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Corinne Alexander Spirit of the Land-Grant Mission Award winner helping to shape the field of food science

Haley Oliver has spent years working toward developing the first food technology program in Afghanistan.

 The project is one of the many reasons Oliver, an associate professor of food science at Purdue University, will receive the 2019 Corinne Alexander Spirit of the Land-Grant Mission Award on Oct. 24.

Along with developing the program at Herat University in Afghanistan, Oliver has partnered with multiple sectors to improve that region’s food production industry and raise a greater awareness of food safety.

“It was like trying to build a land-grant model institution,” said Oliver, describing her experience founding Afghanistan’s first food technology program at Herat University. “There are three major pillars (research, extension and education), and it takes all three to function as well as private-public partnerships.”

Oliver, whose research focuses on understanding foodborne pathogens, their prevalence and persistence, spent years working with Purdue colleagues, officials, students and academics in Herat. She also spent years developing curriculum, conducting research and working alongside students in the laboratories at Herat University.

The Corinne Alexander Spirit of the Land-Grant Mission Award, established in 2008, recognizes faculty members in the Colleges of Agriculture, Veterinary Medicine and Health and Human Sciences working across all three land-grant mission areas. The award was named in honor of Corinne Alexander, a professor in the Department of Agricultural Economics, who passed away unexpectedly in 2016.

“Dr. Oliver has been an invaluable contributor to the College of Agriculture since coming to Purdue in 2010,” said Karen Plaut, the Glenn W. Sample Dean of the College of Agriculture. “She has a deep commitment to agriculture through research, education and building capacity in developing economies to ensure food security. Her work embodies our land-grant mission.”

While Oliver’s efforts extend abroad, she has also developed a robust research program at Purdue. Her lab focuses primarily on two main topics: problem-based solutions to foodborne and health care-associated pathogens, and investigation of the genotypic and phenotypic properties of these pathogens with the newest generation of sequencing technology. Oliver and her lab have received international recognition for their work on the pathogen Listeria monocytogenes, and she is considered one of the foremost experts in retail food safety. In 2018, Oliver was the first woman selected by the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture to deliver the prestigious Justin Smith Morrill Memorial Lecture, an honor awarded to outstanding contributors to agriculture research, education and extension.

Oliver’s pedagogical record is as remarkable as her research achievements. In addition to her graduate students, Oliver has supervised 36 undergraduates in her laboratory, training the next generation of food scientists in the latest technologies and practices. The curricula for her courses is ever-evolving to remain relevant to students and representative of the field. Her commitment to enhancing the classroom experience is so complete she collects classroom data to refine and enhance her curricula.  

“Dr. Oliver has developed an innovative teaching program focused on curricula modernization and integration of research in and outside the classroom,” said Brian Farkas, head of the Food Science Department. “She continues to make undergraduate and graduate student participation in the research process, from grant-writing to laboratory work, a priority. Taken together with her research and capacity-building abroad, Dr. Oliver demonstrates the ability to work effectively with a diverse set of stakeholders. She understands and embraces the challenges that come along with this but together represent the complexity of food safety and security.”

In addition to her work in Afghanistan and a distinguished research and teaching record, Oliver is the principle investigator for a $10 million grant, with the potential for an additional $20 million, recently awarded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) to establish and lead USAID’s Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Food Safety. This lab, in partnership with Cornell University, will focus on increasing awareness of food safety around the globe while supporting local efforts and research in areas most susceptible to foodborne illnesses. Much like her work in Afghanistan, Oliver said this process will involve first understanding all the facets that limit food safety in developing economies, from cultural to technological, before beginning work within those parameters to improve conditions.

 “We think because we’ve largely figured out food safety in this country, we can easily transfer those solutions globally. That’s just not the case,” Oliver said. “Many countries struggle with access to clean water, not to mention proper sanitation techniques and equipment. With over 600 million people globally falling ill to foodborne illnesses annually, it’s an epidemic. With the expertise and resources contained in this lab, hopefully, we can begin to fight it.” 

Haley Oliver Haley Oliver

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