Speaking for the Dead
Ann Weber-Hughes, RPA-C, MPAS
Suffolk County Medical Examiner’s Office
Medical Forensic Investigator
Ann Weber’s job is to communicate for the dead. As a medical forensic investigator, Weber is the last person who can speak for them. When they can’t reveal what happened to cause their death, it’s up to Weber to figure it out.
By finding those answers, she helps bring closure to the grieving family and seeks justice for the deceased if it’s been determined they have been a victim of foul play.
While some people might think being a forensic investigator is morbid, it’s a very rewarding job for a person like her who has an insatiable curiosity and loves finding answers to mysteries.
Weber admits the work is not easy.
“The only way you can do this job is to recognize that the deceased aren’t people anymore,” Weber says. “They’re bodies. I can talk to you, I can touch you, you can feel—and they can’t.”
Recent television crime dramas and movies have portrayed the medical examiner as sexy and intriguing. The upside of all the media attention is that women are being drawn to forensic science in record numbers, not only by the appeal of the strong role models on screen but by their own desire to help people.
Weber, the mother of two children Krystal, 12, and Ayden, 5, says her children know what she does for a living.
“They say it’s a cross between a cop and a doctor,” Weber says. Sometimes they think she’s a doctor, but when she’s in her medical examiner’s uniform, they think she’s a police officer.
Weber has seen the profession evolve over the years as physician assistants have come in with their masters degrees. Now getting her doctorate, she says she’s the only forensic investigator on staff who has performed autopsies.
When Weber began her career with Suffolk County 16 years ago, she was the only woman on staff. Now there are five women and six men in her department under the leadership of Dr. Michael Caplan, the new Suffolk County Chief Medical Examiner.
“Caplan is a huge asset to the department,” Weber says. “He’s been very supportive.”
Weber believes that women bring a different skill set to the job.
“Women empathize differently than a man,” she says. “I can do every case the same as a man and walk away from it and dispose of the emotion because it’s a body, it’s not a person.
“But pry a baby out of a mother’s arms just once and you’ll never be the same again,” she continues. “I’m not saying men can’t relate to that because they are fathers, and many times they’re better parents than their female counterparts, but as a mother who has carried human life inside of my body, I can appreciate what that mother is feeling at that moment.”
As she’s come to know firsthand, accidental and natural deaths far outnumber murders and suicides. It’s her job to determine how these people died. Sometimes toxicology tests can take weeks or months to get results. Writing “Pending Further Study” on a death certificate is something the Medical Examiner wants to avoid.
Weber does most of her work in the field. When a call is received at the office, the investigator on duty goes to the scene to determine if any criminal or negligent act has occurred.
Not only does Weber examine the body and collect evidence, she interviews witnesses, records detailed observations of the scene, and takes extensive photographs. She also takes possession of the body and supervises its transport back to the medical examiner’s office.
There, she makes a positive identification of the body, safeguards any valuables, both personal and toxicological, and tries to keep the chain of evidence intact.
By factually determining the cause of death without interpreting it, her forensic skills help police and other investigators working on a potential homicide keep their perspective.
The night shift seems to be when the unusual cases are reported, Weber has found. But that’s not all she’s had to deal with, and sometimes the deaths are seasonal, too.
“I get a lot of motor vehicle accidents and some small plane and helicopter crashes in the warmer months,” Weber says. “We see a lot of drug overdoses. There’s bad heroin out there. Narcotics are a big problem in Suffolk. Suicide numbers often rise towards the end of the year, around the holidays.”
The essence of a person may disappear when they die, but Weber still has questions to answer in order to bring peace to all who’ve they left behind.
Thankfully, her scientific skills enable her to be the best communicator they’ll ever need.
Ellen Williams, Regional Development Director,
According to Internet lore, the first email was a message sent by Ray Tomlinson to himself in late 1971 announcing its own existence. Now, there are more than 295 billion emails sent every day. Email has revolutionized the way we do business and communicate with each other.
Constant Contact is one of the larger online marketing companies that connect businesses and people with email.
Understanding the technology and human side of what drives digital marketing is Ellen Williams, the regional development director for Constant Contact.
Williams’ technology roots go back to 1985 when she was working at Broadway Video, a Manhattan company that produced Saturday Night Live and other television show affiliations. One day, she says, “They put a computer on my desk and said, ‘Learn it.’”
Luckily for her, she found out she had a knack for technology. Then her career took an administrative turn and she became an expert in software applications like Lotus 1-2-3 and Peachtree.
As word of her prowess spread, Williams carved out a niche in what was then a very small market by starting a consulting company to help people understand the new software.
“At that time there wasn’t a lot of people in consulting on how to buy computers, inspect them and use them,” she says.
Next, Williams began writing articles on software and became an expert on tech toys. Soon she was considered an authority on technology topics, especially for the end-user.
“I wound up writing for websites about cutting edge technology and home automation,” Williams says.
In 2010, Williams was hired by Constant Contact to be a solution provider and help promote digital marketing best practices on Long Island, New York and Connecticut. In less than three years she has presented their email solutions to more than 10,000 small businesses, nonprofits and associations.
Part of her job is to go out and speak to people about digital marketing and social media promotions.
“On Long Island there is a lot of great networking,” she says. “It’s been very rewarding, plus I get to stay in touch with my small business roots.”
Williams says Long Island poses unique challenges for small businesses.
“There are a lot of different pockets, but Long Island is both united and disjointed,” she explains. “The ones who live and work here see the need for focusing on the future. They’re all in. Long Island is the place to be.
“They want to see growth and to see their kids stay here,” she adds. “There’s been a lot of work done to bring technology to the forefront, like Launch Pad, Listnet and Stony Brook.” The university sponsors an incubator for high-tech at Calverton.
She finds it interesting that businesses here “won’t necessarily travel too far to do business,” and as a result, she’s discovered that there’s a lot of segmentation on Long Island.
Advising business owners on how to streamline their email operation is one of the most popular topics at her speaking engagements, Williams says.
“Long, involved emails are a thing of the past,” she exclaims. “Best practice is to keep them informative, valuable, short, sweet and to the point and designed where they’re optimized for mobile devices. More than half of the people who read emails will do it on their mobile device, as mobile becomes more and more a part of our lives. We are checking our email more often than we are checking our social media.”
She has to remind her clients not to let the new technology become overwhelming.
“What small businesses need to understand is that technology is a necessity but it doesn’t have to take all your time,” she explains. “Every business needs a computer in order to be competitive, but technology doesn’t have to overtake all of your business.”
As the mother of twin girls who are now sophomores in college, Williams understands the synergy between young women. She’s optimistic about technology and the future careers in technology that await them.
“Girls in their teens have a really good handle on technology today as more people are going to be utilizing mobile for just about everything,” Williams says.
She wants all young women “to be very comfortable with technology, understand how to use it and what kind of things can be done with it.”
Fortunately, Ellen Williams is ready to point the way.
IF YOU BUILD IT, THEY WILL LEARN
Farzana Gandhi, LEED AP ASSISTANT PROFESSOR,
School of ARCHITECTURE AND DESIGN,
NEW YORK INSTITUTE OF TECHNOLOGY
Creating architecture on a personal and socio-economic level is Farzana Gandhi, assistant professor in the architecture department at the School of Architecture and Design at New York Institute of Technology in Old Westbury.
Gandhi was originally a pre-med student but she switched her concentration.
“I didn’t have a passion for it,” she says.
So, she began taking art classes. One day, Gandhi’s professor, while extolling her creative talents, gave her some unsolicited advice. “Whatever you do, don’t become an architect,” he told her.
“When I asked him why,” she recalls, “he said he thought architecture would box me in; it would be too analytical and stifle the intuitive creativity I had.”
Until then, it had never even dawned on Gandhi that architecture could be a possible profession for her. And yet it has become a very rewarding one for her.
“I don’t find myself stifled at all,” she says today. “For me, architecture is the perfect blend of science and art.”
Before teaching architecture at NYIT, Gandhi studied in Spain and Italy, and returned to the United States to earn her master’s from Harvard.
In her professional career outside the classroom, she’s always been drawn to public works both locally and internationally.
“I came from the mindset of wanting to do good,” Gandhi says. “I’ve worked on a number of different projects, but I’m always drawn to those that directly impact people.”
She is working on community-based projects that range from rethinking an urban public space in Brooklyn to coming up with an outdoor classroom and wireless hub in Africa. The diversity of her work brings the challenge of translating her design skills to the project at hand.
Gandhi is also part of an NYIT faculty-student team working on SodaBIB, a patent-pending system which uses recycled water bottles to form the shingles of a roof for shelters in disaster-stricken areas.
“If you think of Haiti, a tent city now, we came up with an idea that uses the water bottles and shipping pallets that were shipped to the site,” she explains. “The pallet that holds the water is designed to disassemble and be used as a roofing sub-structure, and the shingles come from the plastic water bottles.”
Inspired by these projects, she’s come up with a new elective that she is teaching this semester called, “Social Impact Design.”
“It is akin to community-based or public-interest design,” Gandhi explains. “Can someone become a social impact designer? We’ve had some really interesting discussions with the students on how to pursue a project. There’s a lot of organizations that are committed to doing those kinds of things.”
“I know how to build a building, but [I ask] what can I do on this scale,” she says. “It’s a very unique way of thinking. If you sit down at the table with other professionals, the architect is the holistic thinker, seeing all of the elements and how they work together.”
With so many student-driven initiatives going on here, Gandhi believes she must be doing something right.
“A number of NYIT grads found themselves on an alternative architectural route,” she says.
After Superstorm Sandy, a group of her students began Operation Resilient Long Island (ORLI). “One went on to become involved in resilient architecture after his home was destroyed. He is working for a firm that provides home inspections during the recovery effort.”
It’s rewarding for her as a teacher to see how her students have influenced her, too.
“Architecture is making models, using different materials and understanding how things are put together,” she says. “It’s a lot of collaborative learning. That’s where the magic happens.”
Amanda Peppard, Founder and CEO, Suite Pieces
But that bug seemed to have passed her by.
“My mom painted, sang, and crocheted,” she says. “My father is a mechanic and does renovations. My brother is an amazing artist. Growing up, I couldn’t do any of those things.”
After graduating from college she became a math teacher.
“I can’t draw or sing or play an instrument so I shied away from the arts, even though I was drawn to it,” she says. “That was why I went to school to be a math teacher.”
She taught math for a year but knew in her heart that it didn’t feel right.
“The kids needed someone passionate about it,” she says. That wasn’t her.
After Peppard got married, she moved to Long Island where her husband grew up.
She was working for a heating, ventilation and air-conditioning company when she was inspired to follow her passion. She wound up getting her certification in Interior Design and quit the HVAC company. Then she dove head-first into working at a local design company.
Still not satisfied, she got a job at a consignment shop. When it didn’t work out, she came to a crossroad in her career.
“I didn’t know what I was going to do,” Peppard recalls. “It was right before Christmas and I was feeling lost and out of control.”
One day while shopping in a vintage store, Peppard saw that it had an area available for rent.
“I didn’t know that you could do that,” she says. “I had a lot of different things that I had collected so I thought I’ll rent the space and recreate my own stuff.”
Peppard had read a blog about Annie Sloan, who had developed what she called Chalk Paint—and that proved instrumental for Peppard’s next career move. She quickly saw the benefits that this innovative paint could offer her.
“You don’t have to strip, sand or prime furniture,” she says. “I needed some of that paint.”
Chalk Paint has a velvety texture, and does not contain latex or volatile organic compounds. Easy to use and very versatile, it comes in a palette of 18th and 20th century colors that can be mixed to extend the range. It can be used indoors or outside, on wood, metal, plastic or terracotta with equally good results.
New Jersey was the nearest place where Peppard could buy it. The paint’s inventor asked her why she’d driven so far. When Peppard explained that nobody on LI sold Chalk Paint, Sloan suggested she should do it.
“I called the company the next day, and signed a contract to become the exclusive LI dealer,” she says.
Peppard met a dealer from a Brooklyn flea market who wanted to sell the paint there.
“I thought it was a great idea but I needed to walk before I could run,” she says, “so we partnered for a store in Brooklyn.”
Finding an affordable space was a challenge but the search taught her a lot about real estate and commercial business. Peppard and her partner opened a Brooklyn location in August 2013. She was still renting space in Huntington when that building was put up for sale.
“I wanted to buy it and renovate it,” she says. “It had immense potential as an anchor for the revitalization of Huntington Station.”
But that building was sold to someone else.
“My heart was broken,” Peppard says. “I thought my dream was done. But everything happens for a reason.”
A few months after the sale, the new owners were visiting their property when they saw that Peppard’s area was very busy. They asked her if she would be interested in operating and leasing the entire building.
Peppard jumped at the chance.
“It worked out exactly the way I wanted it to,” she says. In March, she took over the building. After undergoing a major renovation, Suite Pieces—the name Peppard came up with—now has 19 vendors and 13 artists in residence, plus a workshop room where she holds Pinterest Live events a few times a month as well as a studio area for custom work.
At first, she admits she was worried about making the transition from business owner to landlord. But her concerns were short-lived.
“As soon as someone moves out, someone walks in looking for space,” she says. “It’s almost unbelievable the way it’s worked out.”
Peppard has a grand plan for the future.
“I have very big ambitions, and I don’t know where they come from,” she exclaims. “I grew up poor and didn’t have hope as a young girl, but I felt I should do something important and help people.”
And so now Peppard is building a Suite Pieces brand.
“Eventually I would like to have my own line of furniture and hardware,” she says. “I love putting a room together.”
That’s not all.
“I will have my own TV show someday,” she vows.
Peppard hopes to see the Suite Piece brand empower others to create their own spaces and customize them. Just as she learned to do when she started out.
“I love teaching,” she says, “but I’m doing it in a different way.”
Calling all Actuaries, Economists, Cost Estimators and Statisticians…
There have been many articles and studies done on STEAM fields and the gender gap, and in doing some research men are still dominating the field on Long Island and across the country.
Maybe I’m looking in the wrong places. I’ve spent hours online and have spoken to some leaders in the technology fields, and when I ask for recommendations for a woman mathematician, I am invariably told to check the colleges and universities for their staff roster. This is the area where women shine in mathematics, hands down, and I am in no way disparaging their brilliance and diligence to pursue a field that is male-dominated.
So I’m ready to take my lumps if you want to dish them, but while you’re at it send me the names of some women mathematicians on Long Island outside of education and I will meet and profile two in the next issue, I’ll call the feature STEAMM…