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Women’s History Month Spotlight: Dr. Tashara Leak

In celebration of Women’s History Month, USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) is highlighting leading women helping advance agriculture-related sciences.

Tashara Leak
Dr. Tashara Leak is an assistant
professor in the Division of
Nutritional Sciences at
Cornell University.
Image provided by Dr. Leak.

Interview with Tashara Leak, Ph.D., Cornell University

Get to know Cornell University’s Dr. Tashara Leak. She is an assistant professor in the Division of Nutritional Sciences. As a health disparities researcher, she conducts interventions that address socioeconomic and environmental influences on food choices, while drawing upon her expertise in mixed methods and community-based research. 

Tell us your journey and how your interest in agriculture developed.
I spent most of my summers as a child in West Virginia at my grandparents’ home, and they had the most amazing garden and apple trees spanning several acres. I have vivid memories sitting outside on the porch with my grandmother snapping green beans in preparation for her to start the canning process. Most of the produce we consumed as a family came from this garden, something I didn’t fully appreciate until I was an adult. This was my introduction to agriculture. As I got older, I became interested in the ways in which food provide nutrition and can reduce chronic disease risk, especially in Black communities. Hence, why I became a nutrition scientist.

What is your relationship with NIFA?
I am an assistant professor in the Division of Nutritional Sciences at Cornell University, as well as co-director of the Action Research Collaborator. I design, implement and evaluate culturally relevant interventions that aim to improve the diet and health of adolescents in low-income, urban communities. I conduct studies in a variety of settings (e.g., homes, schools, community centers, corner stores, medical clinics). My goal is to come up sustainable and scalable solutions that address inequities in nutrition, health and the food system. One of the things that I like most about my job is that I don’t have a typical workday and I get to control my schedule. One day I may be implementing my NIFA-funded study, called the Advanced Cooking Education 4-H After School Club Program, in middle schools located in Brooklyn, New York. Another day, I may be meeting with policy makers and discussing ways they can support a healthy food environment in low-income communities in New York City.

Who are your role models? Who/what inspires you?
My mother is my role model. She is a registered nurse who has worked at some of the highest ranked children’s hospitals across the country in pediatric emergency rooms and pediatric intensive care units. She is the smartest and most caring person that I know. She is an advocate for diversifying the field of nursing and mentors aspiring nurses. It is without a doubt that my work with adolescents and commitment to equity, leadership and service is because of my mother.

What personal challenges have you encountered and how did you overcome them?
I attended a high school ranked top 50 in the country and graduated at the top of my class, but I really struggled my first year as an undergraduate student. I had a hard time learning in my science courses, which often had more than 400 students enrolled. I was used to excelling, and I didn’t feel comfortable asking for help. By my second year I realized that if I didn’t advocate for myself, then I wouldn’t be able to pursue my dreams of addressing inequities in nutrition, health and the food system in low-income, urban communities. It is my deep sense of responsibility and commitment to others that reminds me of my purpose and gives me strength to push through hard times. My work is much bigger than me.  

What advice would you give to girls and young women who want to enter agriculture? What advice do you have for fellow women in agriculture?
There is no space or career where you don’t belong. If you find yourself in a male-dominated work environment, actively seek out other women who can serve as mentors and allies. Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there. You have no idea how many amazing professional relationships I have because I sent emails to strangers asking for a 30-minute phone call. There are people out there who are willing to support you, often in the most unexpected places.

Farm Bill Priority Areas
Food Safety, Nutrition, and Health
U.S. States and Territories
New York
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