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Recent Forensic Science graduate Karen Baker, from the New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences at ASU’s West campus, was accepted into graduate school at Oxford University. Baker plans to use her undergraduate background and her experiences at ASU's West campus as an academic launching pad for her graduate major: neuropharmacology.
We spoke with Baker about her time on West campus, her future aspirations, and what other present and future Forensic Science majors can expect from the program.
Question: Describe what the Forensic Science program was like for you. What did you learn that you didn’t expect going in? How has it set you up for your future?
Answer: What I liked about the Forensic Science program was its diversity of topics; I got to learn all the science disciplines from genetics to toxicology. Because of this, I had a good idea of what type of Forensic Science I wanted to focus in, which was Forensic Chemistry. I also liked all the crime scene classes. That stuff is always interesting, and I never expected to work on a mock crime scene! The program had a great faculty who all specialized in different disciplines, and they all had good advice to give. Another great aspect of the program that I did not expect going in was that since forensics is a very hands-on discipline, and not as theoretical as others may be, most of the labs taught marketable skills that are very important to know for any career in science. Even though I am not continuing in Forensic Science, I would not change being a part of the ASU Forensic program. Forensic Science is just an application of science to the criminal justice system, so anything you learn can be easily transferable to another career path.
Question: What got you interested in Forensic Science?
Answer: I have always been interested in the criminal justice system, and upon entering ASU I was actually a psychology major. Once I realized that I was not suited for psychology, I wanted to transition to science but still wanted to stay in the criminal justice field. Once the Forensic Science degree program opened my sophomore year, I knew it was the right fit for me.
Question: Forensic Science is one of the largest programs at ASU’s West campus, and continues to grow exponentially. What advice would you give to new students in the program?
Answer: There are two important things you should keep in mind during your time at ASU, and they go hand in hand. One is make connections with your professors from the start as they will play an important role throughout your time at college. They will act as counselors, mentors, and even help you gain practical experience. I would not be where I am today if I had not taken the time to meet them. The very first class I took during my freshman year, I made a point to meet my professor. Since then, he has become my academic mentor, serving on my honors thesis committee, meeting with me every semester to give me advice and keep updated on my progress, and even now is working with me on getting my thesis published in an academic journal. The connections you make at the beginning will pay off many times over. This leads into my second piece of advice, because it’s much harder to do without faculty connections, which is to get involved in any type of research. Even if the research has nothing to do with what you are majoring in, it will open many doors, and any practical experience is invaluable. I was a research assistant in the criminology school for three years, which had absolutely nothing to do with Forensic Science, but I gained valuable skills in leadership, how to work independently, and made many good connections. I worked in Dr. Thomas Cahill’s lab for a semester, who is part of the Forensic Science faculty, and the skills I learned working in a real laboratory rival all the skills I learned in my class labs. On a final note, you will loathe Analytical Chemistry while you take it. The lab is very difficult, but I assure you that it is the best class you will take in terms of learning marketable skills, and the class is ultimately very satisfying to conquer.
Question: What will you be studying at Oxford? How exciting is this next chapter of your life?
Answer: At Oxford I will be studying neuropharmacology, which is the study of drug effects on the central nervous system. It is going to be a big change from ASU, but I am up for the challenge. I applied to Oxford on a whim. I wasn’t really expecting to get accepted, but the decision to apply changed my life. Never be afraid to shoot higher than you thought possible, you might surprise yourself. The only thing I worry about is the weather in England. I have thin Arizona blood!
Question: Can you go into more detail about your research as an undergraduate, and what you were able to learn from it?
Answer: I was involved in a lot of research at three of ASU’s campuses in Phoenix. At the West campus I worked in Dr. Cahill’s lab where we tried to identify the chemical structure of the active ingredient in lemon balm. My time working in this lab taught me many invaluable skills; I had to learn how to do many types of extraction techniques, I helped with method development, and I gained experience using instruments such as a GC/MS (gas chromatography/mass spectrometry). In Tempe I volunteered in a microbiology lab; we were trying to discover new bacterial isolates from soil samples, and I learned some microbiology techniques along the way. At the Downtown campus I worked as a research assistant; we were trying to find the relationship between gang embeddedness and delinquency by studying youth gangs from the 1950s. I worked there for three years, and during that time I was appointed as head of the team of undergraduates, meaning I had to train them and supervise their work. Surprisingly, this experience really helped with my public speaking skills, as I used to have paralyzing stage fright. I presented in multiple poster symposiums, and was elected to present at the American Society of Criminology national conference in Washington DC, which was an amazing experience. The best way to overcome fear of public speaking is to be dunked in head first! But the most important thing I learned was how to make mistakes, because they will happen, and how to learn from them instead of seeing them as a failure. It’s hard to learn that in a classroom setting.
Question: What are your career aspirations? How will your degree from ASU and your continued education at Oxford help you achieve those dreams?
Answer: Right now, the plan is to continue past my masters and hopefully attain a PhD, work for a time in the industry, and end up as a professor. ASU gave me a broad background to start with, and from there I am simply dialing in on a specialty. And being able to put ‘graduated from Oxford’ on my resume is a definite bonus. And who knows, maybe one day it will come full circle and I will be teaching at ASU!