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USDA 1890 National Scholar Alumna Connects USDA Career with Service

Posted by Carrie Knight, Public Affairs Specialist, USDA Office of Partnerships and Public Engagement in Equity Initiatives
Feb 23, 2024
Tuskegee University alumna Dr. Kristal Southern

Dr. Kristal Southern can remember being certain of two things as a child. “By the age of 4, I knew I wanted to be a vet,” she said. “And by age 13, I knew I wanted to attend a historically black college or university.”

Southern achieved both goals. She became a veterinarian and began a professional journey over the last 25+ years that led to her current position with the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) as a scientific liaison and the designated federal officer for one of its advisory groups, the National Advisory Committee on Microbiological Criteria for Foods (NACMCF). In this role she supports public health issues related to the safety of the U.S. food supply.

She started her academic journey at Tuskegee University. After applying, she learned about the USDA 1890 National Scholars Program. “I was a good student and was offered other scholarships,” she said. “But I received information about the program and was intrigued.” Southern learned about the relationship between veterinary medicine and public health and the vital role USDA plays in both.

“The USDA 1890 Scholars Program directed my future career,” she said. “It is one of the best things that ever happened to me.”

Southern participated in several internships with USDA during her time as an 1890 National Scholar. One summer, she worked with the FSIS Eastern laboratory in Atlanta, Georgia. “I worked with microbiologists and veterinary pathologists to conduct testing to support regulatory decisions, consumer complaints, and foodborne outbreak investigations,” she said. “It was really interesting work that demonstrated the public benefit of our services.”

The following summer, she worked at Tuskegee on a USDA grant-funded project conducting outreach with farmers and producers in rural Alabama. “Our main focus was on minority farmers,” Southern said. “We visited homes, businesses, and slaughterhouses, telling them about USDA and providing information on pathogen reduction requirements.”

Those experiences, the people she met, and the diversity of services USDA provides cemented her decision to make a career with USDA. She attributes much of her success to mentors who have provided guidance and support over the years. “These are the people who fought for me in the rooms I was not in,” she said. Dr. F. Erich Hemphill (1930-2007), formerly of USDA, stands out among these important influences. “He prepared me for conversations I would have in the future and recommended me when others didn’t even know my name.” She now tries to pay that service forward by mentoring other 1890 National Scholars.

The 1890 National Scholars Program is currently accepting applications for the 2024-25 school year through March 1, 2024. For more information or to apply, visit USDA 1890 National Scholars Program.

Category/Topic: Equity Initiatives