Hargrove is trailblazer in forensics field
Solving mysteries comes naturally to Veronica Hargrove, Ph.D., M.S. As chief toxicologist of the Bexar County Medical Examiner’s Office, she leads a team of 10 who study how drugs and poisonous substances play a role in many impairments and deaths in criminal cases.
Dr. Hargrove is the first woman at the Bexar County Medical Examiner’s Office to hold this position. Although more women are entering the field, toxicology historically has been a male-dominated field.
Her path to this fascinating career began during her studies as a graduate student in the Forensic and Analytical Toxicology program in the Health Science Center’s School of Health Professions. “It was a great program that opened my eyes to a lot of specialties such as environmental toxicology, clinical toxicology and post-mortem toxicology.” A six-week rotation at the Bexar County Medical Examiner’s Office, located on the Health Science Center’s Joe R. and Teresa Lozano Long (main) campus, sparked her interest in post-mortem toxicology. “I loved working in the lab and thought it was interesting to see how toxicology could play a role in deaths,” she said. “It helps give families closure to the passing of their loved ones who may have died unexpectedly.”
This program stood out in a very particular way to Dr. Hargrove. “When I finished the practicum I knew that’s what I wanted to do,” she said. About six months later, a toxicology chemist position opened at the Medical Examiner’s Office. She was called by the office and was hired on the spot. Soon after graduating in 2007, she pursued her Ph.D. in pharmacology in the Health Science Center’s Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences and became certified by the American Board of Forensic Toxicology as a forensic toxicology specialist. She was appointed chief toxicologist and completed her Ph.D. in 2013.
Dr. Hargrove speaks humbly about her advancement and appointment as chief toxicologist and credits her success to the influence of her professors at the Health Science Center. “I had a lot of personal interaction from professors who guided me every step of the way,” she said. “They were role models to me both personally and professionally and showed me how to help students, who now I enjoy mentoring.”
Today, she runs the post-mortem lab and oversees approximately 2,500 cases per year, helping determine cause of death. Additionally, the Medical Examiner’s Office handles some toxicology testing for persons who are suspected of driving under the influence. These cases have dramatically increased from approximately 250 to 4,000 cases annually since the enactment of the mandatory blood-draw law in Bexar County.
She and her team run thousands of drug panels yearly and oftentimes quantitate their findings. Although blood is primarily tested, urine and tissue, such as muscle, are also included in testing samples at times in the investigation. “Illegal drugs. Prescription drugs. Heavy metals. Cyanide. If it’s poisonous, even if it’snot a drug, if it can kill you; we’ll look for it,” she said. Once the investigation is complete, it is sent to the medical examiner, and, together, they review the entire case to confidently determine a cause of death. In this process she helps the medical examiner with researching and interpreting various findings, such as determining combinations, concentrations and influences of drugs, alcohol and poisons.
“Interpretation is what I enjoy most about my job,” she said. “Seeing an entire case and determining if and how a drug caused a death continues to intrigue me.”
Learning never stops for Dr. Hargrove, and to her, it is second nature. “The Health Science Center absolutely prepared me for the position that I have today. I am very thankful to the schools for their programs and professors,” she said. “They prepared me for a career that I love and a job that allows me to do so much for others in our community.”