From watching CSI to completing a degree in Forensic Investigation: How Brooke Ouwerkerk launched a career in genomics

When Brooke Ouwerkerk enrolled in the BCIT Forensic Investigation BTech degree program, her interest in forensics grew from “a spark into a burning flame”, and this has led to a rewarding career at Environment Canada.

How has your BCIT degree impacted your career?

Besides giving me the skills and knowledge to qualify, my degree was the immediate reason that I got the forensic science job that I now hold. I started at Environment and Climate Change Canada as a student in the co-op program. As part of my degree, we are required to complete a period of work experience. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to work with Environment Canada through the help of one of my instructors.

During my co-op term, I had the opportunity to interview for a term position, the position I hold now. My degree helped foster my interest in forensic science as a whole, as well as allow me to identify which aspect of a forensic science career was the most exciting for me.

Please tell us more about your journey at BCIT?

I started the Forensic Science program at BCIT in January of 2017. The courses offered cover a broad range of my forensic science interests, including biology, law, and everything that I saw in CSI shows over the years. The program provides some structure in which courses you must take, such as the law courses, and certain introductory courses, but you are also free to decide which aspect you want to focus on.

The law courses were engaging, and it was fascinating to be able to know what is involved from when a crime is committed up until a sentence is given. In the last law class, you take part in a real crime scene, which culminates in going to court and taking the stand for the case.

“It was fascinating to be able to know what is involved from when a crime is committed up until a sentence is given.”

Some of the courses I took that satisfied my CSI craving included fingerprinting, forensic behavioural science, crime scene investigation, and forensic interviewing. These classes were also incredibly hands-on, from fingerprinting your classmates, to visiting a prison.

For the biological side, I took forensic entomology, human remains recovery, and DNA theory and applications. Again, you get a realistic idea of what is involved in these aspects of forensics, as each class always involves realistically carrying out what someone in the field would do.

In the last year, the graduation project involves completing a research project from the point of conception, all the way through to presenting your results. I finished this project in summer 2019 and am now just waiting for my graduation ceremony!

Please tell us more about the co-op opportunity at Environment Canada, and the work you’re doing now.

As part of Environment Canada, I work in the genomics section of the Pacific and Yukon Laboratory of Environmental Testing. We provide species identification services for animal and plant specimens. When I was a student, I worked on various method development projects including improving content identification for samples like plants and sharks. Some species are so closely related that our regular processes are not able to provide enough differentiation between them, which means we are unable to make a species call.

Another project I assisted with was DNA from difficult substrates, such as oil. Sometimes a particular matrix can be hard to obtain DNA from, like oil or bone. Unless we can get DNA, we cannot carry out any analysis on the sample. I also helped to optimize existing protocols to improve efficiency and their cost. When I moved into a term position, I transitioned into using these methods in order to work on legal cases. Enforcement officers will obtain samples and send them to our lab where we complete the analysis in order to determine which species the sample originated from. The workflow includes extracting DNA, amplifying the DNA, visualizing the DNA bands, preparing the DNA for sequencing, sequencing the DNA, and finally the DNA sequence analysis that results in the identification of the sample.

What type of cases are you working on?

More common cases include eels, pangolin, pills, or powders. Eels are common as they are a popular item shipped for consumption. When they are transported into the country, they usually have already been cooked and prepared for the food market, so it is impossible to identify the species of eel visually. Due to this, DNA identification is required to determine whether the eel being imported is legal.

Pangolins are the world’s most trafficked mammal for their meat and scales. They’re very unique – the only scaly mammal on earth – and at high risk of extinction. Most of the time, only parts of an animal are shipped across the border, so it is difficult to identify this endangered species without DNA tests.

It is the same with powders and pills. Sometimes an ingredient list will have an illegal species, but it is impossible to tell if it’s accurate or not, unless the product is tested using DNA analysis. These are the types of samples we see most – things that are ambiguous, and in which DNA is the only way to get a definitive identification.

What is unique about working at Environment Canada?

We are one of a few labs in the country that focus on the wildlife side of forensics. This alone makes Environment Canada a unique and exciting place to work, as we are able to handle many different types of samples. We also do our own in-house method development. Many labs do either analysis or research, but we have the advantage of continually improving our methods through our own research in real time.

“It is very satisfying to complete a case and reveal the species.”

Our lab also has the opportunity to collaborate with other sections in the building, such as the chemistry or shellfish sections. Although our workflow remains more or less the same, the work is always exciting and different, as varying cases are coming in day-to-day. Most of the time, since samples are usually parts or products of an organism, we in the lab also do not know what the sample will turn out to be. It is very satisfying to complete a case and reveal the species.

Anything else you would like to share?

BCIT was a great place to attend that really gave me hands-on experience with what a career in forensic science could look like. I have made many connections that I know will continue to be important to me over the years.

My degree really turned the spark of interest I had in forensics into a burning flame, and I am very happy with my decision to do it. It is an incredibly interesting and challenging career that I am very happy to be a part of!

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