Meet some of the women who are propelling the field of forensic science forward. In this interview, we meet Amber Vandepoele, a student at Syracuse University.
Amber’s interest in forensic science began in high school when she chose to take a class in forensic science over physics. Learning from guest speakers about what daily life was like as a DNA analyst cemented her desire to pursue a double major in biochemistry and forensic science. After learning about the groundbreaking research at Syracuse University’s Forensic and National Security Sciences Institute and its partnerships with leading companies and agencies in the field, Amber knew that was where she would be able to grow and develop the skills needed for a career in forensic science.
During her poster presentation at ISHI 32, Amber presented a research project focusing on optimizing a method for the phylogenetic differential separation of mixed samples; specifically, the separation of bacterial, plant, and human cells in a mixed sample.
In this interview, Amber discusses her motivation for becoming a forensic DNA analyst, why it’s so important to maintain a sense of humor in the lab, and her plans for the future.
Ann: Hello, my name is Ann MacPhetridge, and I’m with the Promega Corporation. I have the tremendous privilege of getting to interview this year’s ISHI student ambassadors. Today, I have Amber Vandepoele with me. I’m so excited that you’re here. This is like one of my absolute favorite parts of my job is getting to talk with you guys, so I have a 20-year-old myself, so it’s really cool to be able to engage with the students. So, welcome, and thanks so much for taking the time out.
So, what do you think about the conference so far? Are you enjoying yourself?
Amber: Yes, I really like it. I’ve gotten a lot of opportunities to talk to people and go see all of the vendors. Everyone’s been really nice and welcoming. They ask if I’m in the grad program and I say, “not yet, I’m still an undergrad,” and they’ve been really nice in explaining a lot to me too and being very informative. Also, the talks are really great so far, and I’m excited to present my poster today too, so I’ve loved it so far.
Ann: Excellent. Yeah, this is a great meeting. I was in life sciences a bazillion years ago, and it was always really intimidating to go to these types of conferences, but ISHI is just more conversational, and there’s no hierarchy right? You could talk to John Butler, and he doesn’t care whether you’re a president of your own forensics company or an undergrad student like yourself. He just enjoys talking with folks and sharing what he knows, so that’s great.
So, tell me what inspired you to go into forensic science? What is it that just fascinates you about it?
Amber: So, when I was in high school, I took a forensic science elective course as my science class. I didn’t want to take physics or anything like that, so I took forensics, and it was really nice, because a big part of the class was guest lectures. So, I got to hear from people who are in all different parts of forensics, so I got to learn so much. So, I got to learn about being a DNA analyst, latent prints, firearms talks, all of that. I got to hear about what they do on a day to day, and once the DNA analyst talked, I was like, “I could do that for the rest of my life. It sounds great.” She shared so many things that she did, and it seemed like a really cool job where she was able to do good and serve a purpose while being able to help people and also practicing science and doing something that I really like and love and being in the lab. That kind of set me in the path to doing that, so when I was looking for a school or university, I really wanted something that had forensics, and at Syracuse, I got lucky enough to where I have to take another major with forensics (you can’t just do forensics), so they really want you to build that strong science background that’s so important with forensics. So, I chose Biochem, and doing that in combination with forensics and my research has solidified that I really enjoy this and want to keep doing it. Being here and seeing everyone else has motivated me. After that class and hearing people talk about forensics, it was really something that I could see myself doing and want to enjoy and pursue it.
Ann: That’s awesome. I really enjoy your enthusiasm. It’s just filling up the entire room. I really enjoy that. So, tell me what your research is about. I haven’t had a chance to see any of the student ambassador posters, so just kind of give me the overview of what you’re studying and what you’re presenting for your poster.
Amber: So, my research when at a crime scene, and when you collect a swab or a sample, it’s often going to be composed of a lot more than just your human DNA. It’ll have bacteria, plants. If it’s outdoors, it’ll obviously have plants or something like that. So, my project is taking that mixed sample and separating it into its individual cell types, so that analysis methods such as shot gun sequences will be simplified, because you won’t have to interpret all of those mixtures. I’ll just be a clear fraction. So, we’re taking that mix of bacteria, plant, and human and just making it human cells, plant cells, and bacteria cells. Then you can just take your human fraction, analyze it, have it be a super easy profile to interpret, and then also (if people are interested the bacteria or plants, then they can analyze those too and work with those clean fractions, which is a lot easier than a mixture. We also want to use that for geolocation purposes. For example, especially for the FBI or agencies, if you have a gun and you swab it and we have certain plant species, if we have a database and we can locate where specific trees grow (for example), then we can track where that weapon went and track it back from its origin and find everywhere that weapon was and then help with investigations and things like that. So, that’s the purpose of my project.
Ann: That is so cool.
Amber. I really love it.
Ann: Yeah, no wonder you’re so enthusiastic. I would be too. Oh my gosh. So, what inspired you to go into forensics and then what keeps you motivated now?
Amber: So, I think what inspired me is that you have the opportunity to help people. I always knew that I love science and I wanted to do something in science, but a lot of science things, I feel like the purpose wasn’t… or the company’s purpose wasn’t something that I valued a ton. Working just to make money and then not contribute to something. With forensics, you’re able to contribute to help families or help bring some closure or something to help people. That’s something that really appealed to me and having something larger than just you or your job. That really inspired me. I think that’s also what keeps me going. It’s going to be hard to unsee certain things, and it takes a tough person to do that. It’s hard for a lot of people to do that. I know I can and put things aside and focus on the good that it’s going to do. So, that’s my motivation to do good and help people and keep doing it. I’m excited to get the opportunity to do it, so I’m really grateful.
Ann: Well, it certainly sounds like your research is focused in that way. Yeah, it is very rewarding, every time I come to this meeting, the importance that it brings to life. I’m not in the lab. I do marketing, so big deal, but knowing that I’m part of an organization that is making products that these laboratories are using and that it’s bringing closure to a family whose child is missing, it’s helping a sexual assault victim get closure, because her assaulter is brought to justice. You can not put a price tag associated with that and to have that reward, even indirectly, is meaningful, so I can see why folks like yourself, have a really strong desire to pursue a field like this.
So, if you weren’t going to be a forensic scientist, what would you want to be?
Amber: That’s a great question. I think that I’m lucky that I knew what I wanted to do from high school and a lot of people take a while to realize what they want to do. I feel that I’ve been pretty lucky that as long as I’ve been thinking about career paths, forensics is where I want to go, but since being in college and being surrounded by a lot of science students, I think that even doctors, is something that I would pursue, but for now I want to be done with school and start working and getting to do things and not still learning. I really enjoy learning, but I’m ready, so I think that I would have done that if I didn’t know about forensics, or didn’t get to experience what I have, or also if I wanted to continue in school and keep going, but I definitely know that this is the career field that I really care about, and I’m happy and lucky that I know it’s what I want to do and I could see myself doing it for a long time. So, I’m grateful that I’m with forensics, but maybe a doctor.
Ann: Yeah, that’s actually quite rare. I have a 20-year-old son and he kind of went back and forth with a couple of things. He has his room mates who have similar challenges. I’m just in awe that you felt this calling or felt that this was the right decision for you. So, your dream job. What is that?
Amber: Currently, I want to say a DNA analyst for a crime lab; whatever lab might be (federal, state, I’m not sure). But, I’ve taken all the classes now to know what a DNA analyst does on a daily basis and profile interpretation, mixture interpretation, so I could definitely see myself doing that. I like the puzzle that comes with it too as well as the lab work. So, I do see that being my dream job currently.
Ann: Yeah, that’s terrific. So, I’m going to switch gears just a little bit on ya, because I want to get to know you a little bit. So, three words that you think describe you best.
Amber: I’m going to go honest, funny, and driven.
Ann: That’s a pretty good combination. So, when you say funny, what kind of sense of humor do you think you have?
Amber: I’m definitely sarcastic.
Ann: Ah yeah, sarcasm for the win!
Amber: But I think that anything that happens with my friends or in a lab setting, I definitely try to bring the humor with the group and make that funny, because I think that we do with serious stuff and things get very serious with forensics and stuff, so we gotta lighten it up and be a little funny and have it be fun again. In the lab once everyone’s really down because nothing’s working in their project, which is me all the time, I’m like, let’s just make jokes about it and have a little bit of happiness while we do what we do. I definitely think I’m the funny friend.
Ann: Oh, I think that’s awesome. You’re exactly right. This field sees a lot of tragedy, right. The cases that are investigated are often linked to horrifying events, so being able to find that humor will probably help you really be able to compartmentalize what you’re seeing during the day, but also help you to have a good life at home when you’re away from the laboratory.
So, when your head’s not in your books or you’re away from the lab, what do you like to do for fun?
Amber: So, this isn’t good, but I love watching true crimes, which seems to be more forensics. I can’t get away, but true crime is incredible. I have to get into the podcasts, which I’m not yet, but the Netflix documentaries on true crime is something that I love. I’m also a foodie, so I’m currently in Atlanta right now. I’ve never been there before, but the food is incredible. I love going to new places with my family and friends and trying new food. It’s one of my favorite things. If I’m not doing something I’m like, “let’s go eat.”
Ann: That’s awesome. A woman after my own heart, because I’m the same way. I had a brownie about this big last night.
Amber: Oh, the salted caramel one?
Ann: The s’mores one. Oh my god, yummy. So, if you had a superpower, what would you want that superpower to be?
Amber: Ok, so, the first thing that comes to mind would be flying. Mostly because I’ve had a couple of really bad airport experience now, so I could avoid the whole airport and fly wherever I wanted by myself. I don’t have to sit in TSA or have a flight be cancelled so I can’t go back home, which is rough. Or go to a whole other airport and then drive with strangers back. Chaos. I’ve had some stories, so I would choose flying so that I could just fly wherever and have it be free. I’d love that. That’s my superpower.
Ann: That’s a darn fine one. So, I’m with you on that. The whole airport thing. I’m over it. So, if you could have dinner with anyone, dead or alive, who would be your first choice?
Amber: That’s a really hard question, because I feel like there are so many people.
Ann: If you can’t narrow it down to one, I’ll take two.
Amber: I think the first one that comes to mind would be President Barrack Obama. I’d kind of like to pick his brain and learn more. I’d like the whole family, though, not just him. I’ll take Michelle too. I’d love to talk to them and they seem really fun too. I’d get to learn a lot and also have it be a fun a casual dinner and not too strict. I think I’d just love to hang out and learn from them and pick their brains.
Ann: That’s great. So, my last question is where do you see yourself in the next 5 years? I’m preparing you for interview questions, because they always hit you up with that question. Where would you like to be in the next 5 years?
Amber: So, the next upcoming year I’m doing my masters, so after I complete my masters, I really hope to find a job. Again, I’m really going to be open to applying anywhere and finding something, because I really want to do DNA analysis and if labs are full, then they’re full, so I’m really open to applying anywhere, but I really hope that I can start as a DNA analyst and work somewhere in the country and work to help improve justice and help families.
Ann: Ok, is there a particular part of the county that you’d rather be in?
Amber: Well, if I had my preferences… I’m from California. I would go back, but it’s really expensive, so maybe not. Now that I’m in Atlanta, I kind of like it there, so that would be nice. I also think Seattle or something else in the west coast. I’m a bit west coast girl. I know that I don’t want to be in Syracuse with the snow. I learned about it and I enjoyed my five years there, and I appreciate learning about the snow and the weather, but I will not be there any longer than I have to. So not the snow. Not the Syracuse snow.
Ann: Yeah, they get inundated with it. So I can imagine coming from California where you’re not used to it and then getting 24” of snow and then 12” more three days later, and another foot and a half the week after…
Amber: Yeah, but they will not cancel school, because if they canceled school, then we’d never go.
Ann: Exactly, you could only go from May to October and then it would never work. Well, I really enjoyed talking with you and I will definitely come by and check out your poster, so I appreciate you taking the time. One final question. What has been your favorite thing about ISHI so far?
Amber: Probably my favorite is going to see all of the exhibitors. I’ve gotten to learn a lot by talking with them and seeing what new products they have, and that’s not something that I really knew a lot about and all the new technologies and instruments and what the companies have been working on versus what the people have been working on. In academia, I’ve learned more about that, but it’s really cool to see what the vendors have been working on, especially in a pandemic. What new instruments they have and what they’ve been sharing, so that was really cool to see. Some of these things look so fancy and high tech and I really want them.
Ann: Yeah, the technology’s really changed, particularly in the last few years. Well good, I hope you enjoy the rest of the conference, and get to meet a lot of nice people, particularly John Butler, because he is a really great guy and likes to give good advice to people. Thank you so much and enjoy the rest of the conference.
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