Meet some of the women who are propelling the field of forensic science forward. In this interview, we meet Andrea Ramírez Torres, a student at Penn State University.
Andrea’s interest in forensic science began like many others through television shows like CSI, but it was the pursuit of social justice that drew her into the field and not the science alone. In college, she began volunteering at a local woman’s center and with various social advocacy programs. She began to wonder how she could use her science background to advocate for reduction in the sexual assault backlog.
This led her to begin what would be a three-year undergraduate project on the genital microbiome to see if bacterial transfer occurred between sexual partners and if that transfer could be used as evidence in criminal casework. It was that research that she presented during the poster sessions at ISHI 33.
In this interview, Andrea discusses what it’s like to be a female in STEM as well as the changes that are happening in the field, those who have been her biggest inspirations over the years, and her plans for the future.
Ann: Good morning. My name is Ann MacPhetridge, and I’m with Promega here at ISHI 33 and today I have Andrea Ramirez Torres, who’s going to talk to me about the research she’s been doing, her experience as a Student Ambassador. So, I’m really happy that you’re here and that you took the time out. I know the conference is really packed. So, thank you for joining me.
Andrea: Thank you for having me. I’m happy to be here.
Ann: Absolutely, great. So, how is it being a Student Ambassador? What’s your week been like?
Andrea: It’s been jam-packed, but exciting. I think that being a Student Ambassador, you get to see a whole different side of ISHI. I came to ISHI last year, but I wasn’t an ambassador. It’s a different experience, but I’d say it’s been even better. Also, having been to ISHI and having that previous knowledge of what to expect, where to go, what to look for… has been really nice. I feel like I am more confident going through the conference. I loved sitting through the workshops yesterday and the presentations, the exhibitions, being able to walk through posters and meet vendors. It’s just been really exciting.
Ann: That’s great, that’s awesome. Tell me about your poster and the research you’ve been doing.
Andrea: Yes, so my research is being presented from the undergraduate research that I did at Florida International University. I’ve been working on the project since 2019, actually, so it’s just been different layers and tiers that we’ve been adding to it ever since.
This specific poster that I’m presenting is mostly on optimizing the sample collection and the extraction method for low biomass samples. So, microbial genital samples, in specific. We collected… There’s 4 bacteria that are specific to the female genital area. So, we were really interested in seeing if we could see these 4 different species transfer from partner to partner. We recruited 10 couples and had them collect before and after, and of course, genital swabs and with those swabs we focused on the sample collection method and the extraction method. Then we quantified them using real time PCR and then we are currently sequencing them using shotgun sequencing.
Ann: Great, so the work is still ongoing.
Andrea: Yes, it never ends!
Ann: So, any initial findings that you can share with us?
Andrea: So, initial findings would be collection methods. We found that using flock swabs and using 2 swabs per sample helped increase and retain bacteria in the swabs, and when we went through to extraction, the lysing method that we were using. Using a slow bead beating mechanism instead of a fast and harsh one would hinder and elongate the extraction process itself, but at the end of the day, it ended up getting us higher yields.
So, microbial samples are very known for giving low yields when it comes to DNA extraction. They don’t provide a lot of DNA. So, how do we get the most bacteria out of our samples? Especially such sensitive samples as the genital area. It’s not like we can keep going back to participants and asking them to re-donate samples, so how do we get the most bacteria the first time? So, that was a huge thing for us, especially going forward and collecting samples and how to approach the collection method and design of the project?
Ann: Gotcha. Well that sounds really exciting, and I totally get the, “hey let’s not have to go back to the couples” kind of thing. It’s an odd question, absolutely. So, in talking with the other Student Ambassadors this week, it became really clear that they were influenced in joining the forensic field because they watched shows like CSI and so forth. Has that been your experience as well?
Andrea: I mean, that’s how I got introduced to forensics and I’ve always been intrigued by forensics through crime shows and documentaries, but I would say, for me, I come from a more social justice approach to it. In college, I volunteered a lot with the woman’s center. I volunteered with a lot of social advocacy programs. In that, I was already a science major and looking in how to advocate for the sexual assault backlog and doing more of the activism side of it and social justice side of it, looking at how I could do more with a science background. That’s when I looked into forensics and doing sexual assault research for forensics. But, that’s mainly how I got into it. But, I would say that crime shows… It was definitely in the back of my mind that I could be a CSI.
Ann: Absolutely, yes. I think that one thing that becomes really evident as you start working in the lab is that it’s nothing like CSI, right? Was there any big surprise when you first started working in the lab that you thought, “Man, I thought this was a heck of a lot easier.”
Andrea: So actually the first extraction that I did, we planned for it to take 2 hours and we were there for a good 5 – 5.5 hours, because it ended up being a really long protocol, and I remember sitting on the bench looking at the samples thinking this is not what I was expecting. But at the end of the day getting those results back made it worth the 5 hours and right after that we switched to a kit with a shorter protocol. But it’s all about tweaking and you know what? That’s research.
Ann: It is, that’s right. I think a lot of people think science is very cut and dry and so forth, but it’s not. It’s a lot of optimization and a lot of grey area and being able to analyze the data and interpret it correctly.
Andrea: There’s a lot of back and forth and I guess that’s why I’ve been working on the project throughout my whole undergrad for 3 years and even after my undergrad, I spent the summer between undergrad and grad school still working on the project. So it just goes to show that you can still work on the same project for an extended period of time and you don’t always get immediate results. Sometimes that’s a good thing if you get something way to quickly, maybe you should re-evaluate it.
Ann: That’s great advice actually. In any situation that’s great advice. If it’s too easy, there’s probably something going on that you need to be concerned about. So, who’s been the most influential on your life?
Andrea: In my whole life? Wow. I would say that’s really interesting, because I like to divide my life into sections.
Ann: You could certainly do that. There are no rules here.
Andrea: I would say for my personal life it has to be my parents. I think they set the biggest example of what it means to be selfless and a caring person. When we first moved to the states, my parents are still married and still very much together, but they separated in order for my mom to stay with me in Miami and for my dad to stay with my sister in Puerto Rico. We haven’t been together the 4 of us for more than 2 weeks at a time since. So, it’s all about sacrifice and sometimes things are worth it. I think everything I do I do to make their sacrifices worth it. I would be damned if their sacrifices were gone in vain, so I think that’s why I made the most of my undergrad experiences in college. I can’t just sit here and go to class and come back. I should do something more than that.
In my research life, it would have to be Mirna. She was one of the first ISHI Ambassadors and she’s also my first mentor. She worked with me on this project for the past three years and taught me everything I know about biology in the lab. She was with me during my first 5-hour extraction and she was the first one who told me that patience is key in this field and she really helped me develop that and I just admire her in every way, shape, and form in terms of research.
Ann: Yeah, I think she’s a rock star and I’m so proud and excited for her that she got her PhD.
Andrea: Oh yes, Dr. Ghemrawi, yes.
Ann: That was music to my ears and I was thrilled to call her that when I saw her the other day. It sounds like you have a lot of passion for forensics and so forth, but if there was something else that you could do with your life and career, what would you do?
Andrea: I would say be a writer. If there’s another thing I love about research, it’s being able to tell the story behind it. That was another thing that my PI from FIU has instilled in us is to tell the story. So, in writing either it was my undergrad thesis or even our posters. You know, how do you bring in humanity into the science in how you tell the story. Definitely if I wasn’t a scientist, I would continue to get that story out into the world.
Ann: Yeah, a running theme that I’ve had with all of the Student Ambassadors when I’ve talked with them, but this year in particular, is a passion for social justice and wanting to make a difference. I don’t know if it’s a generational thing or if it’s just that you guys are awesome human beings and that just comes with the territory, but what is your dream job? Where do you see yourself 10-15 years down the road doing your dream job?
Andrea: I see myself in research and development. I think that in the aspect of forensics, the thought of just continuing to introduce new things and the turning wheel of forensics is change. Every time, it’s how can we get things done quicker, better, more efficiently in order to help the people who need it? So, I definitely see myself introducing new things into forensics. How do we introduce this into court? Will it hold up? How do we make it better for not just survivors but everybody to be able to get the justice they need in court? Science is essential nowadays in court, especially for a lot of crimes, so how do we introduce that and make it the best it can be?
Ann: Well I have no problems seeing you do that. What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
Andrea: The best piece of advice that I’ve ever received has definitely been to decide what’s yours to hold and let the rest go. What works for you and serves your purpose in the moment. What do you need in the moment, and how does that keep you sane, stable, and calm and don’t worry about anything else. Just focus on what you have on your plate right now. What do you need on your plate right now? So, with that in mind, make the most you can out of the moment and just don’t worry about anything else.
Ann: Man, I wish someone would have given me that advice. I could have gotten away with not having 5 years of therapy to come to that. Good on ya! That’s very mature. I think a lot of grown-ups never get to that point and never realize just how wise that is.
Andrea: It’s hard to do. I mean the science and specific, like we were talking earlier when I told you that bacteria was going to haunt me for the rest of my life, it’s hard to just focus on what you need at the moment, but just taking a second to recollect and evaluate what you’re doing right now and going from there is just a great way to reset yourself.
Ann: Terrific, well done. Great advice. I’m going to take that advice, I think. So, how do you think it is being a woman in the sciences? What’s your experience been like compared to maybe some of your male peers?
Andrea: I would say that’s a very interesting question, because in forensics now, the student population is predominantly female. But then we look at our instructors and they’re predominantly male, so that was something that I was really interested in when applying to grad schools is that generational turnover that’s bound to happen where it’s going to be eventually a predominantly female field. So, growing up, however and going to college without starting in forensics (I was a biology major and a chemistry major before I switched to biochem all with the intention of going into premed), being a female in STEM and having male professors was not easy.
I think a lot of perspective is lost and most of my professors were very understanding and tried to understand. They’d say, “I can’t relate, but I want to know. Let’s keep an open communication.” That’s why both of my PIs, Dr. McCord and now Dr. Holland in Penn State, they’re great at keeping that door to communication open. “I’m not female, but if you ever need anything, bring it to me and we’ll talk about it. We’ll work through it.”
But I’ve also had experiences where I’ve been dismissed to be quite honest. So, it all depends on mindset and how you take it, honestly. I think growing a thick skin shouldn’t be a requirement, but it is. We shouldn’t have to worry about what people are going to think about whether I’ve been told that when you go to conference that I shouldn’t wear too much makeup, because you’ll look too female and people won’t take you seriously. Try to be more low key and try to blend in. I refuse to fit into that stereotype. I can do everything a female does and still be a strong scientist. Someone that takes that in stride is Mirna. In every sense of the word, she takes it in stride and is one of the most brilliant minds that I’ve worked with.
But, it all just goes back to mindset and what are you trying to get across and just not caring. Whether people in the field don’t respect you enough, you just put out your work and let it speak for itself.
Ann: Yeah, what comes across when talking with you is a feeling of authenticity. You are who you are and you’re not going to shrink away. You’re not going to conform in order to belong. You’re going to pave your own path, which is very inspiring, because women in my generation, that’s not how we handled the situation, so I’m thrilled to see that folks like you and my nieces and so forth are saying, “enough of that.” So, bravo to you.
My last question, if you could have any superpower, what would it be?
Andrea: Photographic memory. I admire people who are able to just absorb things and retain it quickly. I’d say in science, especially, I work double the work to get to where a lot of my peers are. It doesn’t come to me easily, but it’s a passion, so I go through the work to get to it. But if I had a photographic memory, life would be a lot easier.
Ann: It would, it would. Unless you’re with a partner who you’d be able to call them on a lot of their bologna very easily, so that might be challenging.
Andrea: That might make my life easier too!
Ann: I suppose. That’s true, you just say enough. That’s true. I really enjoyed talking with you. I’m sorry I missed your poster yesterday, but I am going to go by and check it out. It sounds like you’re doing really terrific work that’s needed. Continue pushing those boundaries and advocating for yourself and enjoy the rest of the conference.
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