From extending the shelf life of fresh produce to setting students up for success, Shecoya White is a champion of food science, safety and quality.
“Consumers want fewer synthetic chemicals so we’re studying natural microbials we can use to extend the shelf life of fruits like strawberries,” said White, who is a scientist in the Mississippi Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station at MSU.
As an assistant professor in the Department of Food Science, Nutrition and Health Promotion in MSU’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, White trains the food science experts of tomorrow. She currently has two doctoral, five master’s and four undergraduate students in her lab and serves as an advisor for the MSU Food Science Club, MANRRS (Minorities in Agriculture, Natural Resources and Related Sciences) and MSU Pipetting Team, a competitive lab skills group she recently founded.
She parlayed her strawberry research into training the pipetting team.
“We assessed the shelf life of strawberries so students can see what is happening. Oftentimes, it’s difficult to visualize things in tubes so the fruit helps them better understand how mold is controlled,” she said.
“The first thing you must know in a food microbiology lab is how to use a pipette, which is a glass tube used for transferring measured volume of liquid in a lab setting. As I taught the skill over a couple of summers, I joked that the students could have a race to see who was the fastest and most accurate at pipetting. They decided to create a team, with the goal of gaining additional research skills and lab techniques to add to their resume,” she said.
The team and the students in White’s lab also teach elementary and middle school students about pH and basic bacteriology and exposes them to STEM, an essential, especially in rural areas, according to White, who also is a mother of two young girls.
“It’s important to expose young students to STEM careers as early as possible. If they can see people who look like them in these careers, they understand it’s possible for them, too. If we show them the fun things we can do with food, maybe they will realize math, biology and chemistry aren’t so bad and can even be exciting and fun. If you’re never exposed to it, you won’t know about the opportunities,” she said.
White had planned for a career in the food industry, but when her husband Derris Devost-Burnett joined MSU as a faculty member in the Department of Animal and Dairy Sciences, she eventually joined as well as a postdoctoral associate in the same department until a food science faculty position became available.
“I never planned to go into academia. I had never taught a class and, while that made me nervous, my dad always said, ‘Do your best at anything you try to do,’ so I was up for the challenge,” she said.
White has excelled in the role, now teaching up to four classes a semester including a product development capstone class for all food science majors. She also advises undergraduate and graduate students. Most recently, she earned the 2022 Outstanding Faculty Service Award and the 2021 Excellence in Teaching New Faculty Award from the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. She said a great mentor in her doctoral program at Iowa State University inspired her to become a food scientist and pay it forward.
“I push my students to do more. I see their potential and encourage them to apply for scholarships and leadership positions in organizations. I tell them to make an impact and have a voice,” she said.
That encouragement has paid off with students in her lab earning more than $40,000 in scholarships over the last two years.
“Student success is my success. I want them to put in the work and be the best at whatever they choose to do,” she said.