As the director, Toffolo will lead four forensic science master’s degree concentrations and five graduate certificate programs. She will advise students in the program, teach graduate courses and serve as the point of contact for administrative, admissions and program policy needs.
Toffolo brings a wealth of forensic science experience and knowledge to the position. She began as a teaching assistant in the UF online forensic science program in 2004 and later moved into a lecturer role. In 2021, Toffolo was promoted to an instructional associate professor in the UF College of Pharmacy. She also earned a Master of Science degree with a concentration in forensic toxicology from UF.
The Forensic InvestiGator sat down for a conversation with Professor Toffolo to learn more about the experience she brings to the table and her plans for the program.
Congratulations on being selected as program director! What is your vision for the future of the forensic science program?
Thank you! My biggest hope is that I can continue the legacy that Dr. Tebbett and Dr. Wielbo are leaving behind. Over the years the program has become so well known in the field as an exceptional educational experience for forensic scientists, and I want that to persist as we move forward.
What are you most excited about for this upcoming year?
I am thrilled that we have been able to hire new instructors who are all working in the field of forensics. I feel that this brings a depth of real-time knowledge to our courses. Science is always advancing, and bringing on instructors who are teaching the discipline that they practice in the field is a way that we can not only keep up with any new developments, but then pass that on to our students.
What do you want students to know about the leadership transition?
I have been working very closely with Dr. Wielbo over the past few years to prepare for the transition. Over my time in the program, I have progressed from a teaching assistant, to lecturer, to senior lecturer and now the program director. Throughout the process Dr. Wielbo and Dr. Tebbett have advised and mentored me so that I feel confident in the new role I now have.
What inspires or motivates you as an educator?
It is the students. Our students want to be learning and growing professionally and academically and their excitement keeps me inspired. Honestly, it is the best feeling to know that you have taught students who are taking what they have learned and applying it to real-world scenarios.
Your career has taken you a lot of different places, from working on a life-sciences mission for NASA, to a private genomics firm, to the Florida Racing Laboratory and now the director of the world’s largest forensic science graduate program. Can you talk a little bit about how your varied experience has shaped you as an educator?
I feel very fortunate that I have had the opportunity to work in many different places, each with their own unique environment for learning and growing. My very first laboratory position was with USDA in entomology when I was working as an undergraduate student. That eventually led me to a position in a molecular biology lab at the University of Florida, which in turn led to the job at NASA. I used the skills I learned at each position to help build on the next and I was always open to working in variations in the field of science. I honestly was not afraid to try new techniques and always had a passion for learning more, regardless of the job. I hope that this translates into how I teach and that I can encourage our students to keep striving to learn, regardless of where they are at in their life or career.
How do you keep up with developments in forensic science?
Journals and research! Also, our instructors and students are always quick to post new ideas or techniques that are in the field. Our interactive community within the program is a great resource for all of us to keep learning.
Were you always interested in science?
Yes, from a young age I was always inquisitive to find out the “why.” I grew up in Florida and we did a lot of camping, which afforded me many opportunities to learn about nature, animals, weather and “science in my backyard.” As I got older, this grew into wanting to learn more about biology and chemistry.
You were one of the first students in the forensics program, how was that experience?
It was an amazing leap of technology at the time! The first class I enrolled in was Forensic Toxicology 1 in the Fall 2000 term. Online classes were virtually unheard of, especially in the sciences. I was working full time in the field at the time; taking classes while working was very rewarding as you could work through the course material and see the principles in action in the lab.
How has the program changed since you were a student?
The biggest changes are in the depth and growth of the course work and materials that have been added. The program started out with a focus in forensic toxicology, but as the demand grew, more courses and programs were added. Obviously, computer technology has advanced quite a bit over the last 20 years, so the platform for teaching has improved a great deal.
Are there things about online education that you feel people often misunderstand or overlook?
I think that people may not understand that you can get an excellent education online and that it can even be more challenging in some respects. We have a high standard both for our educators and students and just because it is online doesn’t mean that it is going to be easy. We work hard to make sure that the courses are representative of the material we want you to learn and continue to make improvements to keep up with the science and field.
How can incoming forensic science students set themselves up for success in the program?
Review the module notes carefully and engage in the discussion boards. There are teaching assistants and students with varying degrees of experience and the discussion boards are a great tool to interact with one another. Hold yourself accountable to logging in daily and checking in with us. We are here to help and if students have any questions at all they should reach out. It can be to ask for help on the material or anything at all. We want our students to succeed!
Any words for the current and incoming students this year?
Thank you for trusting us with your education! We are excited you are here to learn and look forward to working with you.