In celebration of Women’s History Month, USDA is proudly sharing stories of women leaders in agriculture who are helping girls and women succeed along the way.
In this blog, we feature Dr. Neena Anandaraman, Veterinary Science Policy Advisor with USDA’s Office of the Chief Scientist. Dr. Anandaraman’s work focuses on zoonotic infectious diseases (those that can be transmitted between humans and animals), antimicrobial resistance, and biosecurity. Her work provides science-based advice to senior leadership to help inform their policy decisions.
Dr. Anandaraman talked about the benefits of single-minded focus, sharpening your skills, and the diverse careers in agriculture.
Tell us your journey and how your interest in agriculture developed
My interest in agriculture was sparked by contact with strong role models in the veterinary profession. My mother took me on my first trip to the veterinarian when our dog, a basset hound named Judge, was sick. I was 6 years old and fascinated by the vet’s ability to figure out what was wrong without Judge having to tell him. I decided right then that I wanted to be able to do that when I grew up. Agriculture was all around me in my small, Texas town and I gradually became more aware of the interdependence of people and animals. That helped further deepen my commitment to want to serve the animals that serve humanity.
What is your role in the Office of the Chief Scientist? What is a typical workday for you?
In my role as a veterinary science policy advisor, I evaluate the current research on disease conditions transmissible between food animals and people to inform and ground the scientific work of USDA. I also partner with stakeholders, the public, and federal government agencies to help inform scientific collaboration and planning on high priority emerging agricultural animal health issues. Every day, I am researching, planning, coordinating, writing, and critically reviewing work.
Who are your role models? Who/what inspires you?
I have had terrific role models throughout my life. My parents always made me feel like I can do anything I set my mind to and at their encouragement, I went to work for the local county vet named Dr. Kit Carney. He took me under his wing and exposed me to all aspects of veterinary medicine through school and summers home from college. That served me well when I applied to veterinary school because they like to know you’re aware of the work before you invest in them and they in you. From my first boss in clinical practice, Dr. Travis Deen, I learned to hone my technical skills and the importance of developing a reputation for excellence. Finally, Dr. Richard McCurdy, my first supervisor in government service, taught me the best way to lead is to act in the manner you want others to act. Supervisors and colleagues throughout my career have taught me so much and I continue to be inspired by and learn from them. I’m also inspired by the beauty of our natural world. I’m motivated to minimize difficulties for those that cannot speak for themselves -- humans and animals alike. Science is one common thread to help solve some of those challenges.
What personal challenges have you encountered and how did you overcome them?
I immigrated to the United States as a three-year-old child and did not know English when I started school. Thanks to kind teachers and classmates, I quickly learned the language and the lesson that roadblocks can be overcome through determination. This experience taught me the importance of focus. That’s why I decided on a career early in life and concentrated on what it would take to get to that career. Veterinary school and other science degrees require a lot of hard work and commitment. It is more likely to happen if you can identify an area that interests you, research what is needed to achieve your goal early, and then focus on achieving it. That may mean determining early which colleges have programs applicable to your career goals, identifying the qualities and experiences successful applicants must have, and, finally, doing the work.
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?
There is a constant flow of new challenges to solve in agriculture and a career helping the world adapt to ever-evolving global needs will never run dry of fun and satisfying opportunities. What you want out of a career may change over time. Early on, you are hungry to learn and develop skills. As you acquire knowledge and develop new skills, you itch to use them. Once you have honed your skills, you may want to train and develop others or challenge yourself to develop more specialized competencies. Or you may want to learn new skills by changing your profession completely. The desire to learn new things seems to be an important drive we never tire of and continuous learning just makes our jobs and life more interesting. A career in agriculture prepares you for many fulfilling careers and fuels the drive to just keep learning!