Please tell us about yourself
Forensic odontologist Dr Hemlata Pandey tells Sumita Chakraborty how she solves crimes through her work.
For the last two decades, television’s foremost scientific thriller ‘The X Files’ and its forensic crime busters ‘Fox Mulder’ and ‘Dr Dana Scully’ have enthralled an entire generation, spawning a curious fascination for forensic science globally.
Circa 2015: It’s back on everybody’s lips in a new avatar titled ‘X Files Revival’ and suddenly the hottest profession globally is forensics.
Closer home, we caught up with Mumbai’s very own forensic odontologist (science that evaluates dental evidence) Dr Hemlata Pandey, supposedly one of India’s first and youngest women forensic odontologists who has helped solve several cases for the police.
How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and cool career?
Born and bred in Mumbai, Dr Hemlata reveals that her fascination for dental forensics started after she completed her higher education in the UK. She says animatedly, “I was fascinated with how dental identification is used in cases of burnt, decomposed bodies and skeletal remains where fingerprints and DNA are difficult to retrieve and visual identification by relatives is not reliable.”
She continues, “That’s where forensic odontology steps in as it helps identify unknown remains through dental records as teeth are the hardest tissue in the human body and do not get destroyed easily.”
What did you study?
After completing a BDS (Bachelors in Dental Surgery), her passion for the field led her to do a Masters in Forensic Odontology from University of Glamorgan at Wales, UK . She followed it up by pursuing a super specialized course in Forensic Human Identification from the Faculty of Forensic and Legal Medicine at the Royal College of Physicians of London. Once back home, this self-confessed forensic addict started working for the Department of Forensic Medicine at KEM Hospital in Mumbai. DrHemlata says, “I don’t know if I am the first woman forensic odontologist but as far as I know, there are just three or four forensic odontologists in the country who are qualified and are involved in legal casework. And I am one of them.”
What do you love about your job?
Dr Hemlata continues, “It gives me an immense sense of purpose when forensic odontology helps solve a homicide case. I remember there was this case of a murdered minor girl who had been raped and had bite marks all over her body. The suspect was arrested after the forensic odontology department connected him to the crime based on his dental records and the teeth marks on the victim’s body.
“In another case, there were two people guilty of committing dacoity and murder in 1995. They had been arrested then and were already serving their sentence. However, they filed a petition claiming that they were minors when the crime was committed. Hence, they should have been judged keeping that in mind. Our expert panel for age assessment at the Department of Forensic Medicine at KEM Hospital had their medical and dental X-rays done to give an estimate of age at the time of the crime. They ascertained that the men were 20 at the time of the crime and were rightfully not judged as juveniles,” she adds.
Tell us about a few cases
Dr Hemlata has also been applauded for two very unique crimes that she helped solve along with the police. She says, “In the first case, the arrangement of teeth in the suspect’s mouth was compared with the bite mark injury patterns on the victim’s body. As these patterns were consistent with each other, it was clinching evidence in that case. And the suspect was arrested.”
Telling us about the other sensitive case, she says, “A six-month old baby was found crying. She had bite marks all over her body. The parents of the baby suspected their 17-year-old neighbour and he was arrested by the police. After conducting a bite mark analysis, it was observed that suspect’s teeth could not have made the bite mark pattern on the baby’s body. Later on, we examined his 10-year-old sister’s teeth and found them to be a match. The girl confessed that she had bitten the baby out of anger when the baby soiled her clothes and spilt milk all over the floor.” She adds, “Incidentally, bite marks are often found on bodies of babies who are subjected to child abuse. Other injuries in a child such as fractures or contusions can be attributed to being accidental. But bite marks are a definite sign of abuse, as these have to be inflicted by will.”
Dr Hemlata adds, “Bite marks are very common in cases of sexual assaults and homicide. Such marks can even be found on a suspect’s body – in cases where he/ she might have been bitten by the victim in self-defence. In many cases, victims report the crime a few days after the incident has happened. In such cases, DNA evidence is often absent; bite marks then prove to be the only evidence connecting the perpetrator to the crime.”
She adds, “In cases of sexual assault, where the victim has been assaulted or made to do forceful oral manipulation, injuries inside the mouth and DNA evidence are clinching pieces of evidence.”
Is it emotionally disturbing dealing with traumatic cases such as these?
Dr Hemlata shakes her head, “Forensic investigative techniques are extremely scientific. And I perform my work objectively as instructed by the police or court without any prejudice as this keeps me from getting emotionally involved in any case. I have also been very lucky to be guided by experienced mentors. My seniors and colleagues at the Department of Forensic Medicine at KEM Hospital and Nair Hospital Dental College, Mumbai, are extremely supportive and helpful. Research work and conducting workshops and lectures throughout the country also helps me maintain an objective stance.”
What is the scope for Forensic Odontology?
Dr Hemlata reveals, “This is a budding field in India.The Dental Council of India (DCI) lately revised the BDS curriculum, and dental students are now being introduced to the field of forensic odontology. I too am trying to build awareness by conducting lectures on the subject for dental students at Nair Hospital Dental College. I also conduct workshops for police officials regarding dental evidence collection, preservation and handling of evidence.”
How is the Work-life Balance?
So is it all work and no play for Dr Hemlata? She laughs out aloud, “No way! Forensics is a passion but I also take out time to enjoy myself. I live with my parents in Mumbai and I make it a point to go on at least one mini weekend vacation with my family every month. I love watching movies with my friends and family, or reading novels whenever I get a chance.”
She signs off with, “Pursuing forensic odontology, especially when there was no certainty regarding the field in India, was a challenging decision to make. But my parents support and encourage me in every aspect of life – be it personal or professional. I’m blessed as I have the most amazing family, friends and colleagues who are there for me always. I give them all the credit for all that I am and all that I am yet to be.” More power to our very own ‘The X-Files’ specialist!