Fun with forensics
By Erica Naone
Michelle Peace, Ph.D. (Ph.D.’05/M), wears many hats.
A well-known forensic toxicologist, Peace has traveled the world presenting research on groundbreaking subjects such as uses and misuses of electronic cigarettes. As an associate professor in Virginia Commonwealth University’s Department of Forensic Science in the College of Humanities and Sciences, she is helping to train and nurture the next generation in her field. A sought-after leader, she served 2015-18 as president of the MCV Alumni Association of VCU and is currently the president of her professional organization, the Society of Forensic Toxicologists. Not only that, Peace also has garnered a reputation as a vivid personality with a colorful wardrobe, the life of the party and the owner of a free-spirited laugh that makes her stand out in any crowd.
Peace entered forensic science after searching for a way to marry two seemingly unrelated interests. She loved chemistry but knew she wanted to study it in a way that would have more immediate impact when applied. She also loved her time serving on the Student Hearing Board at her undergraduate institution, Wittenberg University, and was considering going into law after getting her bachelor’s degree.
Following a suggestion from one of her undergraduate professors, she visited a crime lab. “This sounds hokey,” Peace says, “but it felt like the heavens parted and the angels sang.”
Since then, she’s explored elements of forensic science over a far-reaching spectrum — everything from what can be learned from insects at the scene of a crime to the toxicological effects of Chinese medicinal herbs on the human body.
“When you have a case, you’re looking for something that is going to point you in a direction that will tell you the story of what happened right there,” she says. “Oftentimes, you have to look toward unusual things.”
Haley Mulder (B.S.’16/H&S; M.S.’18/H&S), a pharmacology Ph.D. student at VCU who has studied, worked with and been mentored by Peace, says, “Oh my God, she’s creative.” Peace, she says, comes up with questions about hot-button issues and encourages her students to explore them by writing grants and proposals. “She likes to joke sometimes that we’re stirring the pot with different conversations,” Mulder says.
In many cases, that pays off spectacularly. The lab at VCU’s Department of Forensic Science has been funded by two grants from the National Institute of Justice for its work on e-cigarettes. That money has supported nearly 20 students, and the group has made more than 40 presentations on the work and written seven manuscripts, with another five in preparation. In the process, they’ve analyzed many elements of how e-cigarettes actually work, what happens to e-liquids when they’re heated in the devices, what e-liquids contain and release into the vapor the devices produce and how e-cigarettes can be used as delivery devices for drugs other than nicotine. “We’ve been really, really productive,” Peace says.
Mulder says she was burned out when she met Peace as an undergrad. Though she loves chemistry, she says, she’s not a natural at the subject, and the hard work of learning it was grinding her down. She had come to accept that she might not be cut out for graduate school despite her dreams of pursuing a master’s degree.
Mulder planned to “get out and go work,” finding whatever job she could manage with her bachelor’s. Her encounter with Peace changed her plans for her life. Before long, she was talking with Peace about getting a master’s, then a Ph.D. This opens up more possibilities for Mulder to continue working as a researcher or to take leadership positions in her field with greater responsibilities.
“I’m a completely different person from before I started with this research group,” Mulder says. “It helped get me out of my shell.”
Sara Dempsey (M.S.’15/H&S), who studies pharmacology and toxicology in the VCU School of Medicine, also says she wouldn’t have dreamed of getting a Ph.D. without Peace’s encouragement. “She is a very intelligent woman and a great role model for women in science,” Dempsey says, “especially for those who want to be in the field of forensic science.” She credits Peace not only with teaching her about science but also about leadership.
Peace is no stranger to leadership — she helped build the undergraduate curriculum for VCU’s Department of Forensic Science, has served as the associate chair of the department as well as interim chair and has served as a volunteer in various positions on the board of her professional organization and the MCV Alumni Association of VCU.
The past few years, however, have brought intense and rewarding leadership challenges. Peace’s term as president of MCVAA was extended from two years to three because of changes affecting the organization during Peace’s tenure.
Peace says she’s proud of having led the group through hard conversations, facing difficult realities and, ultimately, changing for the better. While Peace was president, the MCVAA moved to an inclusive membership model that welcomes all alumni, eliminating the dues requirement. The organization also increased its transparency and added procedures to make nominating new board members and leaders run more smoothly.
“Michelle is going to be a hard act to follow,” says Ellen Byrne, D.D.S., Ph.D. (B.S.’77/P; D.D.S.’83/D; Cert.’91/D; Ph.D.’91/M), who is the current president of the MCVAA. “At the same time, she has created a path to follow. She worked hard to create a relevant culture of alumni across the medical campus and the entire university who are actively engaged by giving time, talent and treasure. She was always at the table for discussion and decisions. She was the first to bring back past presidents of the MCVAA for a meeting of minds to discuss our rich heritage and our bright future. I admire Michelle and appreciate all her volunteer work. She did some heavy lifting.”
Peace works in an office decorated with her skull collection, but the room is in no way gloomy. Instead, she keeps her space vibrant with the same bright colors that characterize her wardrobe.
Despite how busy she is, Peace is an easy person to find at a conference. Mulder recalls many occasions when she spotted Peace in a crowded room because of either her bright outfits or distinctive laugh.
Each Christmas, the lab group takes the time to unwind with a visit to Escape Room RVA, an interactive puzzle in which participants work together to get out of a locked room within a time limit. Peace is a brilliant researcher, but Mulder says she doesn’t tend to focus on the deductive elements of the game. “She stands in the middle of the room watching everything going on, giggling,” Mulder says.
Peace says, “Yeah, I’m no good at those games, but I take them to that event to build teamwork and to observe individuals in the group. I have created opportunities based on what I’ve learned during that game.”
The loyalty Peace inspires comes through clearly even when she’s not explicitly in charge. Mulder says students call Peace “Mama Duck” because she’s often trailed by a line of grad students following like ducklings.
Dempsey describes the way Peace can find a few minutes for fun even in the midst of working long hours. “She is always on the dance floor at SOFT,” Dempsey says, referring to the annual conference put on by Peace’s professional organization. She says Peace will grab 30 minutes on the dance floor before going back to a meeting or work on a presentation.
Peace is planning Prince-themed fun at the next SOFT event, which will take place in the entertainer’s hometown of Minneapolis. “She’s telling all of us, get your purple dress or your purple attire,” Dempsey says. “I’m sure they’re going to play Prince songs. And I think she already has her purple outfit.”
Peace says “It’ll be a week of hard work, culminating in a really fun evening to remind us that we’re a family.”
That sense of fun is a key part of her approach to leadership, work and life in general. “We do this work because we want to support and build organizations and programs that are fundamentally good,” she says. “Most people stay with the work even when it’s hard because we’re having a good time while accomplishing something of value.”
Aside from purple clothes and dancing, Peace has been working hard to protect and secure a productive future for SOFT and the field of forensic science generally. As she did with MCVAA, Peace has led conversations about a strategic plan for SOFT’s future since becoming president. She has opened up discussions on diversity and heralded the value of research and the importance of mentoring young professionals. As with many things she’s undertaken in the course of her career, she seems likely to leave a memorable impression.