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Can you let us know about your background?  

Indore is the largest city in the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, where Kothari grew up. Indore is located in central India, approximately 320 miles north of Mumbai, India’s largest city.

When she was growing up in India, Tanvi Kothari loved to sketch portraits, which required a keen eye and attention to the smallest details.

As she got older and started to win sketching competitions, Kothari never imagined using that attention to detail to help solve violent crimes. Today, as a forensic scientist in the New Jersey State Police Forensic Science Laboratory, Kothari does just that.

How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and uncommon career?

“I was always one of those students who would draw doodles in the back of the notebook,” recalled Kothari. “I used to sketch portraits and was interested in getting a degree in the field although I am glad my parents talked me out of it and suggested I focus on science.”

In 1992, she earned a Bachelor of Science degree in microbiology from Indore University. In 1994, Kothari got married and moved to the United States a year later, settling in southern New Jersey. In 1996, her son, Om, was born.

“Life in a different country was challenging in the beginning,” she said. “I had to adapt to the customs and lifestyle of a very different country than the one I grew up in.”

To help make the transition, Kothari volunteered at Virtua Hospital in Marlton, N.J., and worked as a medical technician at Our Lady of Lourdes Medical Center in Camden, N.J.

What was the turning point?

She found her true calling in 2002, after joining the New Jersey State Police Forensic Science Laboratory. “I’ve always enjoyed hands-on science, especially lab work,” said Kothari. “Forensic science allows me to use science inside the lab as a tool to aid in providing justice to victims, which is something I have become incredibly passionate about.”

Did you study further?

Kothari realized that to take advantage of potential opportunities for advancement in forensic science, she needed a degree from an accredited U.S. institution. She started to contact colleges and universities, but was surprised and disheartened to learn that they would only accept half of the credits she earned at Indore University.

Then, one of her colleagues suggested she contact Thomas Edison State University.

“I did not believe it when they told me they could accept 87 credits and apply them to a Bachelor of Arts degree,”  she said. “I was ecstatic! I actually called them twice to make sure I got the information right.”

Kothari enrolled and said she was impressed with how knowledgeable her academic advisors were in guiding her toward the bachelor’s degree.

“The best part of attending Thomas Edison State University was that the staff completely understood the obstacles that working adults face while juggling their jobs, children, families and studies,” she said.

In 2006, Kothari earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in natural sciences and mathematics, which she said had a direct impact on her professional development.

“It was extremely important for me to earn a bachelor’s degree since my promotion to forensic scientist depended on that one factor,” said Kothari.

What do you do at the NJ Police Department?

Kothari is responsible for the analysis of biological evidence submitted to the laboratory’s Serology Unit from police and law enforcement agencies throughout New Jersey.

“The evidence I analyze varies from a tiny piece of glass to a large vehicle where biological fluids are potentially left by suspects,” said Kothari. “My job is to scientifically establish a link between the suspects and victims and the crime scene.”

Dr. Howard Baum, director of the Office of Forensic Science, said Kothari has diligently processed numerous cases involving all types of crimes, in which she searches for biological materials that help solve cases such as homicides, sexual and aggravated assaults, burglaries and thefts.

“Tanvi’s contributions to the mission of the Office of Forensic Sciences are her conscientious attention to detail and her perseverance on her assigned casework, which produces a quality service for the citizens of our state,” he said. “She is always smiling and all who work with her cannot help but be affected by her positive outlook.”

The Office of Forensic Sciences is part of the New Jersey State Police Investigation Branch and one of only four laboratories in the country working cooperatively with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to analyze evidence for mitochondrial DNA, which is mainly used to identify human remains.

Forensic investigation has been catapulted into the mainstream thanks to programs like CSI: Crime Scene Investigation and its spin-offs, CSI: Miami and CSI: NY.

While these programs have glorified forensic science, Kothari is quick to point out that there is a significant difference between what people see on television and the real forensic work done in laboratories and at crime scenes throughout the country.

“The CSI shows have certainly played a role in glorifying forensic science, but our real work is not as glamorous or as fast-paced,” she said.

“The cool lighting of the crime labs, forensic scientists wearing stilettos and carrying a gun to crime scenes, and cases being solved in minutes are some of the things exclusive to the television show. We deal with real tragedies that happen to real people where our attention to detail is crucial. What is similar is the role that forensic science often plays in many convictions.”

Your future plans?

Within days of earning her degree from Thomas Edison State University, she enrolled at the University of Florida to
pursue a Master of Science in Forensic DNA and Serology, which she completed in 2008.

“Earning my master’s degree has made me eligible for higher administrative positions, not only within the Office of Forensic Science, but also in the field of forensics in general,” said Kothari. “It has also opened the doors for teaching at the college level, which I have had a real interest in for quite some time.”