It’s been about 10 years since Jessica Vena (2015, Master’s Forensic Studies) first wrote about a topic that sounded like an episode from TV’s “Criminal Minds.” Her Fort Myers High School International Baccalaureate paper explored the credibility of people using mental insanity as a defense.
Later, there were times she found herself re-reading the plaques along a row of palms at the University of Florida that serve to remember the victims of the Gainesville Ripper, a serial killer she studied as a psychology undergraduate. And then came her FGCU thesis – a comparative analysis of adolescents who are shooters vs. adult mass murderers.
The 27-year-old green-eyed alum’s warm smile and easy demeanor wouldn’t hint at her acute interest in what many may consider macabre.
“I have two sides to me,” she explained recently at a Fort Myers Starbucks not far from where she’d finished her shift at the District 21 Medical Examiner’s Office. “I have an academic approach to topics – a sterile, analytical one. And I have the human side of me that knows this is a human behavior that happens that’s really awful. This side of Jessica is like, ‘Wow, I can’t believe that.’”
Although her interest in forensic studies started young, she credits much of her subject-matter expertise and success to FGCU’s Duane Dobbert, professor of forensic studies, her master’s program mentor and the author of “Deviance: Theories on Behaviors That Defy Social Norms” (Praeger, 2015). Dobbert and Thomas X. Mackey edited the book with contributions from students like Vena, who assisted with two chapters.
She speaks emphatically about his dynamic classroom atmosphere and Socratic method of facilitating discussions. “The way Dr. Dobbert taught us, he made us communicators,” she said. “It was, ‘I respect your opinion, however this is how I feel’ … on topics of rape, crime, why crime happens, what makes someone predisposed to something another person wouldn’t do.”
While she ponders pursuing a doctoral degree, she helps out at her family’s longtime North Fort Myers restaurant, Fabio’s, and works as an administrative specialist at the office of Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Rebecca Hamilton.
Her days involve handling public records requests, updating policies and procedures, and ensuring the office is in compliance with statutes that govern it as it interacts with federal agents, local law enforcement officers, attorneys, hospitals and funeral homes. District 21 handles traumatic deaths (accidents, suicides, homicides) for Lee, Hendry and Glades counties.
It seems a long time since as a girl she devoured every Nancy Drew novel she could find. It’s nearly every week someone asks her if her job is like TV’s “CSI.” (It’s not.)
“If I pursue a doctorate, then I’d probably move into teaching – and I’d completely, wholeheartedly adopt the way Dr. Dobbert taught us,” she said.