Department of Food Science,
Nutrition and Health Promotion
MSU Starkville campus
Years in Position: 7
Years at MSU: 27
Donna Bland is not averse to change, which is good, because her title has changed four times during her MSU career, and the department’s name has changed three times, even though she's worked in the same place for 27 years.
As an administrative assistant in the MSU Department of Food Science, Nutrition and Health Promotion, Donna loves that no two work days are ever alike.
"My responsibilities vary from day-to-day sometimes moment-to-moment," she explains. "I do a little bit of everything from working with and supporting the department head and faculty to assisting staff and helping students. I perform a wide variety of clerical duties, such as acting as a department liaison, greeting and directing visitors, answering phones, arranging meetings, scheduling rooms and interviews, processing and tracking official visitor agreements (OVA), submission of annual CRIS reports, handling the master class schedule every semester, and completion of graduate student defense paperwork to name a few. I’m the leave manager and the key manager for this department. I also handle work requests with Facilities Management and help desk tickets with ITS. I work closely with other front office personnel in the day-to-day operations of the department, and I share signature authority for the department head whenever he is away from the office."
Donna stays so busy one colleague dubbed her the department’s "COO," or chief operating officer.
"He even surprised me with a plaque naming me such for ‘doing more work than anyone else and putting up with more than anyone else,’" she said. "He thinks it bothers me but I consider it a compliment and know he is simply acknowledging my dedication to the department, the division, and the university."
Donna planned for this career from the time she was in high school. She graduated with a regular high school diploma and a business diploma. When she decided to return to school, she had the background required but not the computer skills. She graduated from East Mississippi Community College in May 1990 with an associate’s degree, and started working at MSU the next month.
When she’s not working, Donna enjoys reading, watching TV, attending church services at Starkville Church of Christ, watching the Diamond Dawgs, and spending time with friends and family. She and her late husband, Darrell, were blessed with three children (Michael, Joy, and Richard) and two grandchildren (Brandon and Daylin).
MSU Extension Service
Years in Position: 22
Years at MSU: 22
Loretta Derett-Smith taught herself shorthand from an encyclopedia when she was in the seventh grade in Madison, Illinois, and she has never veered from her career plan.
For 22 years, she has served MSU Extension Service clients in Tippah County as an office associate. While she manages all of the usual office duties, such as managing schedules, writing letters, scheduling meetings, setting up for programs, planning, budgeting and helping with all of the local specialty groups including 4-H, the Forestry Association, the Cattlemen’s Association, and Master Gardeners, she knows her role requires much more.
"I knew at an early age that I wanted to be a secretary," she explains. "Not only did I need to write fast, I needed to listen. I loved to write and I loved to help others and to solve problems. As an office associate, this is what you do all day. You listen and get the job done in the most efficient and effective way possible."
Her earliest experiences taught her a lot.
"That first year as a secretary in a county with a fair involving premiums to be paid -- I cried for a solid month," she remembers. "It took me a month to clear out my books and get all of the premiums paid. The next year was a different story. I improve every year."
Helping with Extension programs and the Tippah County Fair are her favorite work-related responsibilities, and her helpfulness has resulted in long-standing friendships.
"One day we had a client come in right at closing because his daughter needed a photo for a passport," she says. "He lived across the street and would come by the office, but he never had much to say to me. I told him I was happy to help, and after that day we became the best of friends."
Loretta’s passion for helping others extends to her free time. She has volunteered on the board of the local Good Samaritan Center and helps with local food drives. She has also joined the newly formed Mississippi Mat Project making mats for the homeless out of recycled grocery bags.
Her job as 4-H Mom, Band Mom, PTO President Mom and Ripley High School Ambassador Mom ended when her daughter, Asia, graduated from high school, but her truck tag still reads ASIAMOM. Asia recently graduated from the University of Mississippi with a degree in biology. Loretta is a serious fan of the Dallas Cowboys and former MSU quarterback Dak Prescott.
Office of Nutrition Education
Years in Position: 12.5
Years at MSU: 12.5
Irene Harrison does not simply teach children about food. She teaches children and families across Lauderdale County how to live a rich and vibrant life.
As a Snap-Ed Educator with the Mississippi State University Extension Service, Irene educates families about the importance of balanced nutrition and physical activity at schools, churches and around the community.
"My favorite part of this job is going to these different places and meeting new people," Harrison said. "I never would have gotten to do this working anywhere else."
She applied to the job on a whim after a friend encouraged her to consider it.
"I had never heard of Extension. I didn’t know what it was," Harrison said. "But it’s the best decision I’ve ever made."
One of the many experiences that Harrison loves about her job is the opportunity to work with children, especially preschoolers.
"I went to an area daycare and met 3-year-olds. They told me that they didn’t eat a lot of fruits and vegetables and that one little boy didn’t want to drink his milk," Harrison said. "I taught the lesson, and the next time I went there, they met me and said, ‘Miss Irene, we are eating our vegetables because we want to be healthy.’ That was one of the cutest things ever said to me."
Harrison unwinds after work by reading, sewing and spending time with her husband of 32 years.
Sarah ‘Izzy’ Pellegrine
Research Associate I
Social Science Research Center
MSU Starkville Campus
Years in Position: 1
Years at MSU: 9
Izzy Pellegrine helps improve the lives of Mississippi children through her passion: sociology. Every day, her work directly challenges what justice, health and well-being looks like for youth across the state.
Pellegrine divides her time between the Family and Children Research Unit and the Wolfgang Frese Survey Research Laboratory, both facets of Mississippi State University. She collects and interprets data about the lives of children through analyzing the system Mississippi uses to measure the quality of childcare centers, evaluating programs to increase college enrollment for high school students and helping design a statewide system that betters the developmental health of babies and toddlers. She also programs software for data collection and builds survey instruments.
Once a social justice activist in Mississippi nonprofits, Pellegrine learned the critical need for accurate and substantial data about social problems.
"I’m incredibly lucky to have a job doing exactly what I always wanted to do -- using social science to address disparities that impact kids," Pellegrine said.
Pellegrine says her education as a current Ph.D. student in MSU’s Department of Sociology has also influenced the work that she does through MSU’s Social Science Research Center.
"Often, a research method or a theoretical approach I learn about in class becomes really useful for one of our projects," Pellegrine said. "For example, I took a course in advanced data visualization. I now use those skills in every report I write."
Though Pellegrine works tirelessly, she finds infinite value in her career.
"The work we do here directly translates to meaningful outcomes for Mississippi’s kids," she said. "I’ve had the opportunity to see our research shape and improve programs that benefit children across the state."
When she unwinds from work and school, Pellegrine kayaks, reads dystopian novels and plays with her three dogs that she shares with her wife, Amanda.
MSU Extension Service
Years in Position: 10
Years at MSU: 10
Gregory Biggs’ joy for serving young people began in 1981 during his time in seminary. Today, he engages this passion through the Mississippi State University Extension Service as a 4-H agent.
Biggs supports Madison County 4-H’ers through developing practical leadership, communication, and professional skills. Children ranging from 8 to 18 years old have opportunities to hone in on their specific interests through activities like livestock exhibits, shooting sports, horse shows, robotics, district and state agricultural competitions, and the Mississippi State Fair.
His 4-H knowledge stems from an extensive agricultural background. Raised on what he called a “weekend farm,” skills in livestock and agriculture are not new to Biggs. Later, during his undergraduate career at Texas Tech University, he was a member of Farmhouse Fraternity. Ultimately, his agriculture upbringing and seminary education perfectly shaped him for his current profession -- one where the children he teaches leave with better scholarships, impressive resumes and stronger characters.
“When the Extension job opened up, I felt like it was a great fit,” Biggs said. “I’ve always worked with kids. It’s a calling.”
One of Biggs’ favorite aspects of 4-H is the relationships it fosters between young people and their communities.
“We host monthly meetings for clubs like ‘Leadership Skills that Last a Lifetime’ and lunches where volunteers and parents are invited to eat with 4-H’ers,” Biggs said. “This gives parents and students from different areas a chance to meet.”
Apart from 4-H, Biggs plays sports -- especially baseball, basketball, football and golf. He loves spending time with his wife of 31 years, June, and their three children, Austin, Hope and Alex.
Melissa E. Montgomery March 2018
College of Veterinary Medicine
MSU Starkville Campus
Years in Position: 15
Years at MSU: 17
Melissa Montgomery is determined to make the world a brighter place through service and stewardship. At the Mississippi State University College of Veterinary Medicine, she is known as a philanthropist.
Montgomery works alongside the college’s dean, primarily on fundraising projects. She manages the college’s annual giving program, handles gift administration and donor relations, identifies and cultivates donors and coordinates events. Montgomery also crafts and edits press releases and development stories.
Choosing a career so focused on others’ needs was not halfhearted. Both Montgomery and her coworkers chose their positions for a purpose.
“It’s wonderful to know there are many philanthropists from all walks of life who want to enrich the world,” Montgomery said. “Each colleague has different goals in mind, but I notice that they share a common thread – the desire to help others.”
Often, Montgomery’s dedication proves worthwhile through meeting people as passionate as herself. One such person included one of the nation’s leading animal experts, Jack Hanna.
“One of my favorite memories was having lunch with him,” she said. “He’s very personable, and I appreciate his conservation work.”
At the end of the day, Montgomery considers herself grateful for the ways her position allows her to connect with and influence others.
“I enjoy spending my time helping others and making a real impact in the lives of people and animals,” she said.
Outside of work, Montgomery enjoys running, photography and cheering on her children in their endeavors. She and her husband John have two children, Madeline and Nathan.