Natalia Peres worked more than a decade as the only female faculty researcher at the Gulf Coast Research and Education Center in Balm.
It didn’t bother her. It bothers me. As an administrator, I’m always looking for talent, and the absence of women indicates we’re overlooking talent.
GCREC Director Jack Rechcigl feels the same way, and he hired two more talented female faculty members in the past three years and promoted a third. Sriyanka Lahiri is the center’s fruit crops entomologist, and Mary Lusk is a soil scientist with special expertise in water quality. Debra Barry started a tenure-track teaching position at the UF/IFAS College of Agricultural and Life Sciences Plant City program in January.
Lahiri attributes her academic success that qualified her for the job at GCREC in part to the guidance she has received from three male mentors. When she got to Hillsborough, though, it was a woman who helped her connect with growers.
Alicia Whidden, who was at the time about to retire as a UF/IFAS Extension Hillsborough County agent, took Lahiri under her wing. Whidden and Lahiri traveled the region visiting farms. Getting introduced by Whidden gained Lahiri instant credibility, and Lahiri built on that positive first impression through hard work serving growers.
The grower with whom she’s had perhaps the most contact so far also happens to be a woman. Hilda Castillo and her husband grow strawberries. She and Lahiri have quickly built a relationship based on research. Lahiri needs access to commercial fields to study the chilli thrips. Castillo has an intellectual fascination with science, seeks solutions to threats such as the thrips and has a service ethic that motivates her to foster knowledge that can help the entire industry.
Castillo can relate to an early-career scientist’s ambitions because she remembers coming to the U.S. 30 years ago with a dream to own a farm and a desire to work. She’s puzzled when people ask her why she never takes a vacation and why she continues to do the manual labor of harvesting and lifting crates. She simply loves the hands-on aspect of the farm business she’s built.
Lahiri’s graduate students come and go freely from Castillo’s farm, collecting insects from sticky traps and recording data. It’s been an essential part of Lahiri’s early work that may inform important pest management decisions.
Lusk, too, benefited from a female Extension professional. In her case, though, that agent was herself. Lusk had been a regional specialized water agent for the region that included Hillsborough and Polk, and she delivered important science to both city and farm, residents and businesses, to guide decisions to protect water quality and reduce consumption.
But Lusk wanted to shift her focus to producing science in addition to disseminating it. In 2018, she became one of our few faculty members, male or female, who crossed over to a research faculty appointment from a full-time Extension position.
Peres, meanwhile, keeps turning out great research, like using ultraviolet light to kill fungus on strawberries. GCREC’s plant pathologist also mentors graduate students and interns who assist in her research. Her most recent intern hires are Rebeca McGuin, an aspiring plant pathologist who started volunteering as a high school student, and Antanese Griffith, a student of Barry’s who wants to become an ag teacher.
Barry started at Plant City five years ago as an academic adviser and soon thereafter became coordinator of the program. She taught, served as coordinator of UF Plant City and commuted weekly to Gainesville for classes to pursue her own education, earning her Ph.D. in 2019. Her work with graduates and undergraduates has produced alumni who work in Extension, agribusiness and especially in teaching agriculture to sixth-through-12th-graders.
Lahiri, too, is keen to develop the next generation of talent. Her very first hire two years ago was a new UF anthropology graduate. Marissa Cassaway worked as a lab technician rearing insect colonies. She had no previous agricultural experience, but she worked hard, learned fast and developed a passion for pests.
Two years working for Lahiri led to an opportunity for Cassaway to secure a permanent position as an entomology technician at a private Hillsborough-based research firm. Just as Whidden expanded Lahiri’s network, Lahiri was Cassaway’s gateway into Hillsborough County agriculture.
It’s my hope that as Cassaway advances in her career, she will be in a position to not only expose men and women alike to the same opportunities in Hillsborough agriculture but to do what she can to give them equal access to it. That gets us closer to a local agriculture that hires the best talent, not just the best talent we find in the places we’ve always looked.
By J. Scott Angle