Meet some of the women who are propelling the field of forensic science forward. In this interview, we meet Noelle Neff, a student at Towson University.
Like many others in her generation, watching CSI with her dad introduced Noelle to the forensics field, but it was a high school elective class and subsequent college courses that really drew her in (and taught her that tv doesn’t always get everything right).
Noelle has a large interest in the power of next generation sequencing and what it can tell us about not only forensic samples, but also neurodegenerative diseases. In this interview, she shares a bit about the research that she’s done so far and where she hopes to go in the future. She also provides some advice for current and future students in the field.
Ann: Hi, my name is Ann MacPhetridge and I am here today with Noelle Neff, who is one of our student ambassadors this year. Welcome! I’m so excited to have you here.
Ann: So this is your first ISHI, and I know it’s early in the week, but what are you thinking so far?
Noelle: So far, we had the student reception last night. It was really fun. We got to talk to the panel of experts in the field, so that was really informative and nice to meet other students in the field as well.
Ann: That’s something new for us, and we’re really trying to reach younger scientists. We recognize that folks like yourself, in 10 years, are going to be the ones making the decisions for the lab, so it’s important for us to get to know you guys and establish those relationships early. I really enjoyed the student reception last night as well. It was a lot of fun and was great to be laughing with the crew and all of that, so I’m glad you were able to make it.
So, what made you decide to go into forensics? Of all the sciences in the world, why forensics?
Noelle: It’s kind of cliche, but when I was a kid, I would watch CSI a lot with my dad, and I would always think that I’d either want to do that or be a lawyer, because both were in the show. And then, as I got older, I started watching Dexter, and then in high school, I took a forensic science elective course and that really sparked my interest there learning about everything. Then, my dad also happened to work at Towson University, where I go currently, and went for undergrad, so it was free, and they also had a forensics program there. A great science program there, so that was the reason I went.
Ann: Yes, so now that you’re doing the work and you’re doing the research, I’m sure you recognized really soon that this isn’t like the tv show at all. So, was there anything in particular that you were surprised or disappointed that it wasn’t like the tv show?
Noelle: I don’t know. Not really disappointed, but the biggest thing that I first realized was that plastic bags aren’t used. In a lot of the CSI shows they put everything in plastic. We don’t use plastic. We put everything in paper bags, so that was one of the big things I noticed.
Ann: But you can’t see it on camera if it’s in a brown paper bag, right? So, tell me about your poster.
Noelle: So my research is with next generation sequencing, also known as NGS. Towson offers for the master’s program, an elective course where you learn about all of the next generation sequencing technology, and we specifically had a MiSeqFGX, which is for forensic use, so we did kind of little mini projects within our class using the MiSeqFGX, where we used them on disease samples. We were looking to develop new projects from that, and that’s kind of how my project developed.
At first, in that class, I looked at two different types of dementia; frontal temporal dementia and then dementia with lewy bodies. We did research on some of the SNPs within the Forenseq Signature Prep kit by Verogen and we were trying to see if we could possibly link these diseases with these SNPs, because research has been coming out showing that some of these STRs or SNPs or forensic markers could potentially be linked with phenotypic information and medical information, which we don’t want in STRs. Our STRs were initially chosen for those reasons. So, kind of developed the project, and then I, further, as my own research project, expanded that and looked at a bunch of different neurodegenerative disease samples such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s Disease, ALS, as well as frontal temporal dementia and lewy body dementia. We’re looking to see if there’s any association with SNPs with them and apparently healthy individuals. So, that’s kind of how it developed and what it’s about.
Ann: Very exciting, very exciting. So, I will be sure to stop by and ask you a couple of questions about it. So, the work that you do can be challenging, and I think that we heard last night at the student reception about some of the darkness associated with the samples that people are evaluating and the cases and so forth. How do you, yourself, kind of separate yourself or unwind? Whether it was a stressful day at the lab, etc.? How do you do that?
Noelle: I’m a big gamer. I love playing video games, so I guess that’s always a way to step back and go into a different world kind of thing. I also am really into music, and I play guitar and bass and stuff, so I do that as well.
Ann: I think that falls into the well-rounded category that Deedra and Brian were talking about last night, so that’s great. What advice would you have for other students who are considering going into forensic sciences?
Noelle: I think the biggest thing, I would say, is to just take every opportunity possible, or apply to every internship, or every program that you want to get into, or anything like that. The worst that could happen is you’re told no, or sorry, you’re not accepted. So, why not just apply and try to do every single thing and you might get accepted, like I did to ISHI 33. My professor told me about it pretty last minute and she was like, “just apply and see”, and I’m here now, so it worked out.
Ann: Yeah, I really enjoyed your video and all of the submissions that we got this year were great. I wish we could have brought everybody onboard, but we just don’t have that ability. It was a really hard decision to just narrow it down to four.
So, what are you most looking forward to this week?
Noelle: I think just all the talks in general. Just learning new things. It’s so interesting to learn everything I can in the forensic field. On Thursday, there’s a NGS workshop dealing with sexual assault cases, and I’m pretty interested in NGS as it relates to my research, so that’s super interesting. And, I guess, meeting John Butler, hopefully, and just seeing all the booths and learning more.
Ann: Yeah, John is, I like to refer to him as the Tom Hanks of the forensics field. He’s so nice and he’s very passionate about the work, about excellence and ensuring the quality standards are good. The best part of it is he recognizes that he’s not in the lab, so some of the things that he’s proposed and so forth, in reality, in real world cases, implementation is really challenging. So, he’s not opposed to somebody pushing back and saying wait a second, so he’s just very approachable and a nice guy.
Ann: Definitely, if I see you and him within 15 feet of each other and you don’t know he’s there, I’ll definitely corral you and introduce you to him, because he’s a really nice guy.
So, forensics is a really interesting field and it’s changing, although change can be slow. NGS is one of these really cool things, so where do you see yourself in the next 5-10 years in terms of research that you’ve started?
Noelle: Overall, I think I want to be a DNA analyst, so hopefully somewhere in that field, but I wouldn’t mind starting out in crime scene, because in a lot of cases I think you need to start somewhere and work your way up. Also, I’d love to run a lab as well, so maybe that. I have thought about it, but I’m not sure, because I do really like doing research, especially with NGS. So, maybe getting my PhD and exploring that, but we’ll see.
Ann: Plenty of time to worry about that. So, who inspires you within the field, outside of the field? Is there anybody you look up to as a role model?
Noelle: I guess, within the field, just students in general. My peers and us trying to further this field with all the new technologies and make it better. And then I guess, outside of the field, I’d have to say my family overall, but specifically, my mom. She actually passed away a little over two years ago now, so I just want to do good for her and make her proud, you know?
Ann: Yes, I’m sure she is very proud of you. How difficult. I’m sorry, truly. So, 10 years from now, 15 years from now, you’re running your own lab, you come to ISHI, some student comes up to you and says, “hey, I’m thinking about going into forensic science.” What are you going to tell them?
Noelle: That they should. There’s a lot of subdivisions within the field, so a lot of time you don’t even specifically need to be a science major. You could be a criminal justice major, maybe sociology… You know, at Towson, that’s within that field. There’s so many different routes you can take. Fingerprinting, firearms, or within biology you could get into the DNA side or the chemistry, serology, stuff like that. So, I would say take as many classes as you can in these different fields and see what you like.
Ann: Excellent. If you could have one superpower, what would it be?
Noelle: Probably teleportation, so I could just say, “I want to go here” and snap my fingers and I’m there. Or, you know, it would be a lot easier to travel that way.
Ann: Yes, absolutely. I’m down with that. That seems reasonable. That seems totally good. So, you play a lot of games. What is your favorite game that you play online?
Noelle: I play a lot of everything. My current favorite is a game called Stardew Valley. It’s like a farming simulator, so it’s almost like Animal Crossing in that sense. You might have heard of that. It’s just an easy pastime, relaxing game.
Ann: Yeah, so speaking of relaxing. Hard day at school, hard day at the lab. How do you unwind, besides gaming? Is there something else that you do that kind of frees your mind and gets you in that happy place?
Noelle: Probably just hanging out with my friends or my cousins. I’m really close with them, so just hanging out with them I guess.
Ann: Three words that your friends would use to describe you?
Noelle: Maybe honest? I feel like I can be a pretty blunt person, so honest. Determined and maybe funny, I hope?
Ann: Yeah, definitely. I see that. Of those traits, which one do you think will serve you the best as you move into your career?
Noelle: Hopefully determined. I feel like I’m pretty hard working and can move forward and get a job, you know?
Ann: If you could be anything but a forensic scientist, what would you want to be?
Noelle: I’m not completely sure. I could probably have a different answer every day. I did want to go into, at first, forensic science, audio engineering, because I am really into music, so maybe something in the music field.
Ann: Excellent. So, you play guitar and bass?
Noelle: Yeah, and I have a little keyboard and drum set. I wouldn’t say that I play them, but I can do a few things.
Ann: Excellent. People must be like, “hey, come play music at my party.”
Noelle: I’d probably be too shy to.
Ann: So, you like to listen to music. What’s your favorite genre?
Noelle: Probably different every day, but probably classic rock. I’m very much into Paul McCartney and the Beatles as my idol. I also really like country and folk too, like Brandi Carlisle. I’m super into. Really, I listen to almost everything.
Ann: I have to say, I know you mentioned that you are on TikTok, but I have found some great music and wonderful musicians through TikTok and really, I just discovered the Brothers Comatose. They’re a folk band and they’re delightful.
Noelle: Yeah, there are a few groups who have really gotten their footing through TikTok.
Ann: Ok, huge Beatles fan. Have you watched the Get Back documentary?
Noelle: Yes, I loved it. So good.
Ann: I loved it and it really gave me a huge appreciation for that song, even more so. Any last minute words of advice to the students out there who might be thinking about applying to be a student ambassador?
Noelle: Go for it. Again, the worst that can happen is you get denied, and maybe you apply next semester and you get accepted, so go for it. It’s awesome.
Ann: Thanks. I really enjoyed this, so thanks for taking the time.
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