In this interview, ISHI Student Ambassador, Andrea Ramírez Torres, sits down with Charla Marshall, Chief of the Emerging Technologies Section at the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory (AFDIL). They discuss what led Charla to work in the field of forensics, and what it’s like being a woman in a STEM field. Charla also shares advice for students considering following in her footsteps.
Andrea: Hello, everybody! I’m Andrea Ramírez Torres and I’m an ambassador for ISHI 33 and we’re here at the Gaylord National Convention Center and I’m here with Dr. Charla Marshall. So, Dr. Marshall, Charla, before we start, why don’t you tell me a little bit more about yourself; what you do in terms of research and forensics.
Charla: I am the Chief of the Emerging Technologies Section at the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory (AFDIL) and I’m a contractor with SNA International, and we are part of the Armed Forces Medical Examiner System, so the AFMES. The mission of the AFMES is to perform DNA-assisted identifications of missing military service members. So, my group leads the method development and bring on new technologies into casework. So, we both test, validate, develop new things and then write SOPs and translate that work into an operating forensic lab. So, it’s a really neat job to have, and I came to it through a background in ancient DNA. So, similarly, the methods we use in ancient DNA are applied to bone samples from historical cases, especially those that are challenging like they have at AFDIL. So, while my background is in ancient DNA, currently I’m in forensics, and I have a great job and a great team, and it’s lovely.
Andrea: That was my next question. What was your turning point and how did you decide forensics was the right place for me? Was it just background-wise, or was there something in your life that caused that turning point.
Charla: I did my PhD at Indiana University, and I had a phenomenal mentor who was always an advocate of AFDIL and always talked about it in her courses, so I learned more about AFDIL than forensics generally through her. So, that’s how I became interested in it and happened to be lucky enough to get a job there.
Andrea: I don’t think that luck played a role. You’re a pretty established person at least in forensics, especially. Also, just being a woman, right, we were talking about that before the interview. How do you feel being a woman has impacted your ability to perform in the field as well as not just your work standing alone, but have you ever felt the need to present more? How do you go about your daily life as a leader in forensics being a female?
Charla: I think that’s an interesting question, because my mom is a leader in her field. She is a doctor and the president of the Toledo Academy of Medicine, so I always had this strong role model growing up of a professional female, which was my mom, which was awesome, but then also going to graduate school, my advisors and mentors were women. Even coming to AFDIL, I have peers that are women that are very strong in what they do. 3 of the 5 Technical Leaders at AFDIL are women, so I think by the time that I started working in the field, women had really taken their stance, but I also think that doesn’t mean that we don’t have daily challenges that men wouldn’t have. I hate to generalize, because everyone’s different, and I don’t think your gender defines your personality and vis versa, but I think that by the time I arrived in forensics, the path had been paved, but now, we could see a turning point in things like administrative roles where women are taking more of those, and things like that. So, not only being in the field, but being a leader in the field, and I think we’re coming to that point.
Andrea: Right, and I think very interesting and very cool that you’re saying in the workplace there are female leaders, because right now in academia, with us as students, we’re really noticing a lot (at least when I was applying to grad school) that most of our professors in the field are predominately male. So, they’re often our mentors, and again to generalize, but there are some miscommunications. There are some struggles that we don’t fully understand with one another, so getting that generational turnover of having a predominantly student population of females going to the workplace will then lead to a predominately female-led field.
Charla: Right. So, I think you’re getting at a good point. Forensics is such a young field that the founders are still alive and well and they’re at the conference. Like, Bruce Budowle is here. So, I think we haven’t had that generational turnover. So, AFDIL, within forensics, is even a younger organization, so offering opportunities for women to step forward as the first to do something or maybe as the second. I think, as the field ages, we might see more women adopt these or come into these professorship roles that have been long-inhabited by the founders. We have Mitch Holland. He’s been there for a while and has been one of the people working on mitochondrial DNA the longest in the field. We have those people still here working with us, and when they retire and move on to other things, maybe women will be moving into those roles.
Andrea: I think also having them serve as that turning point. Dr. Holland is my PI at Penn State, so also we’ve had conversations about this and wondering how we pave the way so that you become the best scientist you can be when it’s your turn to be in a leadership position. And also just having that transitional role and open communication.
Charla: Yep, all very important.
Andrea: So, you’re a professor yourself.
Charla: I’m an adjunct professor at Penn State. So, I’m not a professor. That is why I went to school. I had no aspirations of working in a government lab, but you know, I really enjoy it. So, being an adjunct at Penn State, it gives me the opportunity to work with students and to help advise their research projects. And I think it’s great for me to have the interaction with academia, because it’s really important to foster the new generation of students and to help them grow. So, I really like that even though I’m not directly involved in teaching courses. So, I’m giving a guest lecture this month with the University of South Dakota in the anthropology department. This is a colleague that I’ve had for a really long time, and he wants to introduce his students to other fields, so I do a guest lecture maybe once a year with his department. I do other guest lectures for courses. So, I stay involved that way and I never fulfilled my dream of becoming a professor, but that’s ok. I like where I am.
Andrea: What do you say when mentoring students? What’s the biggest piece of advice you have to tell them when they first come to you?
Charla: Ok, I wouldn’t say this is the first piece when they first come to me, but my general advice for graduate students is to just be open to opportunities. For me, I had my mind set on being a professor. That was my only goal. That’s the only reason I got a PhD was to be a professor, but that didn’t turn out for me, so you’ve kinda gotta take the lemons and make lemonade and just seize whatever opportunities come your way. I feel like I have the greatest job in the world, and if I had been so focused on being a professor, I never would have been open to it. So, also, my training was ancient DNA, but there aren’t very many ancient DNA jobs out there, so I went the more practical route of forensics. I think that for forensics students, there might be even a more practical route in genomics or start-up companies. Sequencing, automation, tech, biotech… So, I think that just because you’re trained in forensics and you’re learning this particular field that draws a lot of public interest, that doesn’t mean that you don’t have valuable skills that could be translated to other types of roles.
Andrea: Right, that’s a good point. Dr. Marshall, what’s next for you? Where do you see yourself in the next 5-10 years?
Charla: Well, I’m usually so focused on the present that it’s hard to say, but I would like to… I think currently, because the technology moves so quickly, and this is something that we have at AFDIL as well, but I think it’s going to be even more important to translate the technology into practice. So, I really see myself as contributing to that. That’s really where I want to put my focus in my career. All of these things are happening so rapidly, but what do we actually need to apply to solve cases and to make the world a better place? I’m interested in that sort of space in between those two areas.
Andrea: Creating that bridge between getting it from the science lab to the courtroom.
Charla: Yep, exactly.
Andrea: That’s where I see myself too.
Charla: Great, maybe we can work together.
Andrea: One closing question: If you could have any superpower, what would it be?
Charla: I would speak all the languages. To be able to speak any foreign language, because I think growing up in America, we’re really fortunate that we can have English as our primary language. I can have English as my primary and native language, but I feel like there is obviously a barrier when I’m trying to communicate with people from other cultures or other backgrounds, and I wish I could speak all of the languages so I could be right there with everyone else while they’re communicating.
Andrea: I would have that superpower too if I had the opportunity, so that’s fully understandable. Thank you so much for being here.
Charla: Thank you for talking with me.
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