I’m a forensic scientist for the  New York City Police Department.

I’m a forensic scientist for the New York City Police Department.

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VANESSA

It’s what I have wanted to be since I was nine years old, watching the O.J. Simpson trial. Forensics was still very new then. I had to figure out what it was about it that drew me in. 

I always really liked science, even though I was never that great at it. I didn’t mind that it was a challenge. I started doing research on my career path all the way back in middle school, figuring out where I needed to go to college to get into this field. John Jay had the best program, although my parents talked me out of going there for undergrad. They didn’t want me to pigeonhole myself so early. I ended up going to NYU, got a bachelor’s in biochemistry, and went to John Jay for my master’s.

Forensics is a civilian position within the police department. We don’t visit the crime scene—we wait at the lab and do the scientific analysis. Criminalistics is my area: everything that’s not drugs, guns, or DNA. Things like fingerprints, footprints, gunshot residue. 

“I see the average citizen as my employer. Even when I can’t provide all the answers, it’s better than if I hadn’t done it at all.”

I like the investigative work because you never know where it’s going to end up. I like communicating with detectives about what they can do, suggesting other types of analysis that might help them solve a case. I was surprised by how much that part appeals to me—enabling people to make more educated decisions about how to proceed, balancing out their information and helping them get beyond their cognitive biases, which we all have.

I never saw myself as breaking into a boys’ club, except in the sense of working for the police department as a whole. Most of the uniform positions at the lab are male, but on the analyst side it’s about 75% female. There’s a caring, social service aspect to it. I think that’s why it attracts so many women. 

My work isn’t exactly as I envisioned it, but I’m not disappointed. I still find it rewarding. The very first case I worked on was a homeless woman who had been murdered. I had to sort through her belongings for trace evidence. There was a blanket, covered in her blood, which I had to dry. That was my initiation. I told myself, remember why you’re doing this and don’t complain.

My husband is in the same field and works at the same lab, though we don’t work directly together. We never want to be in the position of one of us supervising the other, but it’s nice having someone who understands exactly what I do and knows what it’s like.

One of the best things about this work is that I literally can’t bring it home. There’s no accessing files or databases, or even work emails. You have to leave it behind. So I work from 8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., and I walk out the door. No one questions it. 

We don’t have kids yet, but I know that when I do, I’ll need to come back to work eventually. I’ve worked so long and hard to be where I am. And I think I’ll be a better parent for it.

Interviewed on February 15, 2018

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