By: Nina Notman
“I took an aptitude test in high school and it said that I should be either a chemist or a police officer, because I have an investigative personality,” says Lori Ana Valentín. “Forensic science is the perfect fit.”
Valentín didn’t specialize in forensic science in college, opting for a broader education instead. “I was realistic about how infrequently job opportunities at government forensic science labs open up,” she says. After she completed her bachelor’s degree in biochemistry from the State University of New York at Fredonia, she headed to Binghamton University to do a chemistry master’s degree and an analytical electrochemistry PhD.
For the last two years of her PhD, Valentín also worked full time working in intellectual property law and writing patents at IBM.In January 2015, shortly after she finished her PhD, Valentín achieved her childhood dream: She joined the New York State Police seized-drug analysis laboratory. “I tested substances—including vegetative samples, powders, pharmaceuticals, liquids and drug paraphernalia—for the presence of controlled substances,” she says. Sometimes she had to testify in court about her findings.
In May 2018, Valentín moved to the team that ensures that all the New York State Police forensic labs maintain high standards. Her duties include checking laboratories' performance and supporting those that aren’t meeting the required standard.
Valentín also wears the forensic science group’s learning and development hat. For example, she coaches scientists in how best to deliver expert testimony, facilitates academic collaborations, recruits interns, and supports the group’s outreach efforts in collaboration with local organization, Rise High. The organization offers under-resourced youth science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) opportunities that they might not otherwise have. “Our role is to provide exposure to the science of forensics and exposure as a possible career,” says Valentín.
Outside of work, she is an active American Chemical Society member. She led the Eastern New York Younger Chemists Committee in 2020, is the 2021 chair-elect of the Eastern New York section, and received the section’s 2020 Outreach Volunteer of the Year Award.
What's the most exciting project you've worked on?
Detecting emerging drugs when I worked in the seized-drugs lab. Clandestinely-based chemists try to circumvent the law by making adjustments to the chemical structure of controlled drugs. When we see these, we report them, and if they keep getting reported, they are made illegal in New York State. It’s a really exciting to know you're playing a part in the legislation.
What's your favorite analytical instrument?
The gas chromatography–mass spectrometer. It's got so many applications in seized-drug analysis and also toxicology and trace evidence analysis. It's the forensic chemist’s go-to instrument.
What is the best thing about being a forensic scientist?
Making an impact, whether it's to criminal casework, to our society through school outreach, providing opportunities for co-workers, or contributing to state-wide legislation.
What is the least enjoyable part of your role?
Criminal casework can be emotionally challenging. I founded an in-house stress management team a couple of years ago, to help us support each other. We organize initiatives such as regular meditative moments and fun events like having an ice cream truck visit us.
Do you watch TV crime shows?
No, I get enough exposure in my real life. I also don’t watch much TV.
What is the best thing about supporting younger chemists?
Being a part of their journey. I refer to them as my future colleagues. I love asking them what their needs are and doing my best to meet those needs or provide them with resources and connections to meet those needs.
What was the best piece of professional advice you've received?
Do your research when applying for a job. Show that you know about the field, about the company and about the role.
Who is your scientific hero?
Marie Curie. She was a woman researcher in an era when men dominated science. And she was awarded two Nobel prizes in different fields, which is incredibly impressive.
If you weren't a chemist, what would you like to be?
A hairstylist or something of that nature. In high school and college, I really enjoyed cutting and coloring my friends hair. I still experiment on myself. It's a fun, creative outlet.
What's your favorite place or location to spend time to relax?
Puerto Rico. Unfortunately, it's not an option right now. It is where my family is from originally and it's beautiful. I absolutely love the energy and the weather there.
This article has been edited for length and clarity. The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the view of their employer or the American Chemical Society.
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