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Martha Ray Sartor portrait.

Conversations with #WomenInScience: Martha Ray Sartor, Ph.D.

Nifa Authors
Martha Ray Sartor, Acting Deputy Director

Tell us about your path into your current field.  

Growing up in rural Mississippi, I was an active 4-H member who spent time in nutrition, clothing and livestock projects. My afternoons after school were spent working on 4-H projects, swimming and other sports. My parents were known leaders in the community in the fields of agriculture and home economics, now mostly known as family and consumer sciences. As a result, growing up I witnessed them teach classes to youth and adults in these sciences and often tagged along on their appointments, meetings and events. This upbringing was instrumental in my career decision to work in home economics and youth education because I enjoyed the discipline and wanted to teach others the importance of eating a healthy diet and demonstrate how their project work could lead to gainful employment. 

My path after college began in a small Mississippi Delta county with a population of 10,000 as an Extension 4-H agent. Through my work in 4-H Youth Development, my vocational dream was becoming a reality. My Extension career was a gold mine for helping others. As a servant of the people, you get to develop programs that change lives. The people I met along the way gave me more riches than money could ever buy. 

The next 15 years I held positions as a home economist, area home economist and area financial management specialists working in most of the 17 Mississippi Delta counties providing programs to underserved audiences. During this time, I received my master’s and Ph.D. degrees attending classes in the evening at the University of Mississippi. 

After receiving my Ph.D. I became a District Administrator working with agents to develop and provide life changing programs in 21 Southeast Mississippi counties. It was during this time that Hurricane Katrina hit the Mississippi Gulf Coast and two of our local Extension offices were destroyed. It was this experience that I learned about the Extension Disaster Education Network. Not unlike what we learned during COVID-19, you do not need a physical location to keep working. Agents continued educating the public in dealing with the aftermath of this storm while confronting their own challenges. It is the most memorable work of my entire career.  Perseverance took a new meaning in my life. 

After 26 years at Mississippi State University, I began a 15-year career working with the University of Arkansas Extension as a District administrator, Director of County Programs, and the Associate Vice President of the Family & Consumer Sciences and 4-H programs. 

My 41-year Land-grant Extension Service career spanned almost every position level. The subject matter of my work only served as a vehicle to develop better standards of living in the communities we served. 

As a child we thought of the USDA as the organization that provided for our rural community. The agency was held in high esteem. When the opportunity arose, I applied and received the position in which I serve today as the Division Director for Family and Consumer Sciences. 

All the positions became possible because of the experiences that began when I was 21 years old as a County 4-H Agent. Did I start out in 1980 saying my goal was to be a USDA Division Director? Of course not, but I knew education along with different experiences would lead to opportunities. 

My parents were influential in my chosen career path, but it was a State Extension Administrator, Marilyn Purdie, who influenced my desire to work in the administrative area. She supported your work and did her best to provide the tools you needed to be successful. There were many influences and mentors along the way. 

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

I began in July 2022 as the Division Director of Family and Consumer Sciences. The only thing typical about a day is the number of online meetings via Teams or Zoom. These meetings are with colleagues that I supervise, meetings with colleagues within NIFA and other USDA agencies to discuss challenges or programs, and meetings with stakeholder groups in whom NIFA programs serve. It is not unusual to receive a last-minute request for information for a congressional inquiry, a report to stakeholders, or media inquiry. There are trips to various conferences to network with our stakeholder groups.  

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

If I had a personal challenge it was working toward my advanced degrees while being employed full time. I never took a sabbatical. It was my work in teaching healthy eating and exercise for weight control that became the topic of my dissertation. 

Early in my career there were no women County Coordinators (lead person in a County Extension Office). That was remedied by a court order shortly after my employment. In the early 1980s in the two states that I worked there were few women agriculture agents or specialists and no men in Family and Consumer Sciences. Today it is not unusual for women to outnumber men in agriculture positions, and men are found in many of the traditional Family and Consumer Sciences roles. 

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

Do not expect to begin at a position that pays a high salary. There is still merit to starting at an entry-level position to gain needed experiences for jobs with more responsibility. Patience is a virtue.  Although teaching swimming lessons, working at Wal-Mart during Christmas, and becoming a 4-H Agent in a county is not the best pay . . . the experiences I gained provided opportunities later. Remember just because you start somewhere does not mean you have to end there. USDA and Land-grant University positions give you opportunities to help people, which can bring you satisfaction of having a life well-lived. 

Anything else you would like to add or share?  

I cannot overemphasize the value USDA programs have on our citizens. The skills I gained in 4-H public speaking, judging and critical thinking skills developed in the programs are invaluable. USDA has often been the conduit for rural water systems, broadband, housing, and a myriad of other services. The value of what we do is immeasurable. 

Farm Bill Priority Areas
Agriculture economics and rural communities

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