Ahmed Yousef and Jen Perry are researching ways to improve the safety and quality of food.

Help Wanted

Young people take note: Jobs for agriculture and food science majors are growing.

In fact, they’re projected to grow 16 percent between 2008 and 2018, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And that could mean a good living and job security for those working beyond the cattle sheds and corn rows.

“Kids and parents struggle with agriculture as a term, and if they are not familiar with it they believe it’s a dead end to a job,” said Sen. Chris Widener earlier this year on Ohio Farm Bureau’s radio show Town Hall Ohio.

Widener is supporting the creation of the Global Impact STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) Academy in Springfield. This school would target urban or suburban students and prepare them for careers in agriculture.

Widener noted that food and agriculture represents one in seven Ohio jobs, and only 10 percent of those jobs are on farms. Many of them are in high-tech areas.

Food science, and in particular food safety, is an example of a field that has seen growth in recent years.

“The public is very aware of the problems that can be associated with (E. coli, salmonella, Listeria) in food. Finding solutions for these pathogens, how to eliminate them in our food or how to minimize their effect, or at least reduce the risk, is what this lab is interested in,” said Dr. Ahmed Yousef, who studies the microbial safety of food at Ohio State University.

Jen Perry is a postdoctoral researcher who works with Yousef.

“In previous decades to make food safe, we just heated it until everything was dead. Now consumers are really demanding quality and condition of their food, and they expect everything that they buy whether it is completely raw or not to be safe,” she said “We need to find new processes that are able to accomplish that without essentially cooking everything, and that is something that we do a lot of in this lab.”

For example, the lab developed a way to use ozone to kill salmonella in eggs, and a student in a current STEM program recently completed a research project with Yousef and Perry where she identified ways to keep refrigerated food fresh longer.

The research is about applying fundamental science principles to agriculture, Yousef said.

This specialization can make students more attractive to businesses than those who have more general backgrounds in biology or microbiology.

“The application is different but the fundamentals are the same,” said Perry. “Food science has job security because people eat every day and always will.”

Technologies and techniques in agricultural sciences also are interchangeable with other fields such as medicine.

Originally from a beef cattle farm in Korea, Dr. Kichoon Lee earned a doctorate in animal sciences and then did postdoctoral research in the biomedical field.

Lee, an associate professor at Ohio State University, now studies how genes impact the development of muscle and fat in animals. He uses the knowledge of tissue growth and development he gained doing medical research.

“Agricultural sciences have a lot of impact and a lot of discovery that students who enjoy life sciences would enjoy,” he said. He recently mentored a STEM student in his lab who worked on a project identifying avian genes.

Nancy Taylor says she enjoys her job because she gets to solve puzzles with plant diseases.

“Here is a sick plant and how do I figure out why it’s sick?” said Taylor, program director at Ohio State’s C. Wayne Ellett Plant and Pest Diagnostic Clinic.

Her colleague Rob Fisher, an Ohio Department of Agriculture plant pathologist, shares that sentiment.

“It’s like you’re Sherlock Holmes when you come to work,” Fisher said.

The clinic is a founding member of a nationwide consortium of diagnostic laboratories. It regularly receives plant samples and is a first line of defense in agricultural security by detecting and monitoring pests and pathogens that are newly introduced to an area.

“A lot of the agriculture and horticulture industries are finding it difficult to find people to employ for the jobs they need done,” Taylor said. “And I think there are a lot of opportunities in industry, government and in research.”

Attention teachers and parents: See how this story connects to Ohio’s academic content standards.