Candice Bridge, 34, is using forensic science to help arrest sexual predators.
It’s the kind of thing you’d expect to see on an episode of CSI: A lab tech studies samples from a crime scene and it leads to a major break in a case. This is exactly the kind of research Candice Bridge, 34, is doing to help law enforcement officers link perpetrators of sexual assault to their crimes. It’s high-stakes work, but if anyone is up for the job, it’s Bridge, who earned her Ph.D. in forensic chemistry at just 25 and went on to be one of the first Black women to teach chemistry at her alma mater, Howard University, Essence magazine writes. Now, as an assistant professor at the University of Central Florida, Bridge is using a $324,000 grant from the National Institute of Justice to develop ways to catch rapists when DNA is limited or nonexistent. Here she shares how a TV show she watched as a kid set the stage for such an impactful career.
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When did you first become interested in forensic science?
When I was about 13, I saw a TV show called The New Detectives: Case Studies in Forensic Science. In it, they solved a murder based on tire tracks, blood markings and shoeprints. I thought this is going to be my job. I went off to Howard University and decided to pursue a degree in chemistry. I did as many internships as I could to practice my chemistry. I even spent a few summers at Colgate-Palmolive doing research on hand soap and detergent.
How did you go from studying hand soap to studying crime scenes?
My dad told me about the University of Central Florida’s National Center for Forensic Science, which is one of the most respected forensic science research centers in the country. During my last year in college I learned that the center had an internship program. I was there for two weeks studying fire debris samples, which can help determine what started a fire. At the end. my adviser encouraged me to pursue grad school there. So I did.
Forensic chemistry is a highly specialized area of study. How did you find mentors and advisers to help you along the way?
Forensic science is primarily dominated by white women. Outside of Howard, I was usually one of very few Black people. I read that every Fortune 500 company has a board of executives that is there to help guide the company to success. I wondered, why can’t I have my own personal board of executives? So I formed one. My mom is on it—she’s been in business her whole life. My dad is on it. My adviser, who’s the security director of a Fortune 500 company, the director at my old crime lab, the director at my current lab—they’re all on it.
Tell us more about the work you’re doing.
Let’s say there was a sexual assault and the perpetrator used a condom. If the victim decides to get a sexual assault kit done at a hospital, [the lab techs] may be able to collect some of the lubricant from the condom used. Or [a police officer] may collect it from, say, the bedspread. We want to be able to analyze that sample and say, “Oh, this is a warming-based lubricant.” If you find a suspect that uses condoms that have a warming lubricant, then you create a link. That doesn’t necessarily mean that person is the rapist, but the likelihood of just a random person carrying a warming-based lubricated condom is far less likely than someone just carrying a regular silicone-based condom. Some people may think. Let me use a condom so they don’t have my DNA. With that in mind, we’re now trying to answer the question, In the absence of biological evidence, are there other tools that can be used to help create a link?
What do you plan to do with your grant?
We’re going to order a whole bunch of lubricants and condoms and analyze them. We also want to build a database of our findings. What many people don’t realize is that only a small percentage of rapists are identified from DNA. I’m hoping that by having another potential connection between perpetrator and victim, we can increase the number of rapists who are convicted.