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Philly forensic scientist helps bust crimes and stereotypes | We the People

""You don't look like a scientist,'" Antoinette T. Campbell has been told more than once. And she's felt it, too.

Forensic scientist Antoinette Campbell founded the Association for Women in Forensic Science and Club Philly Forensics for kids.
Forensic scientist Antoinette Campbell founded the Association for Women in Forensic Science and Club Philly Forensics for kids.Read moreELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer

"'You don't look like a scientist,'" Antoinette T. Campbell has been told more than once — and she's felt it, too.

"I think there is still a stereotype as to what scientists look like," said Campbell, 42, who is black. "When I was majoring in chemistry, it was very lonely. A lot of conferences and trainings I would go to, I would see a lot of white men and I wouldn't see any African American women."

Even today, while Campbell's chosen field — forensic science — is increasingly popular among women, she says she still often notices a disparity when it comes to race.

And she wants to change that. When she's not working her day job as a civilian chemist with the Philadelphia Police Department's Office of Forensic Science, she's running her nonprofit, the Association of Women in Forensic Science, and Club Philly Forensics, a series of hands-on forensic workshops for kids.

She founded both in 2010 to give people considering forensic science as a career something she never had as a child — mentors.

"I didn't have anyone to guide me into the field," Campbell said. "My goal was to create a network to open up the whole gated community of forensic science and make it accessible to people so they could understand what we do."

While growing up in West Oak Lane, Campbell's mother instilled in her the importance of a higher education. But as the first in her family to attend college, Campbell didn't have anyone to show her the way.

Since she's always been an analytical thinker, Campbell chose chemistry as her major at Temple University. When she graduated in 2001, she interviewed for a chemistry job with the city and chose to work with the Police Department.

She learned about forensic science on the job and spent years analyzing street drugs and illegally obtained prescription narcotics before moving to the quality-assurance unit.

When she'd mention her job to others, she found that many people were intrigued by what she did, but their interest was largely informed — not always accurately — by television.

"People ask, 'Oh, are you like CSI?' " she said. "It's one of those fields that's broad and encompasses so many disciplines … and I think the biggest misconception is that everything is done by one person, but it's a team."

Campbell's Association of Women in Forensic Science is a team, too. The group is made up of Philly scientists from a variety of forensic disciplines, including DNA and firearms analysis. It's a small nonprofit that Campbell runs out of her Germantown home, but it's the type of support network she never had.

As part of Club Philly Forensics, Campbell also holds monthly workshops to teach kids about the forensic sciences.

"I have the club in Mount Airy, not far from where I grew up, because I want to get more African American kids to think of forensic science as a career option," she said.

The workshop, which is also mobile, serves as both an introduction to the field and a drug and violence education program. Campbell uses her background in drug analysis to educate kids about what they might encounter on Philly's streets.

"I feel the more that they know about the type of drugs that are out there, the more likely they are to abstain from it," she said.

A recent workshop focused on "purple drank," a mixture of cough syrup and soda that's also known as "lean" and "sizzurp."

"Purple drank is very popular. Some people don't think it's still around, but we see it on the forensic side because it's a drug submission," she said. "It's really, really popular in Philadelphia … and I wanted to de-glamorize it."

The Philly native said she feels a duty to share what she's learned.

"I was born and raised here. I live here. My family still lives here. How can I not take what I'm seeing and what I know and share it with the community?" she said. "I feel like I have a responsibility."

Why Philadelphia?

"Because I was born and raised here, I've been here all my life so I haven't lived anywhere else but in Philadelphia."

What’s been a classic Philly moment for you?

"Oh my goodness. I have so many — I like going down to Penn's Landing in the summer. I like going to the Dell for concerts. It's just everything about me is Philly. That's why my organization is Club Philly Forensics. I'm always referring to myself as a Philly girl. Everything I do, I still walk up the Art Museum steps so I can look at the skyline. It sounds typical of Philly but that's really what I do."

If you had a wish for Philly, what would it be?

"To fix the potholes. That's my wish. No, honestly the potholes here in Philadelphia are just horrible."

Know someone in the Philadelphia area whose story deserves to be told — or someone whose story you'd like to know? Send suggestions for We the People profiles to Stephanie Farr at or call her at 215-854-4225. Send tips via Twitter to @FarFarrAway.

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