Meet Mumbai’s first forensic odontologist who carved a niche for herself

Dr Hemlata Pandey is an Assistant Professor at KEM Hospital and she has been using her dental expertise to solve crime cases for the past eight years

Dr Hemlata Pandey

The term forensic odontologist might sound complicated to most. However, the city’s first professional Dr Hemlata Pandey describes it as “a humanitarian” work. It has been eight years since Pandey has been helping to solve crime cases with her dental expertise. 

Explaining further about her work, the Assistant Professor at KEM hospital says, “We work for people who have been victimised. Forensic odontology helps to identify unknown bodies.” Apart from that, it also helps with providing evidence in child abuse cases, rape and domestic violence incidents.

The career path requires dental studies to be applied to forensics, i.e, analysing bite marks, dental and jaw structures to solve criminal and age identification cases. However, it isn’t a conventional subject that many opt for. For Pandey, this was just one chapter in her dental studies course. Like many, she also was curious about forensics from what was seen or read in popular culture – tv shows, news etc. “When I learned that it is related to dentistry, I wanted to know more about it.”

Unfortunately, the subject or the profession wasn’t popular in India. The Dental Surgery graduate then went to Wales for a Masters in Forensic Odontology and to London for a one-year course on forensic human identification. Her desire to create awareness about it in India and also to introduce it to her juniors played an important part for her to choose the subject. 

However, after completing her studies, finding a job wasn’t easy. It was a niche profession and there were hardly any vacancies available. She credits Dr Sandhya Kamat, the former dean of KEM, Dr Harish M. Pathak, Head of Forensic Department at KEM and the current Dean of KEM Dr Hemant Deshmukh for encouraging her to pursue her passion. “When you find good people to encourage and motivate you, it helps. Then you can achieve whatever you want,” she says. 

While she has carved a niche for herself in this field, it is still a largely male-dominated field. “In this field, you mostly deal with men. You can sometimes feel a bit out of place but with encouraging colleagues who are always looking out for you, it pushes you to do better.”

She does find support from her family but her nature of work can be sometimes challenging and give rise to apprehensions. Remembering the start of her job, she says, “I got my first case which was of a 45-year-old lady who was gang raped by five men. This was in 2013 and just before that the Nirbhaya case had happened. I felt worried about how do I talk to the victim and other aspects of the case. And, I didn’t want to make any mistakes.” Dr Pandey was anxious, but once she spoke to Dr Pathak things felt a bit better. Dr Pathak advised her to concentrate on the scientific part without making any errors and to take care of the documentations. “He said your job is to be unbiased. My job is to give the analysis of the evidence. I should not be affected by what is being discussed in the media. He gave a new perspective – concentrate on the science, don’t worry about the outcome.” Over the years, she has not let emotions affect her job and just concentrate on being practical. 

However, she says, “Emotions are not a switch that you can turn it off. When I deal with child abuse cases, it is heartbreaking and it does take a toll. To address that, you need a good support system back home.” 

Currently, she wishes that in the future she is able to put together a well-equipped lab with sophisticated instruments. She says they are slowly moving towards achieving that desire with digitization and 3D-reconstruction techniques etc. “I would wish that every city in India has one such lab.”

And her message to women who want to pursue an unconventional career path: “Find people who want to support you and encourage you. Keep your distance from people who demotivate you. Perseverance is very important. Focus on your goal.” 

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