In celebration of Women’s History Month, USDA is proudly sharing stories of women leaders in agriculture who are helping girls and other women succeed along the way.
In this blog, we feature Dr. Dionne Toombs, the Director of USDA’s Office of the Chief Scientist. As director, Dr. Toombs provides leadership on a wide range of issues affecting science programs and science policy in agricultural research, education, and economics.
Dr. Toombs talked about nurturing childhood curiosity, navigating hurdles, and how mentorship and education can best train the next generation of women in agriculture.
Tell us your journey and how your interest in agriculture developed
My love for exploration as a child quickly developed into a love for science. But in my small town, there were very few girls interested in science and even fewer African American girls. I didn’t let that stop me. I knew I wanted to explore and learn more about science, so I made sacrifices. During middle school while many of my friends spent their Friday nights watching television, I had to sleep so I could catch the 7:15 bus on Saturday mornings to attend classes at my local university. That’s where my interest in biology was born.
What is your role in the Office of the Chief Scientist? What is a typical workday for you?
Leading the Office of Chief Scientist is ever-changing because of the breadth of our work. We coordinate science across the entire Department and build partnerships within the scientific community. My role requires a lot of planning and collaboration. Every day, I think about the emerging issues that have been presented to my office and how we will enhance outreach and awareness of agricultural science.
Who are your role models? Who/what inspires you?
My role models are my mentors and other women who are leaders in the agricultural science field. These women have encouraged me to continue to strive for excellence as a leader in agricultural sciences. In addition, my internship experience exposed me to the diverse workforce of USDA’s Agriculture Research Service scientists and afforded me the opportunity to gain additional knowledge and skills in nutrition research. During this time, I learned about the rich history of a female agriculture scientist, Dr. Margaret S. Collins. Dr. Collins was the first African American woman entomologist and an activist, fighting for advancement in entomology and the Civil Rights movement simultaneously. Despite the difficulty to attend school during the Jim Crow era, Dr. Collins was a child prodigy who attended a historically black college at the age of fourteen and later worked as a USDA county agent before pioneering incredible work as an entomologist. I’m inspired by a woman who persevered in the face of adversity and moved beyond obstacles.
What personal challenges have you encountered and how did you overcome them?
While in undergraduate school, I wanted to be a medical doctor. However, I changed my mind twice on the direction I wanted to take. Despite the changes, I never worried about the next step because I knew I would land in a great place. Today, I have degrees in biology, food science, and nutritional sciences, and serve in a wonderful role as an agricultural science leader.
What advice would you give to girls and young women who want to enter agriculture? What advice do you have for fellow women in agriculture, both in USDA and in the private sector?
We have a lot of work to do to feed our growing global population and we need bright students to help discover new methods and technologies to make it happen. I would advise girls and young women who want to pursue agriculture to work hard in school. They need to expand their education as much as possible. Next, I would encourage participation in programs like 4-H, internships, fellowships, and conferences. USDA internships were pivotal in my hands-on experience and relationship building. Research shows that 85% of jobs are filled through networking and there are ag jobs available for innovative, fresh talent. Finally, I would advise fellow women in agriculture to mentor the next generation of women in agriculture. Mentorship is the best way for girls to build confidence, coordinate career paths, and develop relationships within the ag workforce.