Four decades ago, a young 4-H’er named Patrick harvested fresh vegetables on his family’s 5-acre farm in rural Pennsylvania. These vegetables not only nourished the young man’s family, they planted a seed that would grow into a lifelong passion.
The farm-to-plate journey and its collective impact on his family reinforced an idea that shaped the educational path and professional career of Patrick J. Stover, Ph.D.
Now as vice chancellor of Texas A&M AgriLife, dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and director of Texas A&M AgriLife Research, Stover leads Texas A&M AgriLife’s charge to restore the connection between people, agriculture, food, science and the economy.
As first-generation college students, Stover and his seven siblings were encouraged to pursue higher education by their parents, who had missed their opportunity. It was his parent’s passion for education and his experiences with sustenance farming and the family business that led him on his eventual academic and career path.
Farming, childhood cultivates Stover’s path
Early life on the farm where the Stover family grew their own food built and reinforced an idea that shaped his educational path and professional career – the connection between agriculture and health.
The family farm produced an array of vegetables, including cabbage, broccoli, carrots, beets, corn, beans, tomatoes and squash. An orchard provided peaches, plums, apples and blueberries, and bee colonies Stover and his father established improved plant pollination and produced honey.
The farm also produced poultry, including turkeys and around 100 hens that provided eggs and meat.
Stover’s childhood also exposed him to the role community and outside expertise can play in individual success.
He and his siblings participated in and led 4-H programs and local gardening clubs. The family also relied on local Extension agents to advise them on various methods to protect crops and maximize their acreage.
“Farming was part of everyday life for us,” he said. “That connection to the land and agriculture made such an indelible mark in my life and continues to guide me.”
Parents’ dreams become children’s reality
The idea seeded in Stover that farming and self-sufficiency were connected to healthy and happy living was cultivated by his parents’ desire for learning. Farming was important for sustenance, but his parents made education the top priority for him and his siblings.
Their parents were products of trying times. They were children as the nation recovered from World War 1 and experienced the difficulties brought by the Great Depression. Stover said those experiences molded their emphasis on self-sufficiency and learning.
Stover’s father gave up his dream of college to enlist after the attack on Pearl Harbor brought the nation into World War II. His mother, despite being valedictorian of her class, was unable to attend college to work and support her family. The couple met and married soon after he returned from war, and the responsibilities of family were prioritized over college.
Despite their inability to attend college, both remained committed to self-education and to ensuring their children would have opportunities they did not. Creating a path to college for the eight Stover children was a family commitment.
As it is for many first-generation students, scholarships were a priority, he said. Community and extended family members also took an interest in helping Stover attend and excel in college.
“They made higher education a priority, and we found a way,” he said. “I was lucky to have family support, but there were also a number of people in my life who took an interest in me. They provided guidance and pointed me in the right direction, whether it was life advice or scholarship opportunities.”
Narrowing his academic passions
Stover commuted to Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia and, as he and his siblings had for many years, worked for his family’s printing business in the evenings. His parents were insistent he go to college, but they were supportive of any direction Stover chose for college and career.
“We did not really have a choice on whether we attended college, but my parents’ insistence was to always, ‘do your best, and do what you love,’” he said. “There was no pressure on going a certain direction. They just wanted us to succeed and knew that higher education was the best path forward.”
Stover fell in love with chemistry at Saint Joseph’s and was originally set on medical school. He earned a doctorate in biochemistry and molecular biophysics from the Medical College of Virginia, but a mistaken roommate assignment during a meeting in 1990 as he was going into his post-doctorate work led to his interest in human nutrition and metabolism. His roommate was obsessed with the burgeoning field and drew Stover into lengthy conversations over the weeklong stay.
“It was a transformative moment,” he said. “My roommate could talk for hours about it, and I found the subject and field fascinating because he generated so much excitement around the ideas and concepts. I was hooked.”
As a result, Stover completed his postdoctoral studies in nutritional sciences at the University of California, Berkeley.
Embracing discovery, finding a career path
At that time, human nutrition and metabolism was a good field to enter because researchers were actively discovering strong links between diet and human development, Stover said. He received a position at Cornell University where he researched fundamental metabolism, specifically related to vitamins.
Stover’s research team was instrumental in identifying a biochemical link found between birth defect risks and a lack of sufficient folic acid in some pregnant women’s diet. He spent time working on advising food fortification programs in the U.S. and around the globe to reduce the risk of birth defects.
But he was also researching the influences of diet on an individual’s genetics in relation to the emergence of disease, including cancer. He then began finding himself on discussion panels and engaging on policy matters related to nutrition and human health outcomes and the relationship between diet and disease.
Stover later became director of Cornell University’s Division of Nutritional Sciences.His research continued to focus on the links between diet and human health and the impact poor food choices and chronic and degenerative diseases, and training the next generation of research scientists. Many of his former graduate students are now leading university scientists.
“Many prospective research students are motivated by the desire to save the world, but my message to them, one that I was lucky enough to realize and embrace early, is that you have to enjoy scientific discovery,” he said. “You have to enjoy asking important questions and the journey between asking the question and seeing the result. The fruit of research that benefits society is appealing, but the reward that sustains a researcher through failure is discovery and advancing the science — because today’s discoveries are tomorrow’s solutions.”
Stover finds a home at Texas A&M
Stover said it was an incredible opportunity to come to Texas A&M University and AgriLife Research. The appointment gives him a chance to continue his research and focus his research and administrative knowledge on how Texas A&M can lead a more wholistic approach to meeting fundamental challenges here and around the globe through agriculture.
Agriculture is and must continue producing more food than ever before, and Stover said now there is a shift toward maximizing the nutritional quality and value in what we consume as well. At the same time, he said agricultural sciences must continue to identify ways for agriculture to provide environmentally friendly ways to sustain economic and societal health.
“It is not enough for agriculture to just focus on ending hunger, but rather producing food that nourishes our bodies in a way that reduces instances of chronic disease like diabetes and heart disease and also contributes to improving the world around us,” he said. “That will take producing strong science that can be used to advocate for reliable policy that advances society.”
Stover said he’s honored to be in a position to help the university and AgriLife Research navigate toward providing solutions via agriculture that are codified around the land-grant mission.
It represents a cumulation of his journey. From his time as a 4-H’er who started the local beekeeping club to performing the many administrative- and customer service-based duties in his family’s business as a teenager or his fascination with chemistry that led to a serendipitous encounter, Stover said he’s been driven by a fascination with exploration and learning that he attributes to his parents.
“I never intended to be where I am today, but there are definitely moments that influenced my path,” he said. “I focus on waking up every day excited about what I am doing.
“I’m not so much a person who lives according to a structured plan as a person who does what they enjoy and tries to do their best every day, and I believe that when you do that, then you will be successful.”