Class of 2023: With a mind on crime, Olive Blackstone pursues justice and understanding
by Brian McNeil
The small screen made a big impact on Olive Blackstone in her youth.
“It’s a little cliché, but ever since I saw ‘Criminal Minds,’ I wanted to learn about forensic psychology,” she said of the TV drama, which centers on the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit. Among her questions: “[Did a perpetrator] have a traumatic upbringing? Is there something biologically innate? I’ve always been interested in studying that.”
Touching on both the cause and effect of violence, Blackstone will graduate from Virginia Commonwealth University this spring with degrees in criminal justice and psychology. At VCU, she has had a variety of experiences exploring those fields both inside and outside the classroom.
Blackstone works as research intern in the Injury and Violence Prevention Research Lab at VCU Health, whose mission includes advancing mental health treatment for youth and adults based on rigorous and innovative research. Blackstone supports projects that investigate fear responses among children with conduct disorders and that seek to reduce gun violence in Richmond.
“It’s been really rewarding to work specifically on these unsolved homicides and kind of get a picture of what is involved in relooking at these investigations. [Doing this work] is one of my childhood dreams. It involves looking through old documents and eventually developing intelligence recommendations for how law enforcement can move forward with a case and hopefully, eventually get some leads.”
- Olive Blackstone
“Olive has been a tremendous asset to our program of research, and I know she will go on to do amazing things,” said Nicholas Thomson, Ph.D., an associate professor of surgery and psychology at VCU and the director of research and a forensic psychologist with the Injury and Violence Prevention Program.
Blackstone also co-founded a student organization called Soteria: Promoting Healthy Love, named after the Greek goddess of safety and deliverance from harm. It raises awareness among VCU students about domestic violence, sexual assault, human trafficking and healthy relationships, and that has held fundraising events for local organizations working in those areas.
“A lot of people are interested in things like serial killers and very rare violent events, but in reality, 50% of women who are murdered are murdered by either a current or former intimate partner,” Blackstone said. “So our organization fund-raises for local agencies that are anti-violence, anti-domestic violence. … And we also provide a lot of peer education and leadership opportunities.”
Blackstone is a student in the criminal justice program of the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs and in the Department of Psychology of the College of Humanities and Sciences. She said VCU supported her professional and academic development throughout her undergraduate years.
As one example, Blackstone worked as a legislative intern in the office of state Sen. Scott Surovell during the 2022 General Assembly session. The opportunity came through the Wilder School’s Virginia Capitol Semester, a spring semester internship program that enables students to work directly in the office of a House of Delegates or Virginia Senate member.
“Politics isn’t really my wheelhouse, but getting to work under a legislator who is involved largely in the criminal justice system — Senator Surovell is an attorney — was really great,” Blackstone said. “Even if politics isn’t my eventual career goal, having that hands-on experience in an office was really nice, and I really value the connections that I made there.”
Blackstone also works in VCU’s Discrimination and Health Research Lab, which is led by Nao Hagiwara, Ph.D., an associate professor in the Department of Psychology. In that job, Blackstone has supported focus groups of students as VCU prepares to launch a racial literacy course as part of the university’s general education curriculum during the 2023-24 academic year. She also has contributed to a research project on implicit bias.
“No matter what tasks she is given, Olive has consistently demonstrated her competency in research, great work ethic and ability to work well with other students in my lab,” Hagiwara said. “Because of her excellent performance and leadership ability, I asked Olive to stay in my lab during the summer last year as a paid research assistant.”
Danyel Smith, a health psychology doctoral candidate, has been a mentor to Blackstone and called her an “outstanding student and thoughtful person.”
“As a veteran research assistant, Olive has emerged as a leader in and out of lab meetings,” Smith said, with Blackstone training other assistants in crucial analysis tasks. “She is a critical thinker, problem-identifier and problem-solver, and an innovation enthusiast. Her time at VCU is just the beginning of the indelible mark she will make in this world.”
Outside of VCU, Blackstone volunteers with the Unsolved Violent Crimes and Cold Cases Unit of the Virginia State Police, helping to find new leads in homicide cases.
“It’s been really rewarding to work specifically on these unsolved homicides and kind of get a picture of what is involved in relooking at these investigations,” she said. “[Doing this work] is one of my childhood dreams. It involves looking through old documents and eventually developing intelligence recommendations for how law enforcement can move forward with a case and hopefully, eventually get some leads.”
In addition to classes, her volunteer efforts and two internships, Blackstone works as an indoor cycling instructor at VCU’s Cary Street Gym.
“I got involved because when I first came here in 2020 as a freshman, there wasn’t a ton you could do [amid the pandemic], so I started taking cycling classes. … You kind of get accustomed to the exercise instructors, and you feel like you get to know them,” she said. “I was like, I could do that. So I started teaching twice a week.”
Blackstone said her career goal has long been to work at the FBI, though her time at VCU opened up other possibilities, too.
“My career goal has always been the typical criminal justice student’s dream of going to the FBI. That’s still my goal. But as I’ve done different things here, I realize that I could see myself in a career in research or nonprofit work or federal law enforcement in general,” she said. “I really feel like there’s just so much you can do with the degrees I’ve pursued.”
This story originally appeared on VCU News.