The Preppy Scientist
Halloween is but a week away. I'm with Shontal Cargill in a town named Caledon in the Peel Region of Ontario. Fall is Shontal's favourite season. The 26 year old sports a plaid scarf and L.L. Bean boots, perfect for traipsing through the crisp leaves that are out in full force on the county roads.
Our discussion of murder is somewhat antithetical to the name of the joint where we're having coffee: The Common Good Café and General Store.
"I like stuff that’s unresolved because I feel like the potential is there to revisit it," Shontal tells me. "Murders show the limits of science. Even if you have some DNA, but have nothing to compare it to, then what? We need to work on having a database. But at what cost? Is it ethical to take people’s DNA in case they’re convicted of a crime?" She pauses thoughtfully. "I say no."
For as long as I've known Shontal, she's been able to speak to me about DNA evidence and how it's processed. This is because she aspires to solve crimes. I met her six years ago at the University of Windsor when she was in the middle of her degree in Forensic Science and Human Biology (I was a sprightly first-year studying English and French).
Shontal is a good listener and a sharp dresser. She's dedicated to gender equality from an intersectional point of view as well as race equality. Her knowledge of medical terminology is quite impressive, and I learn a lot from being in her presence though she is never pedantic. She once brought me to an exhibit at the ROM called Out of the Depths: The Blue Whale Story. The specimen on display was the first and only real preserved blue whale heart in the world and it was perhaps the most gleeful I've ever seen her. In her spare time, she enjoys reading, baking, and hanging out with her cat, Twinkles. "I also like photographing stuff - almost to a fault," she laughs.
In fact, our friendship is well documented through photos. One day, we went to run some errands together at Walmart… and won a free photoshoot. In the infamous snapshot, the two of us are standing back to back in shift dresses from our sorority days. "Anytime I show that picture, I can't tell the story without laughing," says Shontal. "The photographer was so disappointed. I think she was was expecting a family to come!" How did we claim such a prize? When we found a teddy bear with the words "free photoshoot" on it by the McDonald's.
Previously the chapter president of our sorority, Delta Zeta, Shontal is currently responsible for engaging alumni in Canada. Fiercely independent yet committed to philanthropy, she knows how to get shit done all the while gracefully repudiating negative stereotypes about sorority women, which I admire. Shontal can assist an autopsy just as well as she addresses her handwritten letters. What's more, her cleaning habits are our running joke. During the interview, when I ask her favourite scent, she quips, "Do I want people to think I'm normal?" For the record, the answer is vanilla if not bleach.
Shontal confesses to having had an Audrey Hepburn streak, but she hasn't felt the need to abnegate the preppy facets of her persona. These days, she's more into Lin-Manuel Miranda. "I just find him to be a light in this world, just what we need," she says. She's currently enjoying his book of pep talks (illustrated by Jonny Sun).
Keep reading to learn more.
RS: How did The Preppy Scientist come about?
SC: I didn't want to just be a style blogger. The Preppy Scientist left the door open for more (scientist, it's in the title). At that point, I was just reading a lot of blogs, I never had any sort of vision for it.
RS: As a sorority alumna, what do you want people to know about Greek life as you experienced it?
SC: In Canada, you don't have the same pressure to join; in fact, it's kind of the other way around [you have to convince people why it's a worthy organization]. It's not the groupthink people expect. It's about values alignment.
RS: That's quite true. I read your Twitter thread about how the hiring process parallels sorority recruitment. Not to mention you really had to step outside your comfort zone.
SC: Yep, sorority was that for me, but it could have come from a lot of things. Rachel, I don't even think that you and I would be sitting here having this convo if it weren't for Delta Zeta.
RS: You're right, I would have never met you, as I never originally intended to join.
SC: Learning to work with people who are so different from you is one of the biggest takeaways.
RS: I agree. Case in point - we're very different from each other. Let's talk about your interest in crime. Where did this come from?
SC: When I was younger, my dad worked in security. We watched a lot of shows about Private Investigators and police officers. Columbo, Unsolved Cold Cases, Murder Hero, specials on A&E. I loved Nancy Drew — and Scooby Doo too. I actually went to see them live in concert when I was 7. I begged my parents and they got the books for me. I was so adamant on having them in order.
RS: Too good! How many were there?
SC: Around 30. And they came in the Mystery Machine with a red magnifying glass that could only decode certain things.
RS: And you showed me this poster you made in 1999 for "Cargill Detective Agency." Should we be concerned that you put your real phone number and address?
SC: When you're young, people think of the ways you can be murdered and you're like, I want to solve murder.
RS: You were only seven years old! Impressive. How was your relationship to death different from your peers growing up?
SC: When I was pretty young, my godmother died from a stroke and then a car accident. Everyone else was crying or really sad. I knew that what happened to her was out of my control. That’s one of the guaranteed things in this life - death. You don’t want to “waste” (and I use that word in quotations) your life. I just think people are afraid of talking about death and dying. We don’t know anything about death. Am I going through life making the right choices for myself? Am I with the right person, is this the right career, et cetera.
RS: What is important for you to control?
SC: I think I can only control myself, my emotions, and the way I respond to people. When people lash out, I understand that they’re coming from a place of pain. Also what I eat, my carbon footprint…
RS: So you're not scared about death … but you're more interested what circumstances lead murderers to take someone else's life?
SC: The murderer themselves - what were you thinking? What happened to you to do that? A lot of people think murderers have mental health issues but I don't agree. I think neurotypical people can commit murder for their own reasons.
RS: What criminals have you been reading about lately?
SC: Paul Bernardo. Only because he applied for parole and it’s been all over the news. His girlfriend at the time who has been out of prison has been working with children. They’re both fully responsible, she just got off because she pleaded guilty.
RS: That's terrible.
SC: So that’s what I’ve been fixated on. I get into this rabbit hole. I was watching The First 48 on A&E.
RS: What's The First 48?
SC: In the first 48 hours, you're going to collect as much evidence as you can. [Sex workers] are good people to go after because often no one is going to come looking for them. One family found remains of their daughter and the DNA remains matched a murder from 20 years ago. He wasn't sick or anything. He just viewed women as disposable. Most serial killers are men.
RS: Some men just commit murder. We need to do more to help victims get justice.
SC: Sexual assault is not taken seriously enough. From a victim, or survivor, point of view, where your body is a crime scene, your first thought isn’t “I’ll go to the police to let them process me." It’s invasive - someone has to take pictures of you, collect evidence, swab you.
RS: What do you have to say about the backlog of rape kits?
SC: It’s not to say that we don’t have the resources to process these kits. And if they don’t … why don’t police stations have the resources to process that independently? Even with regular deaths and autopsies - who knows when it’s going to get processed?
RS: This is very frustrating. But do you enjoy working in a lab?
SC: Yes, doing the science. Science is everywhere, tried and true. I don’t like interacting with people that much.
RS: I remember you worked in a fly lab? Forensic entomology?
SC: Yeah, in first year, I worked in the fly lab. Flies carry a lot of diseases. You can use how far they fly and you can measure how long someone's been dead.
RS: And you worked in a morgue at one point… What would you say to people who find that morbid? How did you deal?
SC: I think it’s more morbid to dress up a dead body. For me, it’s purely scientific - were you sick, were you stabbed, were you shot? Whatever it is… Did something happen to you that we can’t see? Homicides - families need closure. We need to know what happened.
RS: You were a clinical student in what domain?
SC: Pathology. I know a lot about diseases.
RS: Does working in public health interest you?
SC: I'd be open to doing public health. The opportunity is there to communicate to younger generations!
RS: So in the new year you hope to work in a hospital?
SC: Yes. Career-wise, the main struggle is getting into Forensic Science. I flip flop a lot because forensics is hard to break into. Sometimes I want to become a private investigator.
RS: Why is it difficult to break into forensics?
SC: The police kinda ruin everything. Old police officers don't make room for people who actually did an undergrad in Forensic Science. Of all the people i went to school with, maybe one or two are working directly in forensics at the Centre for Forensic Science. But if you're really invested in forensics, as long as you're still applying your scientific techniques, when the opportunities arise, [you can make it].
RS: What would you investigate if you were a PI?
SC: Infidelity, insurance claims, missing persons, all sorts of things!
RS: How does capitalism affect you?
SC: I hate my [retail] job because of this. I hope I don't get fired. The way to measure how good you are at your job is the value of the units leaving the store - HOW many. It's not whether you're connecting with customers even. It's not what I studied in school, it's not what I enjoy. Assigning monetary value to measure a person's performance - that affects me deeply.
RS: What else do you find artificial or deceiving?
SC: How much people focus on positive vibes. “Good vibes only.” “Don't be negative.” “Cut toxic people out of your life!” You know what, I'm never toxic. But they want you to feel like there's something wrong with you because you're not chipper.
RS: I hate that. It’s probably why we get along.
SC: If you're negative, you're negative. Everybody is going through something.
RS: Do you often feel stereotyped as an "angry black woman?"
SC: Oh yes, totally. I have an overly expressive face - you can really see when i'm displeased. "Turn your face off," people say. Even at work the other day, someone said something to me about having softer facial expressions. That's not me! I don't even think anyone's face settles into a smile.
RS: No one can be happy all the time.
SC: They don't want me to look “angry.” When you talk to me, you’ll realize that I'm not angry about anything, I just don't want people to read me so easily.
RS: You love mystery.
SC: Mystery is the spice of life! A little mystery never killed nobody. I mean...mystery probably kills a lot of people but it's still fun. *laughs*
RS: When was the last time you were truly happy?
SC: Probably before I was born.
RS: Hahahaha. You once told me, "I never feel lonely in the sad sense of the word." So what is romance to you?
SC: True romance is when there's just no pressure to talk and fill the silence with sound. You don't even have to be looking at each other. You're just there. That's when you've hit the jackpot. //