For some, the work of a professional “death investigator” might sound like something straight out of “Law & Order” and “CSI.”
However, for Carly Berdan ’18, that job will soon be a very real career.
With her graduate coursework completed, Berdan will soon wrap up her master’s thesis at NJIT this summer, leaving with a M.S. in biology and advanced expertise in forensic science.
That experience and training has helped land Berdan the distinct and important role of medicolegal death investigator, examining suspicious and unusual deaths for the Northern Regional State Medical Examiners Office in Newark, New Jersey.
She starts her new full-time role this May.
“I was actually sitting in class this past April when I got the call and the offer to be an investigator,” said Berdan. “I said absolutely. I was so happy.”
As a medicolegal death investigator certified by the American Board of Medicolegal Death Investigators (ABMDI), Berdan will now act as the “eyes and ears” of the state medical examiner — doing everything from arriving at scenes of death to collect and document evidence, to providing expert testimony that helps solve complex cases in the courtroom.
“Without the help of investigators at the scene, we can’t piece together what happened then and there,” said Berdan. “Stories could get mixed up or give way to opinion rather than photos and hard evidence that help the doctors and coroners determine cause and manner when they perform autopsies…I think it is extremely important.”
Berdan says her interest in forensics goes back as far as high school. However, it was only after she suffered a fateful ACL injury while playing for NJIT’s women’s soccer team as an undergraduate junior that the path toward her future career came quickly into focus.
“I had done an internship that year with C.S.I. in Passaic County so I had gained some experience,” recalled Berdan. “But when I got injured in soccer I learned I could ‘red-shirt’ with the team during my injury and play another year. That gave me the idea to stay an extra year, play with the team and pursue the accelerated biology master’s program. I was able to earn my master’s degree in one year.”
NJIT’s official forensic science program isn't expected to launch until the fall of 2018, but that didn’t slow down Berdan. Instead of pursuing traditional academic tracks within the biology master’s program, Berdan sought research opportunities off campus to work on her thesis and follow her passion in forensics.
“I told my graduate advisor that my research interest was in forensics, so I essentially asked if I could pursue an “other” path,” said Berdan. “I was told I could do forensics-related research if I could find a place to do it off campus.”
As it turns out, both the destination for Berdan’s research and her future investigator career would be on Norfolk Street in Newark — just blocks from NJIT’s campus at the Northern Regional State Medical Examiners Office, alongside New Jersey State Medical Examiner Dr. Andrew Falzon.
“They granted me access to the computers at the medical examiners office, allowed me to shadow investigators and offered to advise me in my research,” said Berdan. “I have been able to successfully do my work, collecting data on ambient temperatures and body temperatures to learn ways to improve the accuracy of thermometer readings that determine time of death.”
Berdan will defend her thesis at NJIT this August while working as one of nearly 12 investigators in her office that serve Passaic, Essex, Somerset and Hudson counties.
However, she says her work won’t end there. Berdan hopes to pursue yet another path someday in the future — eventually using her academic expertise in biology and field experience as a death investigator to work for the FBI.
“Down the road my dream goal is to work with the FBI, so I think working with the state medical examiners and getting this experience on scenes is a great step,” said Berdan. “NJIT was also such a great experience. I think the combination of my time playing soccer and the level of classes here has been extraordinary and made me extremely prepared for the real world."