Interview with Nancy Toffolo

Nancy Toffolo, M.S., is an accomplished scientist with experience in multiple disciplines. She is a senior lecturer and assistant director for Distance Education Programs in Forensic Science at the UF College of Pharmacy.

Nancy Toffolo

Nancy Toffolo’s wide-ranging professional experience includes contributing to a life sciences mission for NASA, working for a private genomics company and sharing her knowledge with students through various positions at the University of Florida. Her educational experience is equally diverse, with a BS in animal sciences and an MS in forensic toxicology. In this Investigator, we asked Toffolo about her NASA mission, how to get the next generation of women interested in STEM fields and her advice for online students.

You received your BS in animal sciences and your MS in forensic toxicology. What inspired you to complete a master’s degree in forensic toxicology instead of animal sciences?

I originally pursued a degree in animal sciences as I considered attending veterinarian school after graduating with my BS. However, I was able to work in a variety of laboratories following graduation, and eventually landed as a senior chemist for the racing laboratory at the University of Florida. I have a background as an equestrian, and this position allowed me to join my interests of animals with science; the racing laboratory was responsible for the drug testing of the racehorses and greyhounds for the state of Florida. This position led me to further my education in forensic toxicology, and I started pursuing my MS degree while employed at the racing laboratory.

Working for NASA had to be an incredible experience. Can you briefly describe the mission, your role and what it was like to work there?

The STS-90 Neurolab was a 1998 mission flown by the space shuttle Columbia. This mission focused on the effects of microgravity on the nervous system by looking at basic research in neurosciences utilizing different species (rats, mice, crickets, snails, two kinds of fish and the crew members themselves). They ultimately were hoping to expand their understanding of the mechanisms responsible for neurological and behavioral changes in space.

My role was to work with the rats that were dedicated to this mission: I handled animals for examination and relocation, administered medications, performed daily observations and collected data for principal investigators. All of this was done within a class 100,000 barrier facility.

As a child growing up near the space coast, having the opportunity to work for NASA was extremely exciting and fulfilling for me. I had watched numerous launches over the years, as well as the Challenger disaster in 1986. To be a part of the space program and work with laboratory animals that were to be sent into space was truly a memorable experience, especially watching the launch of the shuttle from NASA in Cape Canaveral, and being able to say, “I worked with those rats going into space!”

You have a unique teaching perspective, having begun as a teaching assistant for the forensic science program before moving into your current position in distance education. What differences do you notice with each course style, and how do those differences impact how you prepare for classes?

The courses that I teach are based very heavily in theory, so there is a lot of review of metabolic systems, chemistry, biological systems, molecular biology and so on. This means that I need to be prepared to instruct students on difficult concepts that are crucial to understanding so that they can be successful in the field. Additionally, all of my courses include the application of experimental techniques and procedures routinely used in this field of forensics, which means that I must stay current with laboratory techniques specific to each area of study so that they can be incorporated into the courses.

Can you provide an example of a recent laboratory technique change? How did it impact your lesson plans and the overall field of forensic science?

In the past few years there have been advances in using messenger RNA (mRNA) to help to determine the age of biological stains. This is important in the field of forensics in helping to confirm or discredit a timeline of a crime. For example, if a laboratory is able to identify the time a semen stain was left, this could help to either convict or exonerate a person of interest. In regards to teaching, I try to incorporate the new information into both the lesson and the discussion board; it is always helpful if we have students actively using or working with the new techniques to share their experiences with the class via the discussion board.

You’re a woman with an accomplished background in multiple scientific disciplines. What can be done to enhance interest in the STEM fields (specifically forensic science) for the next generation of women?

As an instructor and a mother to a young girl, I feel very strongly that girls need to be encouraged to explore all areas of science, starting at a young age. For the past five years I have been active in our local elementary school as an instructor for the Science Olympiad, which gives young children the opportunity to learn how to solve basic science problems under the guidance of teachers and scientists. By encouraging girls to participate in science activities such as this, we can hopefully spark the interest of young girls to explore the sciences.

Science Olympiad sounds like an interesting program. Was there a recent project you instructed that had a profound impact on the children?

One of the events in the Science Olympiad that is a favorite is pasta bridges. This is geared toward children in grades 3-5. They must work together as a team to construct a bridge using six pieces of spaghetti pasta (dry) while anchoring it to two wooden bases with clay. They then place a small plastic cup on the bridge and see how many pennies the cup could hold. The kids had a lot of fun working together and learning what worked and what was not a success. The activity gave them the opportunity to hypothesize ahead of time what methods might be more effective and why. In regards to science, the simple act of hypothesizing, trial and error, teamwork and fun are all important aspects I feel they should experience. If science is fun they will keep coming back for more. The winning pasta bridge held over 200 pennies!

What advice would you give a prospective student considering an online graduate education?

The best advice I can give is to make sure that the degree you are pursuing is of great interest to you; students learn best and are most successful when they are learning about a subject they truly are excited about. Also, it is imperative to make sure that you have ample time to set aside for your studies; it is a misconception that online learning is easier. In fact, I would say that it is more difficult in that it takes a tremendous amount of self-discipline to study and research on your own.

What advice would you give to current online students balancing their work, social and educational responsibilities?

When I was working full-time and completing my MS degree, it worked best for me when I had a plan in regards to studying and completing the work each week. Obviously, sometimes life would get the better of me, and my plans would fall apart a bit. Just don’t let a small setback overwhelm you; email your TA or instructor for advice or help if you are having trouble understanding a concept or assignment or need an extension due to extenuating circumstances. Try to keep the balance of work and school the best that you can, but don’t be afraid to reach out to us if things get tough! We are here to help.