The Drs. Davis

Armitra Jackson-Davis and Dedrick Davis found each other in their pursuit of science at Iowa State University. Together they found their calling in higher education.

Both are now faculty at Alabama Agricultural and Mechanical University. Armitra (’06 MS meat science, ’10 PhD animal science) and Dedrick (’05 MS soil science, ’12 PhD soil science and environmental science) work together as co-advisers for the university’s Minorities in Agriculture Natural Resources and Related Sciences (MANRRS) chapter. The Drs. Davis have helped the chapter grow from three to approximately 20 active members and rise to compete on a national level.

“We spend a lot of time outside of business hours talking MANRRS and how we can move the students forward. This year, two of our students placed in the top three in national research competitions at the graduate and undergraduate level,” says Armitra.

Their students give back to their community by fostering a partnership with the local Boys and Girls Club. For this year’s activity, MANRRS members will mentor high school and middle school students, helping them with science projects. Govind Sharma, emeritus professor of plant science at Alabama A&M, says Dedrick and Armitra are valued for their unique strengths and admired by their students.

“Dedrick and Armitra had a lot of opportunities all over the country but they returned to their roots. They have wonderful personalities and are exceptional professionally,” says Sharma. “They are the backbone of MANRRS and each are stars in their departments. Dedrick’s work keeps plowing new frontiers of soil science. Armitra’s plate is full from teaching, but she makes time to share her research through outreach to the food industry and consumers especially regarding the new Food Safety and Modernization Act.”

Armitra, an assistant professor of food microbiology, teaches, conducts research and advises graduate students.

“Consumers are becoming more interested in ingredients that are naturally derived so we’re studying the use of natural antimicrobials,” she says. “One project focuses on safety of unpasteurized juice products. Consumers want these types of products, but there are challenges that need to be overcome.”

Besides his teaching responsibilities, Dedrick, an assistant professor of soil physics, conducts research, including the impact of biochar—charcoal produced from biomass used for agricultural purposes—on heat and water movement in soil.

One of his students is studying agro-forestry alley cropping. “The intent is to give limited-resource farmers in Alabama two means of income on the same area of land,” he says. “We track the soil physical properties and processes of sweet gum trees and switchgrass and compare those to row-crop agriculture.”

Dedrick credits Iowa State for helping him learn how to mentor students. “The soil science program put me around leaders who were also good individuals, period. I could be walking down the hallway and Ali Tabatabai would pull me into his office and give me some words of wisdom. Dr. (Bob) Horton didn’t just have me do research, he also helped me develop personally and professionally. I watched Rick Cruse and how he built a great rapport with students,” Dedrick says. “And Dr. (Andrew) Manu is responsible for me being a soil scientist. From the time I took his course at Alabama A&M (where Manu worked previously) he made soils seem like the coolest thing ever. I picked up on his way with students and his energy.”

Both Armitra and Dedrick were encouraged by fellow Cyclones to pursue graduate degrees at Iowa State.

“Dr. Manu and several other professors at Alabama A&M always told us how good ISU was for soil science,” Dedrick says.  You always hear about George Washington Carver and how he was associated with Tuskegee. But, when I found out that Carver studied at Iowa State, it got my curiosity going. As I progressed as an undergrad, Iowa State became my top choice for grad school in soil science,” says Dedrick.

He contacted Nina Grant, minority liaison officer in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at the time. She connected him with Thelma Harding and the Iowa State University Graduate Minority Assistance Program. Armitra remembers Harding recruiting at her undergraduate alma mater, the University of Arkansas, Pine Bluff.

“If you know Thelma, she’s high energy and bubbly. She convinced my twin sister and I to come visit ISU,” Armitra says. “We both really enjoyed our visit, enrolled and finished master’s and Ph.D. degrees. My two other sisters went on to graduate from Iowa State, too.” She says she had great experiences working in animal science professor Jim Dickson’s lab and with Joe Sebranek, University Professor, Distinguished Professor of Animal Science and Morrison Endowed Chair in Meat Science. Aubrey Mendonca, associate professor of food science and human nutrition, was and still is an important mentor to her.

Pancakes helped to bring Armitra and Dedrick together. They first got to know each other over breakfast during a VEISHEA celebration.

“We had the same demands of grad school, enjoyed talking about science and enjoyed that we could actually talk about intellectual stuff. Each of us could contribute to the conversation,” Armitra says. They chose to get married on New Year’s Day to avoid any additional missed days of lab work.

For Armitra and Dedrick, Iowa State was dramatically different demographically from their undergraduate alma maters.

“We went from historically black colleges and universities to a primarily white institution. It was different but it worked out just fine,” says Armitra. They say the ISU Black Graduate Student Association helped them make the transition to Iowa State, as did supportive faculty and staff like Grant, Harding, Mary de Baca in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences Diversity Programs, and their major professors.

“MANRRS also provided support for me. I could see other people who looked like me and sit among people I knew in the college,” says Dedrick. “But I also put myself out there in the department and the college. I learned if I was open to experiencing new things and people, it actually helped make my transition easier.”

That’s advice they frequently give to their students. They encourage students to participate in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences’ George Washington Carver Summer Research Internship program at Iowa State.

“We always use our story as an example of not being afraid to venture out even if it’s in a place you’ve never been before,” Armitra says. “You never know what’s waiting on the other side of the door, professionally and personally.”