Interview With Beth Ordeman, Forensic DNA Analyst and CODIS Co-Administrator
As her 2009 acceptance of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement’s Forensic Scientist of the Year award made clear, Beth Ordeman is a renowned figure in her field. She earned her Master of Science in Veterinary Medical Sciences with a concentration in Forensic Toxicology from the University of Florida, and she continues to share her passion for the subject at UF by teaching courses through our online forensic science graduate program. In this Investigator, we asked Ordeman about what sparked her interest in forensic science, her participation in the Great American Teach-In, the most memorable case she’s helped solve and her advice for online students.
How did you develop an interest in forensic science and what is your favorite aspect of this field?
I had moved to Gainesville to take some required pre-requisite courses for the UF veterinary program. While I was there, I got a job at the UF racing laboratory, a forensic laboratory which tests for the use of illegal substances in the racing industry. The directors of that laboratory were starting a new program for a distance-education master’s degree in forensics. Once I got involved in the world of forensics there was no turning back for me. I was hooked. I really found my calling when I began working for FDLE and transferred to the DNA Unit.
I understand that you were recognized as the Florida Department of Law Enforcement’s Forensic Scientist of the Year in 2009. That is an incredible achievement! How did it feel to earn this prestigious honor?
It was definitely a proud moment for me. Forensic scientists play an extremely important role in the law-enforcement community, but we are typically in a behind-the-scenes capacity. And like a lot of public service positions, it is a thankless job so to be recognized for something that I am so passionate about meant a lot to me.
What was the most memorable case you’ve helped solve and why is it significant to you?
This is definitely solving the homicide of Janet Staschak. In 1986, Janet Staschak was brutally murdered. A man who lived in her building, named Tom Sawyer, ended up confessing to the homicide and spent years in jail until his confession was thrown out by a judge after determining it was a coerced confession. In 2013, the Clearwater police department submitted crime scene evidence to determine if we could use DNA to solve the case. I was able to obtain a foreign DNA profile that did not match Tom Sawyer. It hit in CODIS, our national DNA database, to a man named Stephen Lamont who later confessed to the crime.
This was my favorite case for so many reasons. First, I have a passion for cold cases and have worked many over the years. I’ve also served on several cold case teams throughout my career. There is something about the quest for a decades-old unanswered question that really gets me going, and to bring closure to a family after so many years is pretty amazing. This case also simultaneously exonerated one man while convicting the true killer, thus changing the lives of not only the family of the victim, but the wrongly accused and his family as well. Imagine living your life for decades having everyone wondering if you really did kill someone, knowing you didn’t do it but not able to prove it. I was able to do that for him and bring closure to Janet Staschak’s family. And finally, it highlighted the power of DNA testing and the CODIS system. This case would never have been solved without DNA.
How are you fostering the next generation of female students’ interest in forensic science?
I love doing the Great American Teach-In every year. I love showing kids that there is a very cool application to what they are learning in math and science! I think it’s pretty common for students to think “When am I ever going to use this stuff in the real world?” One of my favorite teaching moments was when I showed an 11th grade statistics class that I used the exact same formulas they were learning every single day. It was this immediate turnaround from “This is lame and boring” to “Wait so you’re saying I can do something this cool with this stuff?”
Please describe the course you teach and your favorite aspect of teaching.
I have taught several courses over the years, including Biological Evidence and Serology, Blood Spatter and Forensic DNA Analysis (which is, of course, my favorite!). I love being able to bring real-world experience to the students and to help them understand the information at a very detailed level. I am not there teaching just from a textbook but from 20 years of actual field experience.
In teaching online courses, do you find it easier for students to understand forensic science concepts from your field experience rather than through a textbook?
I think both are equally important in learning. As scientists, we need to understand the scientific principles behind the testing we perform, which is gained largely through textbooks and other scientific literature. But we then need to be able to apply that knowledge to working cases which you’re not able to get from a textbook. It’s important to convey to the students how the concepts they are learning [apply] to the actual work. The course I teach is designed with real data and mock scenarios based on real cases to teach the students how to apply the information learned in the module readings.
What advice would you offer students in your online courses to help them manage their professional and school work?
My advice would be to prioritize your time effectively and do not put off until tomorrow what you can do today. It is so cliché but so true. You never know what life is going to throw at you and waiting until the last minute doesn’t typically work in your favor. Also, effectively utilizing the teachers to answer their questions is a must. Often times in distance-education classes I think the students forget what an asset they have at their fingertips. I am answering questions every day of the week at all hours of the day via email. If a student reaches out for help, I guarantee they will do well on the assignment because I will work with them until they understand the topic. But we can’t help a student if we don’t know they need it!