2018 DAFVM Spotlight Employees

Donna Bland

Donna Bland
January 2018

Administrative Assistant
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).

Loretta Derett-Smith

Loretta Derett-Smith
January 2018

Office Associate
MSU Extension Service
Tippah County

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.

Irene Harrison

Irene Harrison
February 2018

Snap-Ed Educator
Office of Nutrition Education
Lauderdale County

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.

Ann Twiner

Sarah ‘Izzy’ Pellegrine
February 2018

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.

Gregory Biggs Gregory Biggs March 2018
4-H Agent
MSU Extension Service
Madison County
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 Montgomery Melissa E. Montgomery March 2018
Advancement Coordinator
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.

Katie Cooley-Lock
Katie Cooley-Locke April 2018
Internal Medicine Resident
College of Veterinary Medicine
MSU Starkville Campus
Years in Position: 3
Years at MSU: 4

When Katie Cooley-Locke was a veterinary medical student, she faced a hardship that would shape her life: Her dog was diagnosed with cancer. Enduring her pet’s disease inspired her to pursue a position as an internal medicine resident in the College of Veterinary Medicine.

Cooley-Locke performs a variety of tasks, from overseeing clinical cases to working hand in hand with clients. She gives classroom lectures on hematology and other topics, but she also advises 10 students on rotation in the CVM.

“We’re a teaching hospital, so everything is a new experience for students and for us,” Cooley-Locke said.

One aspect of being a teaching hospital is accepting patients with advanced illnesses so that students benefit from the opportunity to give life-saving medical care to real pets.

“People come to us knowing that their animal has a severe disease like cancer, and knowing that we’re their last chance to recover,” Cooley-Locke said. “And it’s nice to help an animal survive and get home to its owners, because that’s rare.”

When an animal does overcome a disease like cancer, Cooley-Locke and her colleagues throw a celebration for its owners.

“We do balloons, flowers and decorations to show that their pet is not only in remission, but they’ve also survived a round of chemo,” Cooley-Locke said. “We approach chemo very differently than doctors do for humans, so it often surprises owners how good their pet feels. Our When Cooley-Locke is not teaching students or saving lives, she can be found helping with Homeward Bound, a shelter program that helps local pets find “forever homes.”

Farley Fondren
Farley Fondren
April 2018
Agricultural Technician
Poultry Science
MSU Starkville Campus
Years in Position: 4
Years at MSU: 9

For Farley Fondren, diligence is key. His work as an agricultural technician in the Mississippi State University Department of Poultry Science allows him to exercise a work ethic built around dedication and persistence.

His story began at age 16, when he sought part-time work at MSU. After discovering a passion for technical work, he returned years later to accept an offer for his current position.

“The job description had activities that I enjoy. I didn’t get into it for poultry but for hands-on technical work,” Fondren said. “And, as it goes, if you’re in the field every day, you realize you may as well work for a degree in it, too.”

And so he has. Fondren focuses on poultry disease research while working and attending class to earn a degree in poultry science. Balancing classes and a full-time career is too much for some, but Fondren said he enjoys the challenge.

“You can’t sit there and wait for something to happen. You’ve got to stay on top because poultry is the top moneymaker in Mississippi,” Fondren said.

However, Fondren said he loves and appreciates his job most for its spontaneity.

“Every day is a memory because you never know what will happen when you get here,” he said.

Emily Childers
Emily Childers May 2018
Animal Health Technician 
College of Veterinary Medicine
MSU Starkville Campus
Years in Position: 11
Years at MSU: 11

When she was a child, Emily Childers filled a bathtub with spiders because she considered them her friends. It is no surprise, then, that she works as an Animal Health Technician for the Shelter Medicine program at Mississippi State University.

“I think I was meant to work with animals,” Childers said. “I couldn’t imagine doing anything else.”

She fulfills this goal by leaving campus at 7:30 a.m. every morning. With a team of doctors, technicians, and students, Emily travels on a mobile unit that will arrive at one of five different animal shelters in North Mississippi.

The mobile unit, founded 11 years ago, proves especially important to Childers, because she was one of the inaugural technicians on board. Though she hopes to do this work forever, she said that it can be demanding.

“On a typical day, I work on a 38-foot gooseneck. We have three different surgeries going at a time, which medical students perform, and then the rest of us spay and neuter,” Childers said.

Her unit spays and neuters up to 30 animals a day, free of charge to any shelter. They do this with one goal in mind: to save lives.

Childers says that spaying and neutering helps lower the intense animal population rates in the South. Warm yearly weather and a lack of strict neutering laws for pet owners contribute to filling shelters that are already overwhelmed. Ultimately, she said her work helps make “adoptable animals more adoptable.”

Another positive aspect of Childers’ job is the hands-on education it provides students and the community. Students in the veterinary medicine program perform surgeries each day with the supervision of a doctor, and their work encourages community members to adopt, spay, or neuter animals.

“It’s fun. It’s never boring, always high pace, and it keeps you on your toes,” Childers said.

When she is not at work, Childers still saves lives. She fosters many animals – especially cats -- through MSU’s Homeward Bound program.


Carly Becker
Carly Becker May 2018
Assistant Herder
MAFES Joe Bearden
Dairy Research Center
Years in Position: 8 mo
Years at MSU: 1 year

The next time you reach for a glass of milk or enjoy a bowl of chocolate ice cream, you might think of Carly Becker.

Becker, an assistant herder at the Joe Bearden Dairy Research Center at Mississippi State University, rises before the sun each morning to take care of cows.

“I glance over the cows and make sure everyone looks healthy. I feed the calves milk, give them water and make sure everyone has energy,” Becker said. “Depending on the day, we are moving cows to different areas of the farm, breeding, giving vaccinations, registering animals, making sure all equipment is running properly, and keeping everything clean.”

Also a master’s student in animal and dairy sciences, Becker, in study and in practice, works tirelessly for the betterment of animals.

“Farmers are the hardest working people you will ever meet. It is a 24/7 job, because the cows have to be milked -- and unfortunately they don’t celebrate birthdays or Christmas,” Becker said, laughing. “But we are passionate about what we do, making sure the cows are well-fed, comfortable and in good health.”

Becker earned her Bachelor of Science degree in animal science from the University of Kentucky.

“Every day is something new and exciting. When working with animals, the day is unpredictable, and there is always a new learning opportunity,” Becker said.

One of her favorite learning opportunities is moving calves from individual hutches to group housing, which happens once every 12 weeks.

“When the calves get off the trailer and realize they are able to run wherever they want, they all go crazy, jump around and buck their back legs. It’s pretty much the cutest thing I’ve ever seen, and it never gets old,” she said.

At the end of each day, she believes hard work, perseverance, self-motivation and flexibility pull her through early mornings and heavy labor.

“If you are determined, you will be successful,” Becker said.