Every one of us has been enthralled, mesmerized and strongly influenced by crime thrillers ! But very few are able to transform their childhood fantasies into a career in Forensics !
Akashlina Basu, our next pathbreaker, Research Scholar at IIT Kharagpur, explores new technologies for applications in crime investigation and analysis that helps free up the time for forensic professionals to focus on further in-depth analysis.
Akashlina talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about her Forensic Masters program in Physics, Ballistics and Voice Identification that introduced her to all the scientific procedures that she witnessed only in crime thrillers !
For students, crime thrillers might be an act of fiction, but crimes are not. If you have nerves of steel, great observation and analytical skills, forensics is a great choice !
Akashlina, tell us about Your background?
I am Akashlina Basu. I grew up in Nagpur in a nuclear family. My father worked as a statistician with National Sample Survey Organisation and later with the Ministry of Labour, India. My mother worked as a senior secondary teacher of Geography. From a young age my parents encouraged my interest in science. I also loved interacting with people from all walks of life which further developed into a love for human psychology.
After 12th exams, I wished to combine this love for psychology and science into further studies and that was when I came across the field of Forensic Science. This field has applications in every conceivable core subject to carry out investigation and imparting justice.
Since childhood I have loved creating art through canvases, water colours, acrylics and sometimes clay. I also have an extreme love for animals, especially dogs, whose company I find very relaxing.
What did you do for graduation/post graduation?
I did my Bachelors in Forensic Science from Government Institute of Forensic Science, Nagpur. I pursued Masters in the same subject (Forensic Science) from National Forensic Sciences University, Gandhinagar. My specialization in Masters was in Physics, Ballistics and Voice Identification.
What made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and uncommon career?
As a child I loved reading thrillers by authors such as Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, to name a few. I also liked watching shows like CID and Forensic files. So, like many of my generation, I came to wonder how investigation actually takes place. Hence, when I got a chance to pursue my studies in such an exceptional field, I grabbed it.
How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Or how did you make a transition to a new career? Tell us about your career path
As an undergraduate student in Forensic, the first exciting thing that I got to learn was collection and analysis of fingerprints. Further, I got to learn about criminal psychology, examination of forged documents, identification of an individual from bones and methods for identification of adulteration in food items. In my post-graduate course, we learnt how to isolate, amplify and identify DNA. We visited government hospitals to witness post-mortem and courts to understand the working of judiciary system. We were taught how to isolate poison from viscera and identify various drugs using instrumental techniques.
My specialization was in physics, ballistics and voice identification. NFSU (National Forensic Sciences University) has a huge ballistics range for testing of armoured materials. For such testing, we were taught how to fill primer, propellant (ie. Gunpowder) and fit bullets into cases. These were the ammunition for weapons such as 9mm, AK47 and INSAS firearms. In voice identification we were taught how to compare voice evidence for speaker recognition. In forensic physics, we were taught how to test materials and recover obliterated chassis numbers of automobiles. All of this training came handy during our internship in forensic laboratories for dealing with real crime cases.
During Masters, I got an opportunity to venture into the field of forensic auditing through an internship with Pricewaterhouse Coopers for a project in automobile dealerships. That internship gave me my first taste of a corporate job environment. However, I had to resign from it to concentrate on my final year research project.
My research involved interaction with people of the intersex community who lived in the small towns of Gujarat. My research was based on identifying the key voice features of intersex voice and comparing it to male/ female voice. It is important to determine gender in forensic speaker identification as that helps to reduce the suspect pool in a criminal investigation. Due to the time constraints of travelling for sample collection, I had to bid adieu to the internship opportunity. My research led me to write my first research paper that has now been published. My friends who continued the internship are now placed with the company and leading a full-fledged corporate career.
Then I joined Lovely Professional University as an Assistant Professor in Forensic Science immediately after completing Masters. To pursue this profession, i had to qualify the UGC-NET exam. Since both my parents had done teaching earlier, they encouraged me to try this as a career path as well. The experience was unforgettable. I got to mentor many students and guide a few of them in research as well. Some of my students were from the African subcontinent. My interaction with them further helped me understand the workings of police and investigation departments beyond my country. However, I realized that with no substantial research background, I was not able to properly teach the students. That is when I recognized the need to go for Doctoral studies.
In India, there is always a tussle for government jobs in Forensic Science. Due to a smaller number of forensic professionals and costly technology, there is a lag in solving cases. To address these problems, there is a need to bring newer technology into research and applications in forensic science. With this goal in mind, I applied for research positions both in India and abroad. I qualified IELTS exam from British Council for research opportunities in Canada, UK, Australia and New Zealand.
Simultaneously I also applied for research positions in India for various projects. Due to my background in forensic science, it was difficult to get accepted into most institutes. However, my current supervisor, Prof. Soumen Das, found my background and proposal interesting. His work is primarily in Micro-Electro-Mechanical Systems and Microfluidic devices. He liked the idea of exploring these technologies for applications in crime investigation and analysis. Therefore, I appeared for entrance test and interview for IIT Kharagpur. I was accepted and in January 2020, I started my PhD here. IITs provide institute scholarships to all their research scholars. Some of my colleagues receive scholarships from UGC for Junior Research Fellowships as well as scholarship through Prime Minister’s Research Fellows Scheme.
How did you get your first break?
I got the chance to do internship at PwC through campus placement drive. For my teaching position at LPU, I applied when I saw their advertisement in Times Ascent.
What were the challenges you faced? How did you address them?
Teaching is a role that involves a lot of mentorship and deep understanding of a subject. As a student, understanding a subject is limited to exams and applications in problem-solving. But as a teacher, one has to understand the topic and then explain it to somebody in a manner that the student is able to grasp it. In a class, there are students with varying learning abilities. My biggest challenge was to be able to make each of these students understand every concept. Since I started the job at a very young age, it took me some time to gain the insight into what teaching is all about. It is said that ‘As you teach, you learn.’ My students taught me a lot in their own way.
My next challenge was starting research during a global pandemic. As we had to vacate our campus and come back home, it was hard to get into the mindset for critical thinking to solve research problems. I have been trying to keep up my productivity with discussions with my supervisor and laboratory seniors. Their support has been the most helpful in this situation.
Where do you work now? What problems do you solve?
I am working as a research scholar at IIT Kharagpur. For any research career, critical thinking and open-mindedness are very important. One must be ready to learn and assimilate new knowledge in their work. Also, since research does not have a specific schedule and structure, it is important to be ready for failures and problem-solving at every step.
My research work focuses on creating lab-on-a-chip devices. BioMEMS are such devices that compile nano-level electronics with biomolecules to create sensors that can provide rapid results. These devices do the job of an entire analytical lab by using lesser reagents and less manpower while occupying a palm-size space. The lag in forensic laboratories exist because too much manpower is wasted in during preliminary tests that simple microfluidic chips can solve. That will free up the time for forensic professionals to focus on further in-depth analysis.
A typical day in campus would have been getting ready in the morning, going to the laboratory, running experiments or compiling observations all day till night. The campus life is very motivating for such a routine. I love the freedom that this work gives me in terms of free thinking and creativity.
How does your work benefit the society?
From a young age we have read about famous scientists like Madam Curie, Sir Jagdish Chandra Bose and Dr. A P J Abdul Kalam who inspire us towards science. At that age children have a very open mind to comes up with innovative ideas. A career in research helps keep that childlike interest alive. There is no limit to how far one can go when it comes to science and technology.
The field of forensics helps in proving guilt or innocence, thus providing justice to the society. It is both interesting and very gratifying. However this field is not for the faint-hearted. So if the student has nerves of steel, great observation and analytical skills, this field is a great choice. Moreover, if students love Sherlock Holmes, they will instantly fall in love with this field of investigation.
Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!
My Masters research work involved interaction with the intersex community of Gujarat. Since my native tongue is Bangla and the people I was interacting with knew Gujarati only, I had to take one of my friends to help translate. Even though there was a language barrier, the experience was so eye-opening. They told us stories of their origin and of Goddesses they prayed to. They also talked about how the people in their socioeconomic demography did not discriminate with them at all. I even witnessed their ceremonies for welcoming new members of their community. It made me feel that we city-folks call ourselves open minded, but the real acceptance of humanity can be seen in such small villages.
Your advice to students based on your experience?
I will advice every student to be open to new experiences. Go for new experiences and less explored fields of study if you feel the more trodden career paths are not for you. Ultimately your career will be what you make of it and will require your hard work. Talk to new people and learn about their experiences to understand how you can help make their lives easier.
I wish to be an entrepreneur and start a company for advancing technology in forensic science.