Gatlan ’11 and Rachel ‘12 Gray set out with a purpose — to keep agriculture at the center of their lives. The opportunities available to them as animal science students in the Texas A&M College of Agriculture and Life Sciences Department of Animal Science solidified their drive to reach that goal.
The couple has been involved in agriculture since they were children growing up around ag teachers, stock shows, and FFA and 4-H contests. Many of these activities took them to College Station, where they experienced the Aggie spirit at an early age.
Gatlan said for him, Texas A&M University was his only choice for college. It was also a natural choice for Rachel, and her decision was clear after visiting campus during the State FFA Livestock Judging contest where she spent more time learning about the university.
“More than any other university I visited, Texas A&M felt like home,” Rachel said.
Gatlan and Rachel, who both graduated with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in animal science, credit their parents, ag teachers, judging team coaches, professors and industry leaders for influencing their drive, beliefs and values. Through this support system, their success as students translated to careers in animal science.
Gatlan guided by support system and networking
As a young child growing up in Brock, Gatlan’s involvement in agriculture began when a family friend, who was an ag teacher in a nearby community, made sure he had a pig to show when he turned 9 years old.
“His guidance, along with that of the other teachers and mentors, led me to pursue a degree in agriculture and, ultimately, a career in the animal protein industry,” he said.
Fast forward to 2007, and Gatlan was an animal science student taking advantage of multiple high-impact learning opportunities available through the department. His interest in meat science sparked his involvement as a student worker at the Rosenthal Meat Science and Technology Center, as well as a member of the meat judging and meat science quiz bowl teams. As a master’s student focusing on meat science and food safety, he assisted with Beef 101, Beef 706, Pork 101 and Barbecue Summer camps. He also participated in Aggie REPS, the International Livestock Congress and numerous stock shows and industry internships.
Gatlan said his involvement in these organizations opened a network, and the hands-on experiences and industry events and conferences were the most notable impacts the department made on his career.
“The information presented and topics discussed helped bring to life what I was learning in the classroom. At these events, I would always take the time to connect with both professionals and peers from different universities,” he said.
Gatlan began a career in the meat department at Walmart in 2014 with a focus on research and development, quality monitoring and technical services/problem-solving for the ground beef business. He said this role required a deep understanding of the end-to-end process, from live animals to the customer experience and everything in between.
His education and manufacturing experience were instrumental in his success in the meat division, but he also took a chance to learn more skills beyond the technical and scientific side.
After leading several businesses within the meat department, Gatlan desired to work alongside Walmart’s branded partners. This opportunity came along in the dog food business, which allowed him to work with these partners while staying close to the animal protein industry.
For the past two and half years, Gatlan has served in the role of merchandising director leading the dog food business.
Rachel finds niche in sensory science and product development
Rachel grew up in Pilot Point among a family of agricultural educators who taught at high school and college levels for a combined 110 years. An education in animal science was a natural fit for her. With a competitive spirit, Rachel began her educational journey with an interest in meat science.
Her competitive nature worked well in her favorite animal science class, ANSC 307 Meats, taught by Jeffrey W. Savell, Ph.D., vice chancellor and dean of Agriculture and Life Sciences and meat science professor in the department.
“Because Dr. Savell put the top five test scores on the board, I was highly motivated to get my score on the board,” Rachel said. “At the time, I did not know I wanted a career in meat science. As I studied diligently and became more involved with the department, I soon realized meat science would be a big part of my future.”
Outside of the classroom, Rachel, like Gatlan, participated in many high impact learning experiences, including internships and some of the same meat science activities. She also served as a Texas FFA state officer from 2008 to 2009, completed agricultural communications internships and was a meat science student worker.
Rachel said she holds fond memories of her time at Texas A&M, recalling the tailgates, football games, long days in the meat lab and late-night study sessions.
“When I reflect back on my time at Texas A&M, I appreciate the community of friends and supporters who made every day special,” she said. “Many of the friends we had in college are still a part of our close community today.”
Rachel’s interest in a meat science career never wavered; however, her ultimate path took her by surprise when she learned about sensory science.
“As I was exploring career options, I loved meat science, but I also loved learning how people experienced and perceived food and agriculture,” Rachel said. “Sensory science and product development was the perfect bridge.”
She said this role allows her to “develop awesome products that solve customer needs.”
During her master’s program where Rachel studied sensory science with Rhonda Miller, Ph.D., professor of meat science, she attended an industry event at Tyson headquarters. This ultimately led to her securing a position with Tyson after graduating with her master’s degree.
For nearly eight years, Rachel worked as a sensory scientist focused on various categories of products ranging from bacon to pizza toppings, and even tortillas.
Today, Rachel continues her passion in meat science at Walmart as a senior product development manager for meat, seafood and breakfast meats. In this role, she develops items for some of their biggest customer-focused brands.
A love for agriculture guides the Gray family
Gatlan and Rachel met as students at Texas A&M and were married in Decatur in 2016. They are now living their dream of raising a family, one son and twin boys who are due in September, on their small farm and livestock operation. The demands of their careers, life and the farm require a balancing act, but the Gray family said they are up to the task to ensure they instill a love of agriculture, a strong work ethic and life skills in their sons.
The Grays also set a goal to give back to the students at Texas A&M. Gatlan and Rachel were both fortunate to receive scholarships as students, and that generosity influenced their desire to establish the Gatlan ’11 & Rachel ’12 Gray Endowed Scholarship in the Department of Animal Science in 2019. Gatlan also gives back to students by sharing his experience and professional wisdom as a speaker in various animal science and Texas A&M University Mays Business School classes.
Since 2019, Gatlan has served as a member of the Department of Animal Science external advisory committee, a group of professionals and stakeholders that offers industry insight to enhance the academic programs of the department.
“Early in college, I realized that networking not only helps build relationships, but it also facilitates the exchange of ideas and unique perspectives,” Gatlan said. “I’ve enjoyed learning from my peers on the committee and hope that our perspectives have made a positive impact on the next generation of Texas A&M students.”
As the Grays continue to give back to the university that shaped their life, they encourage current and future students to get involved, be curious, build a network, complete internships and remember to connect with the industry experiences provided by the department’s faculty.
“The importance that the professors place on maintaining and nurturing the industry connections with the classroom is super valuable,” said Rachel. “These experiences will help accelerate the learning curve as you transition to a professional career.”