Macademics: Meet a Forensic Scientist!

Happy Thursday everyone! Hope you're having a good week. This week we'll be adding a new installment to our Macademics Series! For those that are new to our blog, Macademics is a series where we highlight different parts of STEM. For Macademics this month, I'll be interviewing Najla Lindsay. Najla Lindsay was born and raised in Newark, NJ. She went on to study and graduate with a degree Forensic Science at Penn State (Go Nittany Lions). She's a criminal show junkie, avid thrill-seeker, traveler, wine explorer, bowling lover, and a cybersecurity enthusiast. Curious to learn more about Forensic Science? Keep reading to learn more!

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Why did you decide to become a forensic scientist? Did you always want to be that?

I studied Forensic Science because I always loved to figure things out. It was interesting to me to be able to see an ending, determine what exactly happened from the beginning and put all the evidence and information collected in chronological order to prove a case. I relate Forensic Science as to finding the root cause of a problem and then taking all the facts to show the “big picture.”

As a kid, I LOVED CSI: Miami and Law & Order (still do to this day). I loved watching Horatio and the scientific professionals solve crimes, not to mention, Horatio’s infamous one-liners that were so important in determining the direction of the facts of the case. I have ALWAYS wanted to become a Forensic Scientist.

What were some of your favorite classes? Why?

At Penn State (Go P-S-U), there are two concentrations available: Biology and Chemistry. I took the Chemistry route. I had three favorite classes. My “Introduction to Crime Scene Investigation” class was my first favorite class and really solidified my choice in choosing Forensic Science as my major. In this class, we were given a “case" with life-size mannequins, blood-stain patterns, “evidence” and an overview of the situation. We had a corresponding lecture that went side-by-side with this practical class where we literally used tools that were discussed during lecture. Each student took on different roles for each “case” such as being the photographer for the evidence collection, the Crime Scene Investigator In-Charge, taking measurements and much more. We had new “cases” weekly.

My 2nd favorite class was “Criminalistics: Biology.” I personally am not a fan of biology; however, in this class, we were given a “Kit” that contained biological evidence and we used this kit for the duration of the class. In this “Kit,” we examined blood, semen, saliva, urine, fecal matter and hair and we used chemical, biological and biochemical techniques to examine the evidence. I was very stoked (weird, I know) to learn about biological evidence and have explore how this is very important to solving a crime.

However, as I continued through my undergraduate career, my ULTIMATE favorite class was “Forensic Chemistry.” In this class, we focused on the analysis and characterization of trace evidence. Trace evidence can include paint, fire debris, glass, controlled drug substances, blood alcohol analysis, fibers, smokeless powders, inks/dyes, gun powder and low explosives. In this class, I learned so much about myself and about the very importance this type of evidence is to a case. This class of evidence can really make or break your case and the quicker a scientist collects AND analyzes this evidence, the better it is for a firm understanding to trying to solve the puzzle, aka the “case.” I was able to use instrumentation that was state-of-the-art and currently used in the industry to understand what I was doing in lecture.

What obstacles did you face during school? How did you overcome them?

The biggest obstacle I faced was during school. I had a very hard time with Organic Chemistry I. I had to retake it TWICE. On the third time, I also stacked on Organic Chemistry II AND Organic Chemistry Lab, plus several 400-course level Chemistry and Forensic course. This was Fall 2010. Graduation was set for May 2011. I said to myself that if I did not pass Organic Chemistry I with a C, that I would withdraw and return to NJ, degreeless, disappointed and ashamed. I worked really hard Fall 2010 and passed both levels of Organic Chemistry with a C. I cried tears of JOY when those grades came back. I did nothing but work, sleep, visit the TA’s office for Organic Chemistry I and the dedicated science library that we had on campus. It was tough, but I could not fail MYSELF.

Can you describe what you do now?

I am currently the LCMS (Liquid Chromatography-Mass Spectrometry) Technologist for a small Clinical Toxicology Laboratory. Toxicology helps us understand the harmful effects that chemicals, substances or situations, can have on people, animals, and the environment. I prepare samples for the detection of prescribed and non-prescribed drugs and illicit and non-illicit controlled substances. These samples often come from various types of patient populations and facilities, not limited to government forensic laboratories, rehabilitation centers, hospitals and work-place drug testing centers. It is interesting to see what the population is with respect to drugs and where, we, as the scientific community must catch up with respect to the drugs that are in our communities, both nationally and internationally. I have also worked with the food and wine industry clientele as well.

What is some of the best advice you received?

“Be stubborn about your goals and flexible about your methods.” Life happens. My story will always be different from the next person’s story. Be stubborn about the goals you have set for yourself. We always have a vision and plan how we want things to go and play out, but sometimes a monkey-wrench is thrown in the middle and now your “plan” may need to change. It took me 5 years to get my degree, but I did it. I had to adjust my methods for that Organic Chemistry I class in order to pass it, and look, I did.

What are some of your favorite moments in your career?

In college, I did an internship with the Penn State University Campus Police and was able to work with the Evidence Technician. We had an actual case and he allowed me to dust the evidence for fingerprints. Pretty freaking awesome to be able to work an active case while still pursuing my degree.

My previous role as a Technical Support Scientist for an International Medical Device company allowed me the option to work remote AND travel domestically and internationally. I worked with various government and private agencies and visited places I could not have imagined. I was able to intertwine my love for Forensic Science and Travel in a professional role.

Do you have any advice for anyone wanting to be a forensic scientist? or STEM in general?

My first advice is for anyone wanting to be a forensic scientist is to choose a school that has an actual practical, hands-on curriculum and will give you a degree in Forensic Science. When I was doing research in high school, I found that a lot of schools offered concentrations in Forensic Science but your actual major is something else. I recommend checking to see what schools are accredited.

For anyone in STEM, get an internship or ask to join one of your professor’s research groups. This will also give you an edge when applying to positions.

Attend the career fairs, even if you do not land a position for the following semester or summer. Career fairs are often opportunities to speak with current employers AND to also learn about companies that are non-conventional to your area of studies.

Get involved with STEM focused clubs (on-campus) and organizations. This is how you learn about life after graduation and this is where you begin to build your network.

STEM is integrated into EVERY part of our lives. Get involved inside and outside of school. STEM is LIFE.

Wow! Thanks Najla for sharing all your wisdom and advice. If you would like to connect with her to learn more, you can find her on Twitter and Instagram.


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