that’s what I’ve always had to teach myself is saying it correctly. But I really do. When I joined the certificate program at the University of New Haven, I always ask myself the question, “Do I see myself as a part of this field? Do I eventually want to be a part of a team that focuses on this?” Because it’s really innovative and advanced and I was just reassured by doing well in each course and by coming here that I really do want to be a forensic genetic genealogist or what they like to call and investigative or FIGG person.
Justin: I do want to and hopefully sooner rather than later.
Ann: Excellent. I hope so as well. Where do you get your inspiration from?
Justin: I think I get a lot of my inspiration from my own background. When it comes to where I was raised, I was raised in Chicago and had always gone through different changes and different challenges. And I always looked backed on it thinking, “Wow, I wish I had done this differently.” But, instead of thinking like that, as I’ve grown up, I think I’ve started to relish in the lessons I’ve learned and how I’ve gotten through a lot of these challenges and the only person I’ve had behind me, I mean, obviously my family and stuff, but I was the main person to push me through these challenges and so I get my inspiration by sort of celebrating how far I’ve come and also realizing that this is my one life and I want to make the best of each moment.
Ann: Wow, that’s awesome. I have a 21 year-old son and he’s not quite where you are yet in terms of the maturity and the self-confidence and trusting his gut kind of thing, but I hope that by the time he’s 25, he gets to where you’re at as well. So, what are you most looking forward to this week and is there somebody in particular that you’re like, “Oh my God, I hope I meet this person.”
Justin: I think I’m looking forward to most I think meeting a lot of the forensic DNA professionals. Again, I just got into this field a year ago. There are names that I didn’t know about coming into my masters program and now they’re all here, so I’ve always wanted to have a conversation with CeCe Moore and Colleen Fitzpatrick, who I actually met yesterday, and some of the people in the forensic genetic genealogy field really inspire me, because they’re taking on something that’s so new and they’re making it into a mountain that can be so big for forensic investigations and cold cases that need to be solved. So, I’m excited just to talk to those professionals and kind of hear their insights.
Ann: For sure, yeah. The one thing that I love about this conference is that everyone is very approachable. It’s a very collaborative group. Having been in different life sciences, it’s a totally different vibe being at a forensic conference than what it’s like at AACR or some of these other things. So, I think you’re going to be able to meet them. They’re very approachable, absolutely. If I see you and then I see someone who I think you should meet, I’m absolutely going to try and introduce you and help you network as best as I can. So, if you had a superpower, what would it be?
Justin: This one I’ve always changed my answer on over the years, but I really would like teleportation. I think to be able to see the world and travel efficiently, this would save a lot of time and a lot of money, and I think it makes the day more exciting. I know my family is scattered. Some of them are in Puerto Rico. Some of them are in Chicago. If I can visit them all in a day, that would be great.
Ann: Yes, without the feeling of jetlag, right? That is the key. If you feel bad every time you make the jump that’s not going to be the way to do it.
Justin: Yes, if there were some consequences, then I might have to rethink that.
Ann: So, forensic science more so than some of the other sciences has a lot of women that have gone into the field. You’re a guy, obviously, so do you think the situations are very different for women versus men in this field. Are there different challenges for you guys or are the challenges similar?
Justin: I think there is a mixture of both in that I think the expectation is the same for both women and men in the field. I do think there are differences that are kind of inherent to the society we live in that are still being addressed today, and I don’t think that forensic labs get an exception to that rule. I actually am very honored to be a part of a field where there are more field in the labs and as leaders, because for me, I’ve always tried to be a part of an environment that accepts all background regardless of what the phenotype is of someone. So, it’s just a growing field and I more so admire that it’s a field that’s like that.
Ann: Yeah, I have to say, as a woman, and I’ve been in this field just tangentially with Promega for about 11 years and I do really get inspired by the amount of female lab directors, female tech leads, and so forth, and I look at the other sciences and go, “Why are you guys lagging behind? What is the difference?” And I think part of the difference is this collaboration and this mentoring. When I interviewed women several years ago who had been in the field for a while, they all said that they had a male mentor that recognized the unique skillsets in them and did everything they could to give them opportunities to showcase those skillsets and so forth. So, that’s my one hope for all the student ambassadors is that you have someone who can mentor you and help open some of those doors for you guys to new experiences.
If you could be anything but a forensic scientist or a FIGG person, what would it be?
Justin: Wow, I think, if I had the skillset, there has always been a part of me that has wanted to be a basketball star, which is very interesting, considering my background. But, I also thought that I’ve always loved those reality shows like Survivor and stuff and I always thought that if I wasn’t in this field, and even with it, there’s a potential for me to enter that realm, but I’d love to compete on one of those reality shows. Be a little social media person who’s once been shown on one of the biggest platforms.
Ann: Awesome, awesome. Did you have a chance to meet Kelly Knight? So she was at the student reception last night and is a professor at George Mason, but she has a great Tik Tok profile. So, if you’re on Tik Tok, look her up. She’s on Instagram, etc. and kind of follows that social media influencer and tries to educate the masses, but if you’re in the field, she’ll give a little wink to you as though she feels your pain and whatnot. But she has merged her skillset in forensics and her education in forensics with a really nice social media presence, so she is a great influencer, so I’ll definitely try to hook you two up so you can ask her how she built her following, etc.
So, if you could have dinner with anybody dead or alive, who would it be and what would you talk about?
Justin: I think I would have dinner with a president that was not necessarily way back when, not one of the early presidents, but I’d say after the Civil War. I’d like to understand what a lot of the mentalities were at that time period. I’d say it’s something that’s very deep in my interests where I do want to understand how, as a nation, our mind frame was shifting and I think that perspective is sometimes lost in American history, because we can’t interview these people to understand. We can only talk about them. A little portion of my interest lies in history, so it’s always been, “oh I would like to sit down with a dead president”.
Ann: I’m not surprised that you have an interest in history, because if you’re into FIGG, then you follow a history path, right? You can go down all kinds of different rabbit holes, so I can see how the interests would overlap.
Justin: I’d tell them to make better records during that time as well, so…
Ann: Yes, more accurate about what was going on. Agreed 1000%. So, my last question for you is where do you see yourself in 10 years and what do you hope to accomplish over the next decade?
Justin: Oh, sometimes I can’t even think about the next day, but I think I really do want to be not necessarily a titan, but someone who’s made an impact with forensic genetic genealogy or forensic DNA if I choose the analyst role or route. I think part of me, on a career-wise, would love to be some sort of leader in a lab, but I also do see myself also making my personal life just as rewarding where I’m able to set my roots down, because I’ve been traveling left and right for school. So, ideally a house. Ideally a new portion of my family coming in. So not only enjoying life, but also making impacts day in and day out. That’s kind of where my vision lies with my future.
Ann: Yeah, I love that. One of my favorite things about your generation is that you guys have, far more quickly than my generation, recognized the need for a work/life balance and how important it is to be able to have a life and to build a life outside of your work and your vocation. I love that about you guys. As a leader, it’s sometimes challenging, because sometimes work requires extra hours, but thankfully, Promega really encourages that really nice work/life balance so it’s a little bit easier for me to do so, but I love that you guys are not so focused on your career that you’re also not asking if this is how you want to live your life. So, good for you for having the wisdom at such a young age to think about it. Thank you so much for talking to us.
Justin: Of course. It’s such an honor to be here and I’m always grateful for opportunities like this and to be an ISHI ambassador was the greatest piece of news last Spring.
Ann: Well, we’re very fortunate to have you on the crew for sure. Thank you so much.
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