Serving with STEM — FBI


During an investigation involving the Aryan Brotherhood gang, Hernandez received a photo of a suspect’s writing in an unfamiliar language. She analyzed the writing but discovered nothing nefarious—it was simply Elvish script featured in the movie The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. She has also leaned on her love of science fiction to decipher messages in fictional languages like Aurebesh from the Star Wars movies.

“I evaluate submissions related to tattoos and graffiti or any related symbol,” Hernandez said. “It’s interesting work because every case is different, and you really get to use your critical thinking skills to solve problems.”

Deciphering coded communication requires significant analysis, including identifying the language and determining if it uses any coded systems. Cryptanalysts then restructure and translate the language for investigator use.

Tattoo analysis is critical to the FBI’s work because a tattoo can help identify a criminal or a victim, and members of certain gangs and criminal groups have similar tattoos. Tattoo analysis can help investigators connect individuals to particular gangs or narrow down a suspect list.

Hernandez, who is Seneca and Navajo, was raised on the Cattaraugus Reservation near Gowanda, New York. Her mother was a sheriff’s deputy, and her father was a nurse. As a child, Hernandez attended college classes with both of them—a perfect blend of the law enforcement and science of her future profession.

She grew up to become a tribal police officer. She loved the work and planned to make a career of it, but her mother pushed her to continue her education. After earning a master’s degree, Hernandez worked for the Drug Enforcement Administration before moving to the New York State Gaming Commission. She later worked for the National Indian Gaming Commission, where she received FBI forensics training. In 2003, Hernandez transitioned to working for the FBI full time.

Hernandez is one of two Native American forensic examiners in the FBI Laboratory, and she estimates she’s one of only about four in the United States. That’s something she’s working to change.