In celebration of Women’s History Month, USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) is featuring Dr. Rizana Mahroof. Dr. Mahroof serves as National Program Leader in the Division of Community and Education in Institute of Youth, Family and Community.
Tell us a little about your path into your current field.
By training, I am an entomologist. Since I was a kid, I was interested in nature and particularly insects. My paternal grandmother’s influence in early childhood, who described butterfly metamorphosis in her own terms intrigued me to “experiment” by picking up caterpillars and leaving them in an airtight jar with leaves. Although I killed them all, my interest with insects was alive forever. Then, there were my dad and mom who were educators. They emphasized and supported my education from grade-school to Ph.D. and were a big influence. Once I discovered insects, it was all over; there was not a chance that I would ever become anything other than an entomologist. I found myself interested in teaching and research in later stages and that led to a career in academia for 14 years, gaining valuable experience in all aspects from teaching, research, outreach, extension and mentoring to many more. My career has morphed into different phases starting from an 1862 institution (Kansas State University and Oklahoma State University) leading to an 1890 institution (South Carolina State University), diverging to international work that well prepared to what now I do in USDA-NIFA.
What is your role in NIFA? What is a typical workday for you?
I am currently a National Program Leader, managing the competitive portfolio for 1890 Institution Teaching, Research and Extension Capacity Building Grants (CBG) Program and 1890 Facilities Grants Program. I manage all aspects of awarding processes through initiating the funding process, award process and subsequent post award progress follow-ups. My typical workday starts early in the morning. I am creature of habit with morning routines and early start. First thing I do is planning and making a laundry list of items to be completed on that day. I stick to the schedule attending and prioritizing time sensitive items, tackling the most difficult task first. I set aside some time in my calendar every day to address immediate requests and to attend and respond to stakeholder requests. At the end of the day, I am satisfied if most items in my laundry list are crossed off.
What personal challenges have you encountered and how did you overcome them?
Throughout my career, I experienced several challenges that impacted either positively or negatively my professional life. I am originally from Sri Lanka, growing up in a country that went through civil unrest and an ethnic war, which posed several day-to-day challenges in school and university education. Other challenges included cultural expectations as well as facing pre-conceived stereotypical assumptions. Enduring significant personal losses in my life and making difficult decisions at times added to those challenges. Nevertheless, once I understood reasons for these challenges, I proactively found ways to minimize or eliminate those obstacles. Family support, friends, travel, nature and books are helpful in overcoming some of these challenges.
What advice do you have for current students who may be interested in pursuing a similar career path?
Get the most out of your student experience; it won’t last forever. University is a completely different world. Take every opportunity you get and make the most of it. Read everything for understanding. Understand the basics. Choose topics that interests you, even if you have heard that it will be difficult. It is much easier to understand something that you want to learn about. Get involved in many different activities.
Anything else you would like to add or share?
I always make sure to stay active and be connected. Time management is an important skill that can come handy in living life fully.