Creating the World’s Largest Forensic Science Program: An Interview with Dr. Ian Tebbett and Dr. Donna Wielbo

Last semester, the Forensic Science program said goodbye to two of its founders and original faculty members, Ian Tebbett, Ph.D., and Donna Wielbo, Ph.D. Both of them were early adopters of online education, who saw its potential to advance the careers of working forensic scientists and other professionals. They combined their own experiences working in forensic science with input from industry leaders, employers and other University of Florida faculty to develop the world’s largest forensic science graduate program. 

ian Tebbett and Donna Wielbo
Ian Tebbett, Ph.D. and Donna Wielbo, Ph.D.

Dr. Tebbett didn’t set out to start a new program. His journey began in 1998 while he was the director of the newly formed UF Racing Laboratory—responsible for testing racing horses and greyhounds for the presence of drugs—and his senior staff wanted to attend classes to improve their knowledge of toxicology. 

“While I was very supportive of this idea, we had upwards of 100,000 samples a year to analyze. I suggested that perhaps we could make a few courses available online so that staff could access them outside of regular hours,” Dr. Tebbett told us.

After the courses were developed, Dr. Tebbett received a call from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, “They heard we were running an online M.S. in Forensic Toxicology and they wanted access for their staff. I explained that this was very premature, but went to Orlando to discuss what they were looking for. The FDLE staff were pleased that I had asked for their input into an academic program and gave me several suggestions of what they, as potential employers, would like to see included in a M.S. in Forensic Toxicology.”

Dr. Tebbett also visited Quantico to talk to the FBI Laboratory about what kinds of training that their analysts would benefit from. “The underlying message from both meetings was that crime laboratories do an outstanding job of training their scientists. They have state of the art equipment, proficiency samples and extensive training manuals. Where they needed help was with adequately covering the theory behind the training so that analysts would have more credibility when testifying,” said Dr. Tebbett. 

These meetings made it clear that there was an unfulfilled need for a forensic science master’s program that was accessible to working professionals. The program grew quickly, fueled by high demand. By 2002, the Forensic Science Online Graduate Program was Dr. Tebbett’s main assignment and he and Dr. Wielbo began working on improving and expanding the program. 

From early on, students and graduates helped shape the program. Dr. Tebbett explained that two of the first students to complete the Forensic Toxicology program were Nancy Toffolo, who worked in the racing lab, and Oliver Grundmann, who was a Ph.D. student in the College of Pharmacy. Both individuals came on board after graduation and further assisted Dr. Wielbo in developing the online forensic programs into four master’s degree concentrations, five certificate programs, and over 50 online courses. Enrollments swelled from 30 in the first semester to over 700 per semester in recent years.

At the time, there was a lot of skepticism about the rigor of online programs. However, Dr. Tebbett dismisses it, “We have seen far more interaction with our online courses than I ever saw in a classroom. Students are more comfortable sending an email or text than raising their hand in an auditorium.” 

Regardless, their alumni may be the best evidence of the program’s quality. “Over the years the program has become widely accepted by the forensic community. Many of our early graduates are now forensic lab directors, section leaders and supervisors. They know the value of our online programs firsthand,” said Dr. Wielbo. 

Over the years, the program has enhanced its teaching material to keep up with new developments in online education. Dr. Wielbo explained that, Advances in technology have allowed us to greatly enhance and add to the material we are able to deliver via the internet. Graphics, video and simulations are now commonplace where a few years ago online courses relied heavily on PowerPoints and a ‘talking head.’”

Beyond improving the curriculum, they wanted to improve the student experience and bring a level of customer service that was not typical of online programs. This included adding a dedicated enrollment management team, graphic design, IT support and instructional design.

As they look towards retirement, both are pleased to have made higher education more accessible. Wielbo said, “I’m proud to know I have personally helped over 1500 students graduate and attain a level of education that may have been difficult for them under different circumstances.” 

Tebbett adds that, “We have impacted the lives of thousands of students, of which 70% are female and 30% are underrepresented minorities.” 

The two are optimistic about the future of the program and their students’ careers in forensic science. Dr. Tebbett advises current and future students that, “Forensic science encompasses dozens of disciplines that are continually evolving with advances in technology. Take advantage of every opportunity to stay current with new developments through education and training to avoid being left behind.”