Meet some of the women who are propelling the field of forensic science forward. In this interview, we meet Chastyn Smith, a student at Virginia Commonwealth University.
It was Scooby Doo and watching CSI: Miami with her mom that drew Chastyn to the forensics field, but it was working within a research lab that confirmed her love for DNA. Chastyn has big plans for the future, starting with a desire to give a TEDx talk at her university in the short-term and long-term goals of performing research in her own laboratory (ideally in her home), working in a federal lab, and teaching the next generation. Though still young, she exudes wisdom and advises that others jump at an opportunity to learn from and work with a diverse team.
In this interview, Chastyn discusses research she’s been doing to help with mixture samples, those who have been her biggest inspirations and support system over the years, and her plans for the future.
Ann: Hi, my name is Ann MacPhetridge and I’m here at ISHI 33 and I’m thrilled to have the opportunity to interview one of our Student Ambassadors, Chastyn Smith. Welcome! I’m so excited to see you. I know it’s early morning, so sorry about that, especially when you just got in last night, but I’m really excited for you to attend ISHI this year. We have a great program. So, what are you most excited about?
Chastyn: I’m most excited about meeting professionals in the field. This will be my first big, but also kind of intimate, conference, so I’m excited to just network.
Ann: Yeah, one thing that I love about this conference is that everybody is really open to being approached by students and just about anybody. Just all you need to do is introduce yourself and they’re happy to talk to you. There’s no standoffishness, so it’s really wonderful that way. So, tell me about your poster.
Chastyn: So, my poster would be about the development of a screening assay that is integrated at the qPCR step in order to determine the contributor status of a sample, so whether it’s single source or a mixture, and if so, how many contributors are in that mixture.
Ann: Wow, that’s awesome! That’s really great and continues to be a challenge for a lot of labs, so excellent choice for your poster. So, was there anything in your research as you’re pulling your poster together that surprised you, and you were like, “Oh, I didn’t expect this result.”
Chastyn: I would say, this may sound weird, but how well it worked. You know? Because when you’re going through development, sometimes things don’t come together, but when you see the end result, it’s like, “ok, this was all worth it.”
Ann: Oh, excellent. Well, I will be sure and stop by and see it. So, what made you decide to go into forensics? Of all the fields you could have chosen, why forensics?
Chastyn: Scooby Do. Yes, Scooby Doo, CSI Miami, but I feel like that’s very common for my generation – TV shows. But then once I got research experience within the field, I was like, “yeah, this is what I want to do.”
Ann: Excellent, yeah. I worked in other life science areas, and I have to say that this is the most fun and the most challenging, but also the most gratifying and satisfying, right? Even though I’m not working in the lab, knowing that there are laboratories that are working with the products that my company has developed is really, really satisfying when you hear these interesting cases, or you hear about these stories where they’ve been able to solve a crime and they were using your STR kit that helped them get the profile and brought justice and closure to the victims families. Yeah, every ISHI I am more motivated to come back and work in this field, so I know at the end of the week you’re going to be super tired, but then you’re going to be so excited and go back like, “wow, I can conquer the world!”
So, I’ve got a couple of questions that we’re going to keep on going through. What’s one work-related thing that you want to accomplish in the next year?
Chastyn: So, I’m not sure if it’s work-related, but VCU has TEDx VCU talks, so I would like to give one. About what, I’m not sure, but I guess more research or forensics related. I’d like to complete my experiment so that I can start my dissertation phase.
Ann: And you were telling me you were going to graduate in 2024, right?
Chastyn: Yes, that’s the predicted end-date.
Ann: So, what’s next for you? After graduation, what would you love to be doing?
Chastyn: So, I’m still trying to figure that out, but I may like to work for a federal lab. I’m also thinking about teaching. I may still want to do research. So, in the end, I do plan on doing all of it. I’m just not sure what I want to do first.
Ann: Yes, oh I love that attitude. I love that attitude. I have a child in college and he’s back and forth about where he wants to go and doesn’t want to get his MBA, and I’m like, “you know, you’ve got your life ahead of you. You don’t have to figure this all out today. Why don’t we just get through the semester and think about it?” But I also love this desire to do more and not just graduate and get a job and leave it at that. So, it sounds to me that you have a lot of goals and a lot of dreams that you want to accomplish, which is great. Who has supported you along the way to help those dreams come true?
Chastyn: My family. Family and friends. They could not tell you what my research is about or where I am in my program, but they are very supportive.
Ann: Oh, that’s excellent. I love that. Yeah, I mean you need that. I think this field has a lot of darkness to it, right? There’s a lot of horrible crimes that are committed, so being able to have that support network and knowing that someone always has your back is an amazing gift, so good for you. Let’s see… Is there any experience that you think everybody should be required to have?
Chastyn: I think one experience that everyone should be required to have is working with others who are not like you in any sense or every sense, I guess.
Ann: I love that. So, have you yourself had an opportunity to do that?
Chastyn: Oh yeah.
Ann: So, can you tell me about that?
Chastyn: So, throughout undergrad, I was at Virginia Tech and then grad, in constantly more diverse areas taking on different roles within the lab. Sometimes I’m the mentor, sometimes I’m the mentee. Sometimes I’m the lab manager, sometimes I’m the student. So, just playing different roles with different people will make well-rounded people.
Ann: Yes, you’re absolutely right. What about forensic sciences… If you were telling an undergrad who was considering going into forensic science, what would you tell them? What advice would you have for them?
Chastyn: I would tell them that you could major in anything that’s related to forensics, so don’t think that there’s just one path that you have to take to be in forensics.
Ann: So, you have an undergrad in biology and then your graduate degree will be in?
Chastyn: My program is Integrated Life Sciences, but forensic DNA analysis is my research.
Ann: Excellent, excellent. Love that. And 10 years from now, what do you think you might be doing?
Chastyn: Ok, what am I 26? Hmmm… Hopefully doing research on my own schedule, I would say. I don’t want to be confined to a 9-5 in a lab. I want to be able to go in when I want to, because you have to have some structure, but just being able to have a little bit more relaxed lab and still doing research.
Ann: Excellent. Is there any place in the world that you wanted to travel to or you have traveled to and you want to go back, but maybe you’ve had an opportunity to take a trip or dream about a trip and you’re like, “I’m going to make sure that happens.”
Chastyn: Not yet, but coming up, I’m going to go to Mardi Gras with my friends, so I’m very excited about that.
Ann: Oh my goodness. Look out N’awlens! I’ve always wanted to go, and never have. I’ve always regrated not going, and now I’m at the age where I’m not going to go.
Chastyn: It’s never too late!
Ann: Oh, I don’t know. My husband’s an introvert, so he would probably get freaked out at the thought of a mass sea of people, most of them inebriated, but you all will have a good time for both of us, I’m sure. So, what behavior or personality trait, do you most attribute to your success?
Chastyn: I would say my ability to figure it out or I guess, I don’t know if there’s a word to sum this up, but you know how people say, “where there’s a will, there’s a way?”
Chastyn: So that’s just kind of how I am.
Ann: Yes, perseverance, problem solving. Excellent. Those are really great traits. Last night at our student reception we were talking about the things that forensic laboratories were looking for in applicants and that actually came up. This ability to be able to be flexible and jump right in and take on a challenge. Be willing to try new things and to challenge yourself, so I think those traits are going to serve you well. They’ve clearly served you well so far.
If there were three words that your friends or family to use to describe you, what would they be?
Chastyn: Creative. Determined. This last word…
Ann: So many good ones to chose from.
Ann: So, out of those three, what do you think benefits you most with the work that you’re doing now?
Ann: So, can you give me an example of how you’ve applied a creative approach to the research that you’ve been doing?
Chastyn: So, just going along with problem solving. Trying to figure out why isn’t this working? Maybe let’s do this in order to test it. It may seem wonky some may say, but it gets results.
Ann: So, forensics seems to have quite a few women in the field. Why do you think that is? You always hear about getting more women and people of color and the underserved and so forth into forensics and into life sciences in general. Why do you think forensics is so attractive in particular to women? Is there something in it that enables you guys to be more successful? What’s your impression of that, because I hear all kinds of things?
Chastyn: So, I did not know that forensics was more attractive to women, but I guess I wonder if women watch more crime scene shows and if it influences us to go into the field? I know my mother did, and that’s how I got into it. My dad did not.
Ann: Gotcha. So your mom is the CSI and Scooby Do fan?
Chastyn: CSI, not Scooby Do.
Ann: Oh come on! Who doesn’t love Scooby Do? Yeah, I’ve always been amazed at the number of women Tech Leads and so forth and it’s really empowering as a woman and I have nieces and so forth and to think about the leadership path that forensics offers. Some of the other sciences seems to be an old boy network, right? Is there a particular person, female or male, that mentored you along the way in your schooling or in your journey that’s really helped you kind of move through the more challenging parts of your schoolwork and your research?
Chastyn: I would say there’s two. My undergrad professor, Dr. Shane Jones. She’s not in forensics. She’s in immunology, but she helped me get to where I am now. Not to say that I wouldn’t be here, but it probably would have taken me a bit longer to get to this place and figure everything out, so shout out to her. And then my current PI, Dr. Tracy Dawson-Greene, just helping me in the world of forensics, showing me that you achieve what you want. She is a professor now, but she did work in a crime lab, so as I said, that’s kind of what I want to do. Just exploring different careers. So, seeing her doing it and also knowing her so she can help me navigate that path and just really helping me.
Ann: Excellent, excellent. So, you’re one of this year’s student ambassadors and we’re thrilled to have you. We’ve got a powerhouse group this year. So, what is it about the student ambassador role that most attracted you to applying?
Chastyn: The social media aspect. So, I’ve been trying to move my social medias from personal to more professional, because that’s the best way to reach people my age, and that’s what I really want to do is be a resource for people. So, being able to combine science with social media and that space to be creative is what really attracted me to it.
Ann: You know Kelly Knight? Do you follow her?
Ann: She is like the bomb, isn’t she? She was at the reception last night and had some really great questions. She’ll be here all week, so we need to make sure you guys get a chance to meet and you can talk with her, because she does that role incredibly well. She has merged her accounts so that it’s entertaining for the lay person, but also, I think it’s even more entertaining and fun as someone who’s in the field, right?
Chastyn: You can learn things.
Ann: Absolutely. She’s done some things that Promega should be doing as well. So, last question for ya. What is your dream job?
Chastyn: My dream job… To run my own lab or have my own lab. But I would say work from home, so I would say that I do want a lab in my own house, which I know is a little bit crazy. Yeah, but work for myself in my own lab.
Ann: Well I can totally see you doing it. You’ve got a whole lot of enthusiasm. I can totally see the drive in you. I enjoyed your video, your submission for the student ambassador. You clearly are charming, so if anyone else can follow in Kelly’s footsteps and make forensics fun and engaging in social media and reach a whole bunch of kids that we need to get into the forensic sciences, it’s you for sure. I really enjoyed talking with you and can’t wait to see your poster this week and I’ll encourage everybody to check it out. Thanks so much.
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