Meet some of the women who are propelling the field of forensic science forward. In this interview, we meet Haley Fallang, who is working to obtain her Master’s degree from Towson University.
As a freshman in college being bombarded with possible majors and career paths, she signed up for what she deemed to be the most interesting major: forensic science. As an undergrad, she explored all of the forensic disciplines, but she narrowed in on DNA. The power of DNA combined with her desire to restore dignity to those whose lives have been taken cemented her focus.
During her poster presentation at ISHI 32, Haley examined low quality DNA extracted from degraded, historic human remains recovered from a Maryland gravesite using mitochondrial next-generation sequencing (NGS) to learn about the family of the remains. The historic human remains were recovered in the 1970s from the Calverton site (ca. 1600s), located in Calvert County, Maryland.
In this interview, Haley discusses who has had the most influence on her career, what she loves about forensic DNA, advice for others considering working in forensic science, and her plans for the future.
Ann: Hello, my name is Ann MacPhetridge, and I have the tremendous pleasure of sitting down with our student ambassadors this year. Today, I’m talking with Haley Fallang, and I’m so excited. This is my favorite part of doing my job, quite candidly. Getting out, talking to customers, meeting people, and I know we have a tremendous student ambassador crew this year, and with the pandemic and so forth, being able to get to know one another is hard, so this is the perfect opportunity for me to do that. So, thank you for taking the time out. It’s a really busy conference, so I’m grateful that you’re spending some time with me today.
Haley: I’m really excited to be here.
Ann: Excellent, excellent. So, what are you thinking about the conference so far?
Haley: Oh, I love it. It’s been so awesome so far getting to talk with the different vendors and hearing experts in the field, especially as a student, it’s really impactful. I’ve had a great time listening to different perspectives and new techniques that are coming out. It’s just been awesome.
Ann: Awesome. So have you had a chance to sit down with John Butler? Have you talked with him yet?
Haley: No, my classmates have. They got to meet him yesterday, but I missed out, so I’m hoping to find him today.
Ann: He is such a great guy. He really is, and he’ll enjoy talking with you. There’s no question. He really enjoys that. He loves seeing young scientists who are up and comers, and he really wants to share his knowledge. That’s one of the things I love about this field is how collaborative it is, right? So, I’m glad that your experience of the conference so far has been reflective of that.
Haley: Absolutely, and I’m glad that it is collaborative.
Ann: So, tell me about your work. I have not had the opportunity; I’ve been working booth duty (hence the outfit today) to come by and see the student ambassador posters. So, tell me what your research is on.
Haley: Certainly. What I’m presenting on is mitochondrial DNA. We did next generation sequencing of some mitochondrial DNA of some historic human skeletal remains that were discovered in Maryland, and it’s just been the coolest project to work on. My mentors are just phenomenal and really, I think the most interesting part of that is we’re doing DNA analysis. We’re doing all of this lab work, but at the end of the day, you’re trying to tell the story of this individual, so determining the haplogroup of that person. It’s just awesome to see where that ancestry lies and just tell a little bit of their story.
Ann: Yeah, I love that. I love that frame set that you’ve put around that, because each victim of crime, they have a story, so even though your situation is very different, there’s a story to be told, and people will want to hear it. You could have chosen probably any scientific field to go into, right, but why did you choose forensic sciences?
Haley: That’s a great question. I think it probably just seemed really interesting when I went into undergrad. Of all the majors that were listed, forensic science seemed the most interesting, but I kept with it because I believe that every individual has an innate dignity, and you know, when an attempt is made on that person’s life, it’s a way to limit that dignity, and I think that forensic science is a tool to make sure that we can identify a victim or identify a perpetrator and make sure that that dignity is kept intact. I think that’s so special to use scientific skills to serve our communities, so that’s why I want to be in the forensic science field.
Ann: That’s terrific. I was mentioning to Nidhi in our interview that people don’t go into this field because they anticipate becoming independently wealthy down the road. That isn’t how it works, so there is that passion and that dedication, but your approach with that innate dignity really gives a voice to the victims, so I applaud you on having that mindset as you approach your work and particularly as you move further into your career.
So, speaking of, if you had your choice, what would be your dream job in the forensic field? What would you like to do?
Haley: So, of course, I would love to be a DNA analyst in a crime lab, but having had this research opportunity at Towson University and having seen all of the research that’s going on here, I also think that there’s so much value in researching these new techniques and methodologies, and I think, down the line, it would be really great to pursue a PhD and contribute to that research and furthering the field. But, in the near future, I would definitely love to be a DNA analyst and hit the ground running.
Ann: Excellent, excellent. So, my next question is who inspires you? Is there someone in your life, or someone famous that you get your inspiration from?
Haley: That’s a great question. I’d say at this point, my grandma is my greatest inspiration. She was a very independent woman who just did her thing all the time and I got to have a little bit of independence gained during the pandemic. I’m from Montana, but I moved across the country to Maryland during the pandemic and started school during the pandemic. I didn’t know anybody in the Baltimore area, and just had to kind of go out on my own and I’ve made wonderful friends and gained awesome mentors, but it was a challenge, so I think gaining some inspiration from my grandma and being independent and pursuing your dreams even if it’s a challenging time, it’s really worth it.
Ann: She sounds like an amazing woman. So, speaking of the pandemic, how have you managed through it? My son is in college. He’s a junior, so online classes and so forth, but what helped you get through the pandemic?
Haley: So, of course, it was a really hard time for everyone. I’ve been really lucky not having lost any very close loved ones. I’m very thankful for that, though I do know it’s been very heavy for many people. And it was difficult navigating hybrid classes and minimized lab times, but you really gain perspective when you are taken away from the lab and how much it means to you, and even coming to ISHI and being around people for the first time in quite a long time, you really realize how impactful and meaningful it is to be around this work and to be meeting new individuals who are pursuing similar things. So, I think that it was challenging with school, but it was also a really great time for learning those lessons.
Ann: Absolutely, and the one thing about this field is that it’s very collaborative and there’s a lot of communication. So, I was in a different field a long time ago, and it was a man’s world, and now it’s so great to look around the general session room and see the amount of young women who are going to do meaningful and important work in their careers, and it’s so empowering to see that change is happening despite this very long period of darkness with the pandemic. It changed a lot of things for a lot of people, so I’m hopeful for the future, because meeting folks like you and really seeing the potential in the room with young scientists. So, my next question is around that. If you could give any advice to someone who’s considering moving into forensics or even the sciences in general, what would that advice be?
Haley: That’s a great question. The great thing about forensic science as a whole is there’s so many sub-disciplines. When I was an undergrad, I really tried to take different classes within that. So, even though I might have been interested in crime scene, I really tried to get a little of biology and chem, and then I realized that of course, I loved biology, and ended up in DNA. But having that opportunity to really explore and meet different people who are specialized those different fields, it’s really special to be there. And then to be somewhere like this where you’re with your people, is really awesome. So I would just say to explore as much as you can within your field and you’ll find what your passion is.
Ann: That’s terrific advice. I give my son that advice quite a bit as well. He’s going into business and he has no idea which part of business he wants to study, so I told him to take a variety of classes this semester and maybe something will click with you and it’ll be clear. There’s a lot of decisions to be made at this age, and don’t worry about going down a path and then having to pivot, because I’ve spent half my life pivoting, and here I have this great job where I get to interview students like yourself at ISHI and help create our booth. It’s fascinating. So, where you think you’re going to be when you’re twenty and where you actually are in your 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s is very different, but that’s where you’re meant to be. I love your openness and the fluidity as you’re taking part in your coursework.
So, I’m going to mix things up a little bit and ask some questions that will help us to get to know you a little better. So, the first question I want to ask is if you could use three words to describe yourself, what would those three words be?
Haley: Oh my goodness, that’s a hard one. Luckily my colleagues and I did this together a couple of months ago, so I reflected on some of their descriptions of myself and I do agree with some of them. So, I would say professionalism, dedication, and goofy, because I do like to have fun.
Ann: Ok, speaking of having fun, what do you like to do when you’re not working in the lab or studying or going to classes? What do you like to do for fun?
Haley: Like I said, I’m from rural Montana, so I’m a big hiker, and a big fan of the outdoors, so anything outdoors is for me. I also love theme parks, so having been here has been just the best. We’ve gotten to ride some rollercoasters and have fun. So, I just really like to be outside and doing something fun with my friends.
Ann: That’s great. If you could have dinner with anyone, dead or alive, who would that person be and why?
Haley: Wow, that’s a great question. I would say I would have dinner with Princess Diana. I think that we could have had so many more lessons to learn from her, and I think that she gave so much during her time, and my mother also really loves Princess Diana, so that’s probably where it comes from, but she had a special light within her and really wanted to serve others, and I really admire that. I also want to serve others, so I would sit down with her.
Ann: You know, you look a little bit like her. There is a resemblance there.
Haley: Thank you, that’s so nice.
Ann: You really do. So my next question is… Is there a quote from a movie that you really relate to?
Haley: Oh my gosh, I’m so sorry, my mind just went blank.
Ann: It’s ok. I’ll tell you mine and maybe that will help spur something. So, I’m a huge Star Wars geek, like bonkers, and I also really love Yoda, and in Empire Strikes Back, he says, “Do or do not. There is no try.” So, I have trained for half marathons and some bike charity rides and so forth, and when I’m really tired, I let that run through my mind, because it gives me some motivation. So, it just reminds me that you either do it or you don’t. You can or you can’t, but you get to decide.
Haley: That’s such a great example, and what’s funny about that is my undergrad mentor had that as a poster in our lab, so that’s really funny.
Ann: It’s so simple, but it’s always resonated with me. Did something come to mind? If not, we’ll move on to the next one.
Haley: Yeah, it actually has, and of course, it’s a classic, and a lot of people resonate with it, but I’d say, “Life is a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re going to get.” That’s very true. I’ve certainly been faced with a bunch of different opportunities and some challenges, and I never knew what was coming, and especially with the pandemic, I think we can all relate to that. We never knew what was coming next, but it’s all about how we approach it and what you choose to do, and your perspective going into those challenging or great times. So, I think I’ll go with Forrest Gump for that one.
Ann: Excellent. My last question is if you could live anywhere in the world, where would it be?
Haley: Well I’ve always wanted to go to Switzerland. I’ve always loved the mountains and the chocolate. I’ve always wanted to live there, so it makes sense to me.
Ann: Yeah, I think you’ve made a good choice.
Haley: Where would you live?
Ann: I am a huge fan of Kawaii. It’s an island in the Hawaiian islands. It’s called the garden island and is absolutely beautiful and living by the sea, and there are mountains there that you can explore and hike. It’s just a very different lifestyle than you have here in what they call the mainland. So, I need to win the lottery first, and I need to find a way to get our golden retriever over there, because I don’t want to put him on a plane.
Haley: That’s a long boat ride.
Ann: Maybe a big enough lottery and maybe we could find a way, but there’s something about there that just brings peace to my soul. It’s pretty cool. I’ve so enjoyed talking to you, so thank you for taking the time out. The rest of the conference is going to be great. We’re going to have a lot of fun at Animal Kingdom tonight, so thanks so much. I look forward to seeing the great things that you’re going to do in your career.
Haley: Thanks so much.
WOULD YOU LIKE TO SEE MORE ARTICLES LIKE THIS? SUBSCRIBE TO THE ISHI BLOG BELOW!