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Conversations with #WomenInScience: Shannon Horrillo, Ph.D.

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Dr. Shannon Horrillo, Division Director

In celebration of Women’s History Month, USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) is featuring Dr. Shannon Horrillo. Dr. Horrillo serves as Division Director for the Division of Youth and 4-H in the Institute of Youth, Family and Community. 

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

Prior to joining NIFA, I served over 13 years with the Cooperative Extension System as the Interim Director of Extension, Associate Dean for Engagement and Associate Director of Extension in the College of Agriculture, Biotechnology and Natural Resources at the University of Nevada, Reno. I also held several leadership roles at the University of California Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources – including State 4-H Director. I received my bachelor’s degree, master’s degree and doctorate from the University of California, Davis in child and human development.  

I am a first-generation college graduate. Growing up, I thought I wanted to become a teacher. I used to line up all my stuffed animals and teach them using leftover dittos I acquired from my teacher. My early interest in kids fueled my pathway in college. As I discovered the science behind child and human development, my curiosity grew beyond teaching kids to wanting to learn more about how young people develop through interactions with their environment – be that parents, peers, school or non-formal educational settings like 4-H; and under what conditions these interactions led to optimal development. I was always interested in helping young people reach their full potential, and this led me to 4-H where I could combine my early interest in educating children with my expertise as a developmental scientist.  

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

I am the Division Director for the Division of Youth and 4-H within NIFA’s Institute of Youth, Family and Community. I provide leadership and oversight for the division’s research, education and Extension activities through competitive and capacity grant programs and other activities at the federal level that support positive youth development. I also provide leadership to the division’s strategic priorities.  

In general, on a typical day, I am interacting with my colleagues in the Division of Youth and 4-H and, more broadly, within the Institute of Youth, Family and Community – planning, sharing information and working together to promote the human and social dimensions of NIFA’s food and agricultural sciences through research, education and Extension programs. I also interact with stakeholders throughout the nation supporting positive youth development and 4-H. I am the NIFA liaison on several Extension and  4-H specific committees, and I participate on working groups internal to NIFA as well as interagency committees related to my subject matter expertise. Through these efforts I am focused on developing meaningful and mutually beneficial collaborations with federal partners, Land-grant University partners and community partners. My job is rewarding, exciting and every day I learn something new.  

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

I am a resilient, strong, independent woman, and other women with these same strengths have helped me overcome many of the personal challenges that I have experienced. We all have setbacks. A few notable challenges that have shaped who I am today and my perspectives come to mind. As a young child, I was unsheltered for a short period of time while my mother worked to get back on her feet. This taught me compassion, understanding and gave me perspective. Another notable moment for me that helped me grow and become perseverant was when I transferred as an undergraduate to the University of California, Davis from a community college. I was away from home for the first time, a first-generation college student and struggling to adapt to the larger, less intimate campus. It took me a while to build up a network of mentors, peers and others to help guide me. I am glad I didn’t give up, and I am where I am today because of that. Another was the loss of my mother when I was in graduate school to a long battle with cancer. There are many others, but with each challenge there was at least one resilient, strong, independent woman who helped me get through the challenge stronger than I went into it.    

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

Build relationships and take advantages of all the opportunities in front of you. Explore jobs you are interested in through shadowing others in that career or apply for an internship. For me, my interests and passions did not change, but my career pathway did. I am where I am today because I followed the same advice I am giving you.  

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