Forensic Scientist of Note
Meet Kelly the Scientist
Interview written and condensed by Jordan Nutting, Promega
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If you’re a forensic scientist and spend any time on “science Instagram”, you’ve probably come across Kelly Knight and her @kellythescientist profile. If you haven’t, it’s worth taking a look. Scrolling through her profile, you’ll encounter topics ranging from touch DNA to a crime-scene-tape-meets-Kim-Kardashian Halloween costume to honest discussions about biases and barriers in STEM.
Knight, who is an associate professor of forensic science at George Mason University where she teaches and conducts research, uses the account to give her over 13,000 followers a new perspective on who can be a scientist. Knight recently met with the ISHI Report team to talk more about her background as a scientist, what motivates her outreach and her experience being a scientist on social media.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Photo Credit: Kelly Knight
You’re a professor, you’re working on your Ph.D., you have a robust social media presence, and you do a ton of outreach work. What drives you to take on all these different projects?
I'm a very multi-passionate person. I enjoy working, I really do. And it's hard to set boundaries when you're not only passionate about your work, but you're also passionate about the populations you serve. As a professor, I think of that as a service position to students. I'm passionate about making my classroom the best place for them, which is what led me to get my Ph.D., because I felt like I knew a lot about science, but I didn't know a lot about teaching. So, instead of being like a normal person and just reading articles and going to trainings, I was like, “no, I'm going to get a whole Ph.D. in [science education] because I have to do everything to the max.”
And then with outreach, that really got ramped up when I was working with the Maryland State Police Crime Lab as a forensic DNA analyst, and I became the lab tour coordinator. I became the default outreach person. And I was okay with that because I found that I really enjoyed it.
I liked what I did as a scientist, but I also liked sharing my science with others, which is why I think I’m not only passionate about outreach, but I also like teaching. I became a professor because I like being at the bench. I like doing lab work. But just as much, I like telling other people about it, whether it be you know, a kindergartener or a college student or someone on social media.
All my interests have kind of become interconnected in some way. And it boils down to me being hyper-passionate about sharing my science and connecting with other people.
"I'm passionate about making my classroom the best place for them, which is what led me to get my Ph.D., because I felt like I knew a lot about science, but I didn't know a lot about teaching. So, instead of being like a normal person and just reading articles and going to trainings, I was like, 'no, I'm going to get a whole Ph.D. in [science education] because I have to do everything to the max.'”
Photo Credit: Kelly Knight
Can you tell me how you became interested in science and forensics?
My dad worked for the Federal Aviation Administration as an air traffic controller. But he was also passionate about space, and he introduced me at a very young age to those types of things. I think my love for all things STEM grew from that. I used to build rockets with him and launch them in our backyard. He would buy pig brains that I could dissect. I was a weird child.
But one of the most beautiful things about him and my mother, who’s an educator, was their encouragement. I think things are getting better now, but when I was much younger, being a woman in STEM was still kind of like looked down on in some ways. Not necessarily explicitly, but there were many implicit messages that were sent through the fact that I never saw representation of people who looked like me in any of my science books. It was always the stereotypical older white man with crazy hair and glasses shown as a scientist. It was never a fashionable, quirky Black woman. But thanks to my parents and their encouragement, they never made me feel like I was out of place.
I think because of that, as a Ph.D. student, I’m really interested in evaluating not just how women and women of color come into STEM but, more importantly, the stories of how they persist and how they've been resilient. I had familial capital around me that pushed against the messages I was receiving from outside of my family. If I didn't have that, I may not be where I am today. Even when I didn't see anybody who looked like me in my studies, or even when I felt like I was struggling in a subject, it didn't make me want to quit. But some people don't have that same support system, and then they leave the field.
My career interests have evolved a lot. At one point I wanted to be a veterinarian, so I worked as a vet assistant. When I helped with my first euthanization, I cried harder than the pet owner so clearly that wasn’t going to work. Then when I started out in undergrad, I didn't know what I wanted to do. I started out pre-med. I do not know why. I never wanted to be in medicine. I just feel like it was one of those things where, if you were interested in science, it was the cool thing to be pre-med. I ended up hating it. I didn’t want to be a doctor but somehow, I ended up doing well in my chemistry classes and because I'm a type-A perfectionist, I like things that affirm my intelligence, so I decided I was going to be a chemistry major. But I wasn't really passionate about that either.
I took so many biology and chemistry classes, and a lot of times I didn't feel like the teachers taught the applications of the science or the “real-world” reason why we were learning all these equations or memorizing the periodic table. But then I was exposed to forensics in an Anatomy and Physiology class, and, for the first time, I was like, “Oh, this is why we’re learning science.”
In my senior year, I ended up interning with Bode. I was getting bits and pieces of forensics through my undergrad degree since my concentration was forensic chemistry so I went to Bode to get more hands-on experience and that sealed the deal. I decided that a career in DNA was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.
At that point, however, I still lacked a lot of the academic requirements I needed to be a DNA analyst, so I made the decision to apply to one graduate school. I only applied to one because my GPA wasn't great, and I didn't even think I was going to get into a program. I told myself, “I'm going to try this one school and see what happens.” I was waitlisted at first, but, ultimately, I think my experience at Bode propelled me higher on the wait list when they were going down the ranks.
The rest is history. I got my master’s degree and now here we are today.
Having support from your parents and developing the grit that comes from working in spaces where you don't necessarily feel like you're well represented, I imagine a lot of that background comes into your outreach work. Can you tell me a little bit more about the outreach programs that you support?
At George Mason University, there's a couple of programs that I run regularly. One is called FOCUS, and that stands for Females of Color and Those Underrepresented in STEM. It’s a summer program for middle and high school girls of color. But we have people of all different identities who have attended the program. There's another high school program that I do in July that's called the Envision Law and CSI program and that program has hundreds of high schoolers from all over the country who attend each week.
Most recently, I've gotten really involved with an organization called STEMNoire, which is an organization for women who identify as being from the African diaspora. That organization really supports and uplifts Black women, from students all the way up to professionals, which I felt like was a huge missing link for me personally. There's a lot of outreach that's geared towards students, but much less when you get to higher education, and then there’s even less when you get to the professional level. At that point, you still need support. It's not like things get better once you become a professional!
I identify as someone who's Black. I identify as a woman. But I also identify with students who feel they're struggling with specific subjects and like they can't succeed. I identify with those who feel judged, or that they don't have a mentor or feel that teachers and faculty are not approachable.
I use my experiences to try to connect with students who may have had similar experiences as me. I can connect with women, I connect with students of color, but I can also connect with the white male who feels like he can't get to that next level because I can empathize with that.
Photo Credit: Kelly Knight
To me that's one of the reasons why outreach is so important. You're not always going to get everything you need in a formal academic setting. You know your teachers are amazing, but sometimes they have so many students in a classroom and they're so overstretched and overburdened that they may unintentionally overlook things. I'm a teacher. I overlook things sometimes. I make mistakes. Having outreach programs extends a student’s network and allows you to connect with them in a way that's not so formal. It allows me to really say, “You know what? Scratch all the content we were going to do. You seem like you need to have a moment to connect and chat.”
My experiences and struggles weren’t always fun, but I believe that everything happens for a reason. Now, I'm thankful that I had the experiences I had because I can use them to connect with students in ways I may not have been able to if everything had been easy-peasy for me.
You have your Kelly the Scientist (@kellythescientist) Instagram profile. When did you start that? What three words would you use to describe the account? What has your experience on social media been?
I started that page in 2019. I had a personal page, but I don't think my family and friends were nearly as interested in me sharing about capillary electrophoresis as I was, so I started the Kelly the Scientist page because I wanted to have a space to talk about science and other things that interest me. At the time, I didn't even know that this whole world of science social media existed!
And it’s funny that you ask about three words because I actually have three words in my bio to describe the page: science, academia, motherhood. Those are the main topics that I talk about. But I think if I were to describe the way I do talk about those topics, it's definitely through humor, relatability, authenticity and transparency. That is what’s allowed me to connect with my audience and grow the platform in ways that I would have never expected. I was excited when I had 50 followers. I was like, “Yes! 50!” I had no idea. Now I have over 10,000 followers.
I don't know a lot of people who dance and talk about forensic science at the same time, but I think the reason I do it is because it's important for me to connect to other people and for students who come behind me to understand that scientists are whole people. When I think about this stereotypical scientist again, I go back to this image of the crazy-haired old white guy with glasses who wakes up in the morning thinking about chemical equations. And let's be honest, I know scientists like that, and there's nothing wrong with that. But I think what I try to do is to just be my authentic self so that others can understand that you can like science and dance and fashion, and you can be silly, goofy and quirky. You can be this person who has all these different types of personalities, and you still can identify as someone who's smart, who works in a lab and who's capable of being professional.
It's too much of a burden for me to try to change who I am on a daily basis. I just can't. I just finished my first day of the fall semester with a new group of students. By the end of class, they probably all thought I was a nut job. But this is me. This is Professor Knight. This is my personality and I'm not going to stress myself out and put an additional burden on me by trying to change my personality and change myself.
"I think about the number of people who I'm empowering and the ways that I'm helping to redefine what someone in STEM looks like. If we always have the same visual of what someone in STEM is, we're always going to have implicit biases against people who don't fit into that box. I want to show that, yes, you can be a scientist and you can dance and have fun too."
Photo Credit: Kelly Knight
So that's what I do on my page. I talk about a lot of things that I'm interested in, things that are important to me: science, being a professor, life as a Ph.D. student, being a mom.
That's another one of those hidden messages. I've never been told this explicitly, but I've talked to women who have said that people have literally told them they cannot be a mother and be a scientist or that they cannot be a mother and work in academia. I share my experiences with motherhood, the good and the bad, for that reason.
There’s a lot that I do keep private, but I do try to be transparent about some of my struggles and sometimes I regret things as soon as I post them, like “Oh, I got too real on that one.” But then I'll get a message from someone who shares, “Thank you so much for showing this because I was feeling this exact same way and I felt crazy. You reminded me that it's okay.” That's what has pushed me to continue to post even when it feels too much for me sometimes.
At least once a week I have these moments where I want to delete the account because I feel like I've given people too much access to my personal life. Also, being someone who's from a marginalized population, there's always that part of me that's like, “Alright, I'm just giving people one more reason to think that I don't belong in STEM.”
But then I think about the other side, and I think about the number of people who I'm empowering and the ways that I'm helping to redefine what someone in STEM looks like. If we always have the same visual of what someone in STEM is, we're always going to have implicit biases against people who don't fit into that box. I want to show that, yes, you can be a scientist and you can dance and have fun too.