Welcome to the first blog post of the Diverse Voices in STEM series where I talk to people about their STEM degrees and their career journeys. Today we are meeting Elena Bemelmans M.S. Elena graduated with her B.S. in Biological Sciences from Florida State in 2011 and went to Boston University School of Medicine for her M.S. in Biomedical Forensic Science where she graduated in 2015.
The first thing I asked her about was what it was like getting her degree at Florida State.
“The Biological Sciences degree was not as difficult as some other majors like chemistry or physics, but it was not without its challenging coursework. Some of the more challenging lectures also happened to be my favorite. Immunology, Molecular Biology, Evolution, Cell Structure and Function were a few of my favorite, the professors constantly pushed us with challenging work and taught us how to think critically. While these were difficult classes, they were coincidentally, the ones that have helped me the most in my professional career. They also taught me how to get up early without parental supervision… seemingly none of my lectures began after noon and I remember more than one 8 am lecture per semester.
Some of my favorite classes though were the labs- Microbiology, Organic Chemistry, Immunology and even the Biology 2 Animal Diversity lab. The hands-on aspect of the courses really helped reinforce what we were learning in the lectures and while many required long hours of concentration and focus, especially during the summer months, I was able to learn so much from being hands on.
I was active in several campus groups including as a Freshman Interest Group Leader, a Teaching Assistant within the Biology Department, a member of Phi Beta Kappa as well as a member and Vice President of the Women’s Club Volleyball team. Balancing work, sports, and school was not without its challenges, but I loved my time at FSU. There was always a resource available to help me succeed. If you want to achieve success, and need help, all you have to do is ask. Any science degree is going to be challenging, rigorous and require self-discipline, unless you are fortunate enough to understand things from simply listening to the lectures. With each successful course completion, I was reminded that even though things may be hard, in the long run it will be worth it.”
Clearly, Elena was extremely busy and involved on campus with academics, sports, work, and social activities and I knew that everything she had done would help lead her to a career. I followed up by asking her what her experience was like getting a job.
“After graduating from FSU, my plans for medical school had fallen through and I was in search of a different career path. I spent two semesters working as a lab instructor at FSU and the following summer I moved back home. I still had no real idea what I wanted to do, so I found a few odd jobs teaching and coaching. The field of Forensic Science sounded interesting and combined my interest in medicine and the law. I anticipated pursuing medical school again after getting my masters but ended up enjoying the field of DNA analysis. So, I applied to a few different labs to see where I could end up.
My graduate program really gave me a boost when it came to job hunting, however it was my undergraduate degree that gave me the qualifications for the job. The FBI Quality Assurance Standards for Forensic DNA Testing Laboratories requires that DNA analysts have coursework in Biochemistry, Molecular Biology, Genetics and training in Statistics. FSU offered these courses either as part of the biology major directly or encouraged the coursework as electives.
Forensic or crime laboratories are generally attached to law enforcement agencies, district attorneys’ offices or as part of the health department, however most of my graduate faculty had experience working in the private industry. When I was in my last semester, I took the advice of one faculty member who told me to be open to experiences as they come and not be so rigidly attached to a 5 year or 10 year plan. So, I took the first job offered and moved to Washington DC.
I spent a few years failing at what I was doing before I found a something that I not only enjoy and am good at but has provided me with some amazing opportunities to travel and see the world.”
Elena also mentioned that the field of forensic DNA analysis is predominantly female except upper management. She has been lucky enough to have great mentors and for the most part, has felt welcomed by the field and the people that work in her field. Her first job was at a private lab called Bode Technology where she did DNA testing for convicted offenders and arrestees and performed paternity testing in criminal matters. I asked her to talk more about what that job was like and what she learned from it.
“A lot of people want to make an impact with their work and for me I wanted to impact my community. Our work spanned federal, state and local agencies and included work for defense counsel as well as for the Innocence Network. I testified as an expert in DNA Analysis for property crimes, homicides and sexual assaults, but my favorite work was working alongside the Innocence Network agencies.
For these cases, we were testing decades old casework to identify any missing biometric information to help prove wrongful conviction and actual innocence of convicted offenders. As a part of that role, I was allowed to attend an Innocence Network conference where I met some of the men and women the organization has helped free from prison. Their stories of wrongful conviction, serving life sentences or being put on death row for crimes they didn’t commit, and seeing the positivity that shone through the darkness was one of the most awe-inspiring moments of my career.
I have since moved on to tackle a different area of the forensics community, but I think this job really depicts the power that the field of forensic science holds to make change within the community. Whether public or private, forensic labs work to find truth through science and that’s one of the most powerful tools available to make communities safer places to live.”
Finally, I asked if Elena had any advice for current STEAM students or students who are considering a STEAM field.
“I’ve received some great advice over the years from mentors and friends which has massively impacted the way I approach my work and my life.
- “Stay open to opportunities and be flexible”- A graduate advisor once told me that its great to have a 5 year or 10 year plan, but if they’re too rigid, you’ll miss opportunities that you never could have anticipated. That is how I ended up at Bode and with my current job. These are jobs I didn’t think were available and had stumbled upon the opportunity by accident.
- “Figure out your ‘Why’ and take opportunities that help you maintain a sense of why while pursuing your goals”- If you really examine the things that you love to do and the things that bring you joy, normally you’ll find a common theme. This is your “Why”. Simon Sinek does a much better job of explaining this than I do, so Ill simply suggest reading his book- Start With Why.
- “Don’t be afraid to step outside your comfort zone.” I was once told comfort is a slow death, prefer the pain of growth and I have tried to carry that through my career in a way that I’m pushed to do more than what I think I’m capable of.”
I think students, and even those who have careers, in all fields can benefit from following Elena’s advice. Getting to learn a little bit more about Elena was truly inspiring for me and hopefully for you as well. She worked hard in school and in life and it all worked out for her. She was flexible in her future opportunities, decided to try out a career that she didn’t necessarily plan for, and ended up loving it which is so encouraging. Thank you to Elena for sharing all of this with us, it was a pleasure.
This post was written by Kirsten Caldwell, a graduate student of the FSU School of Information and graduate assistant of the FSU STEM libraries.