Meet some of the women who are propelling the field of forensic science forward. In this interview, we meet Nidhi Sheth, a PhD student at Rutgers University.
At a young age, Nidhi decided to pursue a career in criminology after being inspired by her grandfather, a renowned criminal lawyer in Gujarat, India. Hearing stories about his most challenging and convoluted cases captivated her and profoundly influenced my decision to pursue a career in forensic science.
To become proficient in the fundamental technological aspects of the field, Nidhi pursued a B.S. in Pharmacy from Nirma University, India. Concurrently, she pursued extracurricular social activism, and was selected as the Gujarat State Representative to present her views on “Preventing Crime Against Women” at the Indian Student Parliament to an audience of over 80,000 people. Nidhi opened the event with a discussion on the importance of implementing new educational policies to end the disparity between men and women in the eyes of India’s justice system. This experience cemented her commitment to criminal justice, science, and higher education.
Currently, her PhD work is geared towards developing a single-cell, forensically relevant pipeline. In this pipeline, analysts would be able to deconvolute a mixture sample into single cells to determine who contributed to the sample. Her aim is to be able to separate out epithelial, sperm, white blood cells, and others typically found at a crime scene and generate a human profile from a single cell.
In this interview, Nidhi discusses her research, her plans for the future, and her advice for future scientists.
Ann: Hello, my name is Ann MacPhetridge, and I’m with the Promega Corporation. I’m so excited to sit down this morning with Nidhi Sheth, who is one of our student ambassadors. I’ve been waiting all week to do this, so it’s just fabulous. Thank you for taking the time out. I know it’s a crazy busy conference, but I’m so happy you took the time out to talk to me. Thank you so much!
Nidhi: Thank you so much for the opportunity as well. It’s such a pleasure.
Ann: Absolutely! So, what do you think of the conference so far?
Nidhi: It has been really amazing. I got a chance to present yesterday and talk to people about my work, which was really nice, and I got a great response. I met a lot of interesting people who are interested in the work I do, so that was good.
Ann: So, why don’t you tell me a little bit about it. Yesterday I was on booth duty all day, so I did not get a chance to pop over and talk to you or read your poster, so tell me about it please.
Nidhi: Yes, absolutely! So, my work basically encompasses deconvoluting bulk mixture samples in the front end of processing. So, we are trying to develop a single-cell, forensically relevant pipeline. Even before the mixture sample goes for extraction, amplification, to determine who contributed for the sample, we deconvolute that mixture sample into single cells, so we could separate epithelial cells, sperm cells, and white blood cells, which are usually encountered at a crime scene, and try to get a human profile from that single cell. So, that’s what my PhD is all about. And also, experimentally, that’s what I’m working on, under the guidance of my PI, Catherine Grgicak, and our collaborators, we’re also trying to statistical tools for interpretation of single cells, so fingers crossed.
Ann: That sounds amazing! I mean, I think about where we were 20 years ago with the technology and where we are today. You’re talking about a single cell, and that blows my mind! That’s amazing.
Nidhi: Absolutely, and it was also a very new concept for me when I started working in PhD and when I started working under Catherine Grgicak as to the amount of information that a single cell withholds, just blew my mind, so I’m trying to get an in-depth knowledge and trying to help in whatever way possible.
Ann: So, I always say that forensic science is the coolest field out there, but what drove you to pursue studying forensics?
Nidhi: So, there are multiple factors. My biggest inspiration was actually my grandfather. He was a criminal lawyer back in India, where I’m from. My mother is also a lawyer, and a lot of people on my mom’s side are lawyers. The most important thing that actually drives me to work in forensics is that we know that there is someone out there who is looking for answers and for justice, so that just keeps me up and keeps me working in the field to do my part to provide justice for the voiceless, and people have been a victim of abuse in their lifetime. So, in whichever way I possibly could through the single-cell pipeline, or even as a DNA analyst. That’s all I hope for.
Ann: That’s terrific. So, speaking of working as a DNA analyst, is that what you’re hoping to pursue when you’re finished? Are you looking to work in a lab or pursue research?
Nidhi: I do wish to work in a lab at least a couple of years after I graduate, and then I do plan to get a MBA as well after working in field for some time, because my ultimate goal is to run a lab or become a director in a lab someday. It’s not necessary to get a MBA, but depending on how time falls, it would be good to get that knowledge on how to manage people and how to organize all that information in a manner, so hopefully that’s the aim, but it’s all building up and changes with time.
Ann: I could totally see you doing that. And I do agree that thinking about those things now when you’re younger and you have the energy, because at my age, wow, the idea of pursuing a MBA… Not happening. But you do need that coursework, that bonding with fellow students, and understanding their job journeys and all of that is really the best part of that MBA program, and you can take those lessons with you and apply them just about anywhere. So, good for you, I love it. So, who inspires you the most?
Nidhi: Again, I’m sorry, it sounds cliche, but it’s not just one person that I look to in the field, it’s again, just knowing that people need justice, and that’s my inspiration, and it’s always been my inspiration. I am from India, like I mentioned, and I read this article a couple of years ago in 2017 that every 15 minutes, a woman gets raped, so I have that hung in my house, and when I walk out, I used to read that post every single day, so I think I’m just working towards that in whatever way possible. Either to reduce the crime, or to come up with a technique to catch the perpetrators, and that’s all. Just keeping it simple that way.
Ann: I’m so impressed. Thank you. I mean that really is appalling when you read those statistics and you think about the impact that has on a woman to survive that type of thing. So, to be able to catch a serial rapist before he’s onto victim number 5, 6, or 7. Maybe get him after the first one, that is amazing work, and I know that a lot of professionals that are working in the field are really striving to do that. They’re trying to prevent tomorrow’s crime and they think about that with the work they do, because, let’s be honest, you’re not going to get rich being a forensic scientist. So, if you’re motivated by money, this probably isn’t the field to go into, but I think if you have been raised, as it sounds like you have, to believe in justice, and equality, and fairness, and ensuring that people are included and have an opportunity to succeed, this is a great field to go into. Especially for women. I am always amazed to have come from the life sciences myself, I also did tracheotomies on guinea pigs for my first job after college. Yay me! To see where I am know… It was, but it was important as my research, so I don’t regret it, but it was certainly different from what I’m experiencing here. But it was a man’s world back then, right? And now, I walk around this room and this exhibit hall and this general session room and I see the number of women who are pursuing this career, and I think amen, right? It’s about damn time, and I’m so excited to see women like you who are patient about their career and will continue the work of Cece Crouse and Julie Sikorsky, and Mekhi Prince. All of these folks who were pioneers and have done so much for the field and are very well respected. So, I have a feeling that in 20 years we will be interviewing you – maybe not me, because I hope to be on a beach somewhere, but you’ll be a premier leader in the field.
Nidhi: Thank you, you’re too kind. It’s because of their work that we’re here and because of what they believed in. And as society as a whole, it’s not always one person working towards it. Even with disaster management, as Mark Desire talked about, it’s not just one person. Everybody knocked at their door and helped them out. Forensics is not just about sexual assault or homicide, it’s about anything giving back to the community and providing justice.
Ann: Exactly, and that’s one thing that I also really love about this field is how collaborative it is. So, when you came here to ISHI and you shared your work… Have you talked with John Butler yet?
Nidhi: I’m summoning up the courage as we speak. It’s on my to-do list.
Ann: He’s a delightful man.
Nidhi: He’s so noble, but he moves around… He’s just so nice and knowledgeable. He’s just like a book of knowledge moving around.
Ann: We like to joke that he’s the Tom Hanks of the forensic field, because he’s such a nice guy, but he’s so good at what he does. It fits right?
Nidhi: Absolutely, when I think about it yet.
Ann: So, I want to switch gears now and I want to throw you some ‘get to know you’ questions. These are questions that I throw my 20 year-old son, so hopefully they won’t be too cheeseball for you. So, the first one is if you could have any superpower, what would it be?
Nidhi: So, if I ever, ever, had a superpower, I would like to have a good eye for detail and observational skills, because it’s so necessary when working with DNA samples or doing mixture analysis. And also when you go to a crime scene, as stupid as that sounds, I would want to be Sherlock Holmes.
Ann: I love that, that’s so cool. That’s excellent. Yes, his powers of deduction.
Nidhi: Absolutely, the way he looks at things, and just knows what it is.
Ann: So, if you could have dinner with anyone, dead or alive, historical figure or someone in your family, who would it be and why?
Nidhi: If I were given a chance to meet and have a dinner, it would be the Dalai Lama. He has been on my list to meet since a very, very long time, and the knowledge he has and founding the balance of this elusive modern equilibrium and to just break it down in simple terms and obtaining peace with minimalistic thinking and not combining with religion. Just basic principles and making peace with yourself is just incredible. And one of the most amazing things, to my recollection, is once someone asked him a question and he did not know the answer to the question. In front of an audience, he said, “I do not know the answer.” And that coming from him, not knowing the answer, was such a waking moment that if I don’t know something, I have to accept that and not know it. So, I just want to sit with him and see where it’s all stemming from and I think he could help me. Sorry that’s such a long answer!
Ann: No, it’s a great answer. Don’t you worry about it. So, you’re obviously very passionate about forensics, but if you had chosen a different career, if forensics wasn’t the thing, what would it have been?
Nidhi: I actually teach dance, and I do dance. I am a trained classical dancer, but I would have taken up that as a profession and would have just taught dance to kids and whomever. It’s completely opposite of what I do, but that’s why I have the hand gestures as a I do when I’m talking. Dance would be something that I would pursue.
Ann: It’s very different. Science is all about focus and paying attention to what you do and dancing is all about grace and falling in love with the music and moving to that, so they’re at very opposite ends of the scale, so I am very fascinated by those things. That is terrific. So, if you had to pick three words to describe yourself, what would they be?
Nidhi: So, I am tenacious. I do not give up, and I am loyal to my work. That’s two? Hardworking?
Ann: That works. What do you like to do when you’re not in the lab or when you’re not writing your papers up? I assume you teach a class too as part of your graduate studies.
Nidhi: Yeah, so I did that in my first two years of my graduate studies during my PhD program. But, other than that, I do try to do a lot of things. I go for kickboxing. I do dance. And, I also am part of a podcast called “Beyond the Yellow Tape”. So it’s me and my other colleague. We try to break down the topic of forensic science just to inspire kids or anyone else who would like to join and be a part of forensics someday. So I do all of that.
Ann: I am just so blown away and impressed, and it’s the perfect segue to my last question for you. So, you’re just moving into this field, right? Hopefully there’s going to be some younger students who come across this video and watch it, but if you could give advice to any young person who’s thinking of going into the sciences (even if it’s not forensic science), what would that advice be?
Nidhi: If you have a passion, or if you’re a curious person, science is definitely a wonderful field to be in, because it’s all about the questions you ask. Also, when your professors teach you in undergrad, please pay attention. Don’t keep it to the point of knowledge. Actually understand what they’re doing, and you’ll go a long way. I’ve made those mistakes and I hope people don’t make it. And we’re all here to help if anybody has any questions.
Ann: Ok, I did fib. I have one more question. I know that you are interviewing Mark Desire later this morning, which he’s such a wonderful human being. I really enjoyed his keynote and his candor that he shared. So, tell me what question you’re going to ask him first?
Nidhi: So, yeah, I have a million questions planned for him, but I actually just want to know as to how he got his start to where he is now, considering he got his worked with the United States Army as a biological warfare developer to he was a mayor to the Assistant Director of the OCME, to teaching at Rutgers in their Criminal Justice program, and now he also is a part of the Missing and Exploited Children Organization hired by the United States. So, how does he do it, and what is his motivation to be who he is now and just helping. So, that’s the main question that I really want to ask.
Ann: That’s a darn fine question and it’s really apropos for this field, because as we talked, you have to have that dedication. You have to explore those opportunities that come through, and you have to have that desire to help and improve people’s lives. That’s why I went into science and this field in particular. Thank you so much for talking with me today. I know that Tara, because she’s younger than I, she will be interviewing you in 20 years and you will be a lab director and talking about some great discovery that you’ve just presented at ISHI 52. Thank you so much.
Nidhi: Thank you very much for this opportunity.
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