The award is the highest honor given to Texas Tech faculty.
Mindy Brashears has established herself as one of the most widely respected food safety experts in the world. As the Undersecretary of Agriculture in Food Safety for the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) from 2019-2021, she helped guide food safety policy for the U.S. as it navigated the restrictions and complexities brought on by COVID-19.
As a scientist, Brashears focuses her research on interventions in pre-and post-harvest environments and on the emergence of antimicrobial drug resistance. She has led international teams in Mexico, Belize, Honduras, Australia and Argentina. Her work has resulted in the commercialization of pre-harvest feed additives that reduce E. coli and Salmonella in cattle.
Brashears earned her bachelor's degree in food technology at Texas Tech University before earning both her master's and doctoral degrees in food safety at Oklahoma State University. Her professional career began at the University of Nebraska but after five years there Brashears returned to Texas Tech as a professor with the goal of developing the top food safety program in the country.
Since then, she has been named associate vice president for research at Texas Tech, the director of Texas Tech's International Center for Food Industry Excellence, a fellow of the National Academy of Inventors and the Roth and Letch family Endowed Chair of Food Safety in the Department of Animal & Food Sciences, housed within the Davis College of Agricultural Sciences & Natural Resources.
Her outstanding work as an educator, researcher and industry leader has now led to another title. Brashears recently was named a Horn Distinguished Professor, the highest honor given to a Texas Tech faculty member.
What does it mean to you to be named a Horn Distinguished Professor?
It's an incredible honor to be named Horn Professor. It's even more significant because I was a student at Texas Tech, and as a student, you knew the Horn Professors were very accomplished. I was intimidated in their presence!
Now that I've been named one, I know that's not the case at all. I'm just a normal person and I hope anyone would feel comfortable approaching me. But from the time I was an undergrad until I started as a faculty member, becoming a Horn Professor has been the ultimate goal at Texas Tech. So, it means a lot to me professionally and personally, being both a faculty member and an alumna of Texas Tech.
What originally brought you to Texas Tech?
When I was in the seventh grade I came to the Texas Tech-Texas A&M football game and it was a really close game. I remember at the end Texas Tech scored, and I saw the horse with the Masked Rider run around the field. The atmosphere at Texas Tech was amazing. I decided, ‘I'm coming to school at Texas Tech.'
I never considered another university. I applied to Texas Tech and got in. After that I went to graduate school at Oklahoma State, and then started my job at the University of Nebraska, where I worked for almost five years.
Back in the day before we had social media, I saw an advertisement in a food safety publication about a job opening at Texas Tech. I opened it up and saw the Double T, read the title and I closed it and put it in a drawer because I didn't want to leave Nebraska.
I ended up at a professional meeting a couple of months later and Dr. Mark Miller came specifically to find me. I had never met him before. I walked out of my talk and saw this person who came up to me and he said, “I'm Dr. Mark Miller from Texas Tech. I want you to come and interview for this job.”
If any of you know Dr. Miller, he's very persuasive. I thought, “I'll just go to the interview and then I'll negotiate a raise at Nebraska.” But once I came here, Dr. Kevin Pond, our department chair at the time, and Dr. Leslie Thompson, my undergraduate adviser, were very involved, and they reminded me what a family environment it is at Texas Tech. I was hooked. I came back home and told my husband, Todd Brashears, I wanted to move back to Texas and, as always, he was supportive. He was even able to finish his doctorate at Texas Tech and join the faculty.
I want to add that Texas Tech was so supportive of me coming and gave me all the resources and support that I needed. I was coming from a well-established, strong program with many faculty. And when I came back to Texas Tech I told them, “I'm not coming here to be top-10 or top-five, I'm here to be No. 1 in food safety.” And we've really grown that program because the university has been so supportive.
What have been your most rewarding experiences here at Texas Tech?
First and foremost, the people. I've received a number of awards – best scientist, rising star, all these awards – and they're important, I don't want to discount them or discredit them. But really, it's been the people. Being able to invest my life in the lives of the students is so important. Mentoring them and raising up the next generation of food safety professionals, and then ultimately seeing them out in the industry or in academia being successful brings me great joy.
The most important experience at Texas Tech is the ability to work closely with my husband. He is a professor in the Department of Agricultural Education & Communications and he and I have been able to obtain research grants and mentor students together. We have traveled the world collecting data and it has been very rewarding. We began the Sustaining Our World Through Education and Research (SOWER) scholars program for international students and it continues to impact the lives of students all over the world.
Then there's the faculty and the administration. I have been so supported throughout my career at Texas Tech. They helped with getting the food safety program started and they enabled us to grow the program and hire more faculty since then. Then when I went to Washington D.C., they allowed me to go on a leave of absence and supported my husband's shift to online teaching – we didn't know at the time that was going to be necessary, so it worked out well. That support has enabled me to achieve my professional goals.
Who has been the greatest influence on your research and your teaching?
First of all, I want to thank my family. My husband has been supportive of my entire career and that allowed me to follow my dreams. Without his support, I could never have achieved the things I have. My three daughters, Bailey, Reagan and Presley have inspired me to make the world a better place! I also have to thank my parents, Gary and Becky Hardcastle, for their influence. My dad is a farmer and growing up in agriculture opened the door to my career as an agricultural scientist. My mom was a teacher so teaching and passing on knowledge is in my genetics.
Ultimately, as a professional, I was inspired most of all by my major professor, Dr. Stan Gilliland at Oklahoma State. He has passed away now, but he taught me not only how to be a good scientist, but also how to be a good person and treat my grad students properly, making sure they were nurtured instead of dictated to. You have to consider their personal values. So really, that was where I learned to be a strong scientist and grew my graduate career.
As I moved through the process in academia at the University of Nebraska, I had several mentors. My first department chair was Dr. Steve Taylor, and he was very involved in the industry in allergen research. I didn't know at the time that many department chairs didn't also have a strong research lab because he maintained his position as department chair and still ran his research lab. So that's a good example of how to multitask and be great at both, because he was a wonderful boss and he was, and remains, one of the top allergen researchers in the area of food science.
At Texas Tech I've had many individuals impact my career. I came into Texas Tech with a lot of cattle feeding research and meat science. I worked with Dr. Mike Galyean, and he was always so wise and humble. I had no idea that he was such an esteemed scientist in the field of ruminant nutrition until I began working closely with him. I look back on those days, and how my path crossed with somebody like that – to be able to do these cattle feeding studies and food safety – and I'm so very fortunate to have crossed paths with him. I knew that if he ever reviewed a manuscript, it was going to go through because it was going to be perfect. He was, and is, the greatest editor I've ever worked with.
Multiple other collaborators have been influential including Dr. Guy Loneragan and Dr. Mark Miller. Dr. Loneragan and I grew up together in our careers in pre-harvest food safety. Dr. Miller and I have worked closely on the meat science side, conducting validation studies from beef to feed yard to produce. One of my former students, Dr. Marco Sanchez, has also become a strong influence on me professionally, so my investment in him has come full circle.
I've already mentioned my husband, Dr. Todd Brashears. He has given me a different perspective by bringing in the social sciences and human elements.
What have been the most important lessons you have learned along the way?
Probably the most important lesson is the fact that I don't know everything, and I never will. I think as I've grown as a scientist and as a researcher, and then working in government and working with the industry, science and data become very foundational. We need the data. We must have that for decision-making. But the implementation of that is so much more complex.
As a scientist moving through the tenure process, I remember when I started as an assistant professor, I just wanted to get tenure. I wanted to publish and I wanted to check the boxes. I have grown into a scientist who wants to be impactful. I want my research to make a difference in the industry, impact the number of pathogens in a product and impact public health to save lives. To do that you need practicality in your approach to designing projects – getting industry input, knowing that there could be unintended consequences – and you have to consider the costs. People aren't going to implement an intervention technology that you develop that isn't affordable and that can't be used in the industry.
Publishing and getting research grants are really important as faculty members, but in the long term you want to be able to make an impact on the people that you're trying to serve through your research. It's not just about generating data and publishing, it is about impacting the lives of the people around you.
What are the most important lessons that you like to pass along to your students?
First of all, never burn bridges. You never know what relationship you have that may impact you in the future. I'm all about building relationships and getting to know people, and not just the people who have the same opinion as you. Surround yourself with a diversity of thought and experiences. Anyone you can get to know that has a different perspective will make you a better person. Now that I've finished my time in D.C., I look back and I think, “Had I not taken this opportunity, I would not have met a whole circle of people who now are so important to me personally and professionally.” Always be building your circle of people because it makes you a better person.
That's my primary piece of advice.
The other one would be to be nice. Be a good person. I'm going to teach students the basics of being a good scientist and how to be a professional, but also how to treat people properly. There is no need to be mean or disrespectful to any individual. Always respect someone else's opinion.
What factors led to you becoming interested in your area of research, particularly food safety?
The timing of my early career fell right in the middle of the most significant food safety event in our nation's history, the “Jack in the Box” E. coli ground beef outbreak in the early 1990s. I was in graduate school, and this really shaped the entire meat industry in terms of stepping up and taking a very directed and deliberate interest in making the food supply safer. From 1993 to the late 1990s there were so many regulations implemented. There were zero tolerance regulations, statutory laws, put in place to make E. coli an adulterant in ground beef. And because of that, it led funding entities to put a lot of resources into making our food supply safer.
When I finished graduate school, where I was working on food safety projects, I ended up going to the University of Nebraska. Nebraska was the No. 1 slaughter state at the time, and that's where a lot of the regulations fell into place. I worked with the industry on the extension side because I was both research and extension. Going into those facilities and seeing the need for intervention technologies, or how to properly sample a beef carcass, we were able to use the meat plant as a classroom.
We ended up getting a USDA grant for air-chilled chicken. The first air-chilled poultry facility was in Tecumseh, Nebraska, just outside of Lincoln. The USDA gave us funding and I worked with Dr. Shelley McKee, a poultry scientist in our department at the University of Nebraska. She was also from Texas and we were the same age and started about the same time. We both had graduate students, so we ended up following chickens from the farm all the way through processing, designing technologies comparing air chill and immersion chill. People do that all the time now. But, at the time, no one had ever collected that data in a processing plant. So, it's seeing the opportunities around you and what the societal issues are, and then designing research around that. And I've really always taken a very practical approach.
The funny thing is that one of those master's students, who was one of my first master's students, is now on faculty at Texas Tech: Dr. Marcos Sanchez. Marcos is advising my daughter in her master's research and I was pregnant with her when we met. Things come full circle. It's just crazy how that happens. But again, that comes back to building those relationships.
Is there anything else you would like to say to the community at Texas Tech?
I'm just so grateful to the other faculty and to the administration at Texas Tech for supporting me all the way through my career – from an undergrad to a faculty member and now as a Horn Professor, and even as an undersecretary in Washington, D.C. Without their support. I could never have achieved the goals that I have been able to achieve and have such an impactful career. I feel like, “What am I going to do next? What am I going to be when I grow up?” And I look forward to having the support of the university as I continue to grow my career and move to the next stage. So, I just want to say thank you.