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. Jodi Williams, Senior Advisor for Food Safety, Nutrition, and Human Health with USDA’s Office of the Chief Scientist. Dr. Williams’ work focuses on policy development and operational planning pertaining to food safety and nutrition, and human health programs and activities. She reviews, evaluates, and critiques a broad range of policy and program management issues related to USDA’s coordinated food safety and nutrition science programs.
Dr. Williams talked about shaping a career path, the strength of a supportive network, and knowing your worth.
Tell us your journey and how your interest in agriculture developed
I was awarded a USDA 1890 National Scholars Scholarship as a high school senior. While studying chemistry at Delaware State University, I spent four summers and all holiday breaks working at USDA’s former Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service Higher Education Program’s office. While there, I interacted with program staff members, Mr. Richard Hood, Dr. Jeffrey Gilmore, and Ms. Lindell Williams, and visiting faculty from universities who encouraged me to look beyond basic science to applied agricultural sciences. Dr. Randolph Grayson recruited me to attend Virginia Tech University through his recently developed Minority Academic Opportunities Program (MAOP). Although I was not initially in MAOP, I attended Virginia Tech and accepted an assistantship in the Chemistry Department that aligned with my plans to work in environmental chemistry. As Dr. Grayson’s mentee, I learned of an opportunity within the Food Science Department for a student with a strong chemistry background. I met with the Department Chair and faculty and was sold! That is how I finally arrived in the world of agricultural sciences. I went on to complete my M.S. and Ph.D. within the Department of Food Science and Technology and to work with the USDA in Food Science and Food Safety Programs.
What is your role in the Office of the Chief Scientist? What is a typical workday for you?
As the senior advisor for food safety, nutrition, and human health, I am responsible for supporting and communicating USDA’s food safety and nutrition science goals across the Department, with other federal government agencies, and to the public. I lead and support domestic and international food safety and nutrition committees, while liaising between USDA’s research and implementation offices. On a typical day, I attend meetings and conference calls with internal and external stakeholders to discuss USDA science programs, evaluate program impacts, and identify opportunities where science can address agricultural gaps and potentially lead policy development.
Who are your role models? Who/what inspires you?
Many people have served as role models throughout my life. However, Congresswoman Maxine Waters stands out because she epitomizes a woman who is a sharp leader and strong voice for marginalized people. I am inspired by women and leaders who come from humble beginnings and work to uplift the communities that supported them.
What personal challenges have you encountered and how did you overcome them?
When I completed my M.S. degree, I was burned out in academia. I was having significant challenges identifying an advisor and a research topic that excited me. I was also being recruited by the food industry to work full time. I decided to enter the workforce. After informing my closest friends and family of my plan, many of them reached out to me and shared their experiences and difficulties along their academic journey. My mentor shared the obstacles he faced getting his degrees and the ones he continued to face as a tenured faculty member and Associate Dean. The parents of my closest friends also individually shared their struggles and encouraged me to pursue the goal I had set for myself. They all had the same general message: Don’t quit now; you deserve to win. This period taught me the importance of having a support system that can rally around you when you are in the “thick of it” and feel like you can’t go on. Their frank, continuous encouragement helped me overcome and achieve my goals.
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?
The best piece of advice that I have for girls and young women who want to enter agriculture are to move boldly and confidently. When you are invited to a meeting, understand you are adding value. Speak up and be included in the conversation. Young women and girls should find mentors and a support network within their work, public or private, and/or academic community. Also be mindful, your mentor and your community may not look like you or think just like you, but they will have your best interest in mind and assist you in accomplishing your career goals.