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Conversations with #WomenInScience: Ashley Mueller, Ph.D. 

Nifa Authors
Ashley Mueller, National Program Leader

In celebration of Women’s History Month, USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) is featuring Dr. Ashley Mueller. Dr. Mueller serves as a National Program Leader in the Division of Family and Consumer Science in the Institute of Youth, Family and Community. 

Tell us a little about your path into your current field.  

I didn’t set out to be a social scientist. In fact, it was until my last year as an undergraduate student that I realized it was my calling. I was preparing to graduate with a bachelor’s degree in food science and technology – a major that I loved. As I was reflecting on what my next steps after graduation would be, I realized I was drawn to the “people” side of the work. Why did consumers select this product versus that product? How did their past experiences influence their purchasing habits? I had also realized how much consumer education, both formally and informally, was happening around me. I thought being engaged in education was exciting, so it seemed natural for me to pursue a master’s degree in agricultural education.  

During that time, I learned that I had interests in program design, evaluation and Extension work. The professional experiences that followed shaped me. I consider myself an “accidental disasterologist.” I served as the first statewide disaster education coordinator for an Extension organization. On the job I learned a lot – about emergency management and about myself. It reinforced my interests in how and why people make decisions, how policies and planning activities affect people directly and indirectly and what factors prevent people from thriving. This professional experience is what led me to pursue a doctorate in agricultural education. While I have held several positions over the years, my passion for people remained steady. It’s what has driven my curiosity!     

What is your role in NIFA?  What is a typical workday for you? 

Extension work prepared me for National Program Leader work. No two days are the same! I think that’s what makes this position so fun. Each day comes with a surprise, and I love the challenge of it. My “typical” day includes a mix of internal meetings, stakeholder interactions and doing focused work. I especially like the days when I can be “all in” on developing components of my programs.  

Customer service is especially important to me, so I’m always thinking about ways that I can enhance my programs and panels to make them better for stakeholders, strategically align resources and communications that I develop, and reduce any barriers to access information. You can take me out of Extension, but you can’t take Extension out of me! 

What personal challenges have you encountered and how did you overcome them? 

There are several, but I won’t rehash them here. Instead, I’ll focus on what’s helped me get through the challenges. I’m a big believer in building community. Having a trusted group of people to lean on has made all the difference for me.  

During my time with Extension, I was part of a leadership circle; it was an organic effort that was intended to be a place of support. This circle included 10 women, with diverse backgrounds and experiences, who were at about the same career stage. We met regularly, learned together, reflected on situations together, listened and challenged and supported each other. This circle helped me better handle conflict, have difficult conversations and advocate for myself.  

Here at NIFA, I’ve been intentional about finding people who also challenge me to do and be better and who I can lean on for guidance and support. These relational, peer mentors have helped me achieve early successes and have cheered me on. I’m so thankful that despite our remote environment I’ve found ways to feel connected to my colleagues.  

What advice do you have for current students who may be interested in pursuing a similar career path? 

This question made chuckle. For a long time, I felt like my career path wasn’t linear. It seemed winding and segmented; I’m not even sure that makes sense. But age and experience give wisdom, and I realized that my career path is my career path and that it’s linear if I say it’s linear! Through this reflection, I came to own my journey. I realized this career path was possible for me because I’d been open – open to new opportunities, to new challenges and to growth. My advice to students is to know their values, stay grounded in them and to be open to all the things. I’d also encourage them to consider a career in the social sciences. The work is surprising, challenging and constantly evolving. After all, the essence of making impact and influencing behaviors is all about people! 

Farm Bill Priority Areas
Bioenergy, natural resources, and environment
Agriculture economics and rural communities

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