Our series “How I became a …” digs into the stories of accomplished and influential people, finding out how they got to where they are in their careers.
As a latent print examiner with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Monique Brillhart spends her days living out the crime TV shows that captivate audiences around the world. In addition to processing evidence and testifying in courts as an expert witness, Brillhart also helps to provide humanitarian support for the identification of disaster victims in mass casualty scenarios. When she’s not in the office, Brillhart is the coordinator for the Latent Print Operations Unit (LPOU) Hazardous Evidence Analysis Team (HEAT), and trains internationally as well.
USA TODAY caught up with Brillhart to talk about everything from layoffs and Coldplay to drawing upon life experience and finding stress relief through her Shelties.
Question: How did you get your start in forensics?
Monique Brillhart: When I was in high school, I wanted to be three things: a lawyer, a physical therapist, and a forensic pathologist. I couldn’t make up my mind, so I decided to major in biology during my undergraduate years because I found it interesting and I also wanted to challenge myself. When I was in college, they didn’t have a forensics major or a minor, but they did have a criminalistics minor, and I hopped on it immediately. I’m so interested in the thought of criminalistics, that even after I graduated with my undergraduate degree, I took a forensic pathology just for fun just because I found it so interesting.
After college, I had a really hard time finding a job in the forensics field because it was relatively new. I worked in pharmaceuticals at Wyeth, and right after 9/11, I lost my job due to cuts due to the economic fall after 9/11. I continued to try and find a job in the science field, and just really had a hard time. I went back to Red Lobster waiting tables again, which is what I did all throughout college. I then started a master’s degree program at Johns Hopkins in Maryland, and the whole point in doing that was thinking that maybe I’ll get into the FBI because I’d always wanted to work there. I started my master’s program, went on the FBI website, saw that they were hiring, and applied. Eight months later, the phone rang. It was many months after my interview I was offered my job, and then after a background investigation, I finally started. If I hadn’t lost my job with Wyeth due to cuts, I probably wouldn’t be where I am today. It was like a dream come true for me.
Q: What does a typical workday look like?
Brillhart: As a latent print examiner, I will examine items of evidence for the development of latent prints. I then compare those to the known printed individuals or I’ll search them in our fingerprint database. Following the completion of my examinations, I issue reports, and then I’ll testify in court whenever I’m requested to do so to provide expert testimony.
My typical day does change on a day-to-day basis, depending on the need. I am a case working examiner, but I do have additional duties: I am a heat coordinator – HEAT is a group here at the laboratory – and what the HEAT team does is examine items of evidence for latent prints. For example, we will conduct traditional latent print examination on evidence that’s contaminated with hazardous chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear materials. My typical day could go back from working a regular case working exam to coordinating a HEAT deployment in order to process items of evidence that have those particular contaminants on them.
Q: What’s your favorite part of your job?
Brillhart: I love the versatility of my job. Developing latent prints and comparing those fingerprints is actually a hobby for me. I also love to help others. I used to be a training coordinator in our unit, and I love the idea of giving back and the idea of training other people and learning from them because everything is life experience with that. I love being a part of our HEAT team, and I love being a coordinator for that. Working with my team to process these items of evidence, and really thinking outside the box to have a solution. You have a task in front of you and a challenge, and being able to see that through to success? That’s pretty cool in my eyes, and one of my favorite things is collaborating with my team.
Q: What do you credit to your success?
Brillhart: Life experience. I think going through things in life allows you to learn from those experiences and push yourself to succeed. I’ve had a lot of interactions with a lot of different people throughout my life, and I feel like people come in your life for a reason. Also, believing in myself.
Q: How do you balance work and life?
Brillhart: I think it helps that my job is kind of like my hobby, so I do enjoy what I do on a daily basis. We do have a lot of work, and we have a mission that we’re doing here – a mission of the FBI for the American people. I think just remembering that, and remembering, that yes, I do have a home life. I do have a family, and being able to juggle all of that together, remembering that as long as I am strong, I am taking care of myself, and I have the energy, then I can fulfill the mission and also take care of my family at the same time. Also, playing with my two Shelties, Harper and Kimpton, after work is very important to me, as they are incredibly important to me. It’s a natural stress relief and one of the best parts of each and every day.
Q: What has been the most fascinating on-the-job experience you’ve had?
Brillhart: The international training that I have done. I have been overseas several times to train other law enforcement in matters related to fingerprints, and training law enforcement in those other countries has humbled me beyond measure, just seeing their passion and their integrity. Additionally, I very much enjoy training. Here in our unit, I was a training coordinator for four years and therefore had three different training classes of new latent print examiners come through in which I was assisting them in their day-to-day trainings. It’s really cool for me, being here for 15 years now. As I look around at my unit today and I see how each and every one of them has grown and developed, it makes me feel extremely proud of what they have accomplished. It’s truly amazing to me – it’s like looking through a telescope from a distance to them, and it’s the future of our FBI latent print examiners. The talent here is raw and it’s very real, and it’s a really cool view for me to see here.
Q: What advice would you give to someone who wants to follow in your footsteps?
Brillhart: Never, ever give up. Strive for greatness and always accept defeat. I feel strongly that it’s life experiences that help one to rise above, seek their dreams, and persevere through it all.
I’ve had an amazing career here at the FBI. I credit a lot of that to experiences and also having times in my life that were hard. For example, my wife went through breast cancer and she overcame that. When I was younger, I grew up in a lower-income area, and my mother tried to do all that she could to provide for me and my well-being as I grew up. I lost my father to suicide in high school, and that was very painful for me. I had many opportunities based on where I lived to potentially take a wrong path, just because of the area in which I grew up. Being an only child, I’m kind of the provider, and my family suffered from mental illness. Seeing that, and having to take care of that, being an adult at an early age – regardless of that, I think it’s taking your life experiences, running with them, never giving up, accepting defeat, and just continuing to strive ahead for greatness.
• What is your coffee order? I’m kind of obsessed with my Nespresso machine, so that’s definitely my go-to. If I’m out and about, a Starbucks double tall caramel macchiato.
• What is your favorite book? “When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times” by Pema Chödrön
• What is your favorite song of the moment? “Adventure of a Lifetime” by Coldplay
• Who is one of your biggest mentors? When I was in high school, I had some softball coaches that helped me push forward in my goals. I had a college professor that helped me develop my vision for my eventual future, which is where I am today. Quite honestly, when I think of my mentor, it’s in a theoretical sense and it’s kind of like me looking at my life through a rear view mirror. It reminds me of one of those flip books, where it’s speeding by fast. In my life, I had a lot of opportunities to take a wrong path, but it was through my mentors and a combination of all the people around me to remind myself that, even though I may be afraid, I just need to go forth, try, and do my best no matter what.
• What is the coolest thing you’ve ever done? I rode a camel when I was in Egypt conducting international training and saw the pyramids over in Egypt. Overall, my career growth throughout the FBI and having all of the career experiences I’ve had here.