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November 2022

Duo fighting crime as DPS crime lab analysts

Mayra Herrera Gonzales and Ashley Rivera Riley both grew up watching CSI, Forensic Files and other dramas, fascinated with the science used in solving crimes. Neither could guess that years later, they would be living that life as forensic scientists with the Texas Department of Public Safety.

Based out of the Lubbock laboratory, Mayra and Ashley work specifically in the DNA area, testing

Ashley and Mayra
Ashley Riley and Mayra Gonzales

various evidence items for traces that can help solve cases. The pair have many similarities in their stories, from their shared educational experiences to their current careers, which they started together in January 2020.

And both say it was their Wayland education in science that led to these exciting new roles.

“I think our professors being so tough on us and wanting to teach us so much really helped us. I got to do DNA extraction with Dr. Daniela Pereira, which is what I’m doing here. The presentations and meetings helped too,” says Mayra. “I gave a presentation to nurses on how we’d prefer them to collect items for their sexual assault exams, so that was good experience. Those things I learned at Wayland have really carried over.”

Ashley agrees.

“All those professors prepared us very well mentally to handle the stresses too. Mayra and I started in 2020, then COVID hit and DPS sent us to the Texas Tech Bioterrorism Lab as some of the first to do PCR testing of individuals,” she said. “We had a hand in helping with COVID, and Wayland helped with that too by having us learn DNA extraction and certain instruments. It was neat to be able to help with that.”

The journey begins

For Plainview native Ashley, Wayland was a familiar place to return once she found herself at another school but expecting a baby. Initially planning for pharmacy school, she came back to the place she’d once taken concurrent courses and enrolled in the science program.

“I loved the campus, the atmosphere and the professors. I applied and got in, and it was an easy choice. My family was here, and I also liked what the school stood for,” she said. “I started at Wayland the same time as (former science professor) Dr. Pereira and she told me about her research project on salt intake. She asked me if I liked charts and data and asked me to do research with her.”

For Ashley, the new project was not only insightful, it was enlightening, opening up a whole new world of career possibilities related to research. A chance invitation by chemistry professor Dr. Gary

Ashley Riley in the lab
Ashley works in the lab

Gray to join a field trip to the Texas Tech Health Sciences Center changed her course permanently. A presentation on the Master of Molecular Pathology program sealed the deal, and two weeks after she graduated in 2015, she started the program at Tech.

Upon graduating in 2016, Ashley went to work for Microgen (formerly Pathogenius), where she had interned in her last few months. She enjoyed the work there assisting physicians to diagnose and properly treat patients with bacterial and fungal infections. But after a few years she was looking for a new challenge when she learned of an opening at the DPS crime lab. She applied and the rest, of course, is history.

Following a dream

Meanwhile, Mayra was working in the Plainview Walmart pharmacy and thought she could move from technician to pharmacist with education. It made sense to stay at her hometown university since she lived locally and had a husband and family already. She enrolled in the science program and focused solely on her coursework.

She approached her anatomy and physiology professor, Dr. Derderian, about what she could do to stand out in graduate school and was directed to Wayland’s undergraduate research program, a unique place where students choose their own hands-on project and conduct all the review and research, culminating in a major presentation and paper likened to a master’s thesis. She jumped in to shadow Derderian, then got a project of her own.

“I enjoyed really doing the research. If you go to a big university you may be the ‘push this button’ person or just inputting data,” she recalled. “At Wayland, you are doing research hands-on. I had my own mice to take care of and all those opportunities really helped me.”

Pereira saw Mayra’s love for research forming and suggested she look at the same molecular pathology program at Tech, and she felt it was a fit. She applied and was accepted, starting soon after earning her WBU degree in 2018. A presentation by a DPS analyst had piqued her interest, but he had also warned the department didn’t hire often due to employee longevity. But an Indeed email close to her 2019 graduation alerted to just the opposite: they were hiring, and she was interested. She was also pregnant with her fourth child, but due to the long hiring process, Mayra interviewed three weeks after giving birth and started her job about two months later.

Helping behind the scenes

In their current roles, Ashley and Mayra both agree that the job is both challenging and rewarding, and it took some getting used to. For one thing, the research they are doing represents real people in major life situations, often traumatic.

“You think about the pressure that people’s lives are at stake, whether in a good or bad sense. The first couple of months with these heavy cases, I’d come home and be a little sad or somber about it,” Ashley recalled. “My mom would say, ‘you are meant to be here and you can’t take it all home.’ Anyone who works in a field like this just has to learn how to compartmentalize it.”

Keeping your feelings in check is key, agrees Mayra, who noted that the state provides training that helps employees stay unbiased while handling the extremely difficult cases. It’s a balance, she said, of being a human with normal emotions and being focused on the job at hand.

The lab serves as 76-county region, though the analysts may handle work from other regions if they get backlogged. While others in the Lubbock lab handle firearms, drug and alcohol testing and fingerprints, Mayra and Ashley focus solely on the DNA side of the house. While they do not share cases, they often will consult each other for ideas on how to approach an issue. The lab also does tech reviews between analysts just to check their work, and both women appreciate that aim for accuracy. All that is part of what makes their jobs so rewarding.

“The most rewarding part for me would be being a piece of the overall puzzle in solving whatever case it is. I have gone to court several times already, and I like knowing that my work is actually helping, whether to prove someone is guilty or someone is innocent,” says Mayra.

“The scientists I used to watch growing up… that’s us now,” Ashley adds with a smile. “We are not solving it in an hour, but we are really helping.”

 

Devotional: Spiritual communication 101

“The LORD is near to all who call on him, to all who call on him in truth.” (Psalm 145:18)

Communicating with society today insists of always being “on the go” and responding electronically via text/email/phone. When we communicate through these facets, we tend to lose the directPraying hands on Bible contact with individuals, which in time the connection slowly fades and it does not become personable.

Most Christians use prayer to have one-on-one time with God to give thanks, provide requests, or just simply talk. The one main aspect that all who utilize prayer need to understand is to speak from your heart. God listens to our hearts and when we do not call on Him with honesty, our prayers will not be heard.

He is always near. He knows why you're calling on Him. But without truth…the connection will slowly fade.

Jeffrey Vera is a 2017 graduate of Wayland and serves as the Director of Alumni Relations at Wayland as of October 1. He worked in retail before coming to Wayland to complete his degree as a working adult, then spent five years in admissions and recruiting at Texas Tech. He is engaged to Marcia Ramos and is a bivocational pastor in Lubbock.

 

In the Mix

The Oxford Dictionary defines “education” as 1) The process of receiving or giving systematic instruction, especially at a school or university, and 2) An enlightening experience.

Education enables children to acquire academic achievements they will need to interpret life

Preparing to teach
Teacher Megan Neuberger

situations, develop critical thinking, and make the best possible decisions. Students here at the Don A. Williams School of Education receive the necessary tools to aspire in careers in elementary and secondary education.

As Director of Alumni Relations, one of the items that I am responsible for is to bring our alumni together, while being accessible to help with current and future students.  Being “in the mix” means being a mentor, contributing your time to help the future of students, and even giving back to help with scholarships. If you were a School of Education graduate, you were one who had one goal: to share a common commitment to teaching, Christian values and scholarship.

I was fortunate enough to have my grandmother (Carmen Vera, 1984 WBU graduate) and mother (Yolanda Vera, 1983 WBU graduate) receive Education degrees from WBU. They both wanted to make a difference in young students’ lives.

We here at the Office of Institutional Advancement want to hear your story about how the Don A. Williams School of Education has contributed to your teaching careers. You may have a few words for a former professor or want to contribute to a scholarship for a future teacher. You as an alumnus have the opportunity to…give back!

If you think you have a story or would like to donate funds to the School of Education, please contact us using the following emails:

Story: veraj@wbu.edu

Donation: amber.mccloud@wbu.edu

-Jeffrey Vera, Director of Alumni Relations

 

 

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