A new Texas A&M AgriLife program, designed for employees across the Texas A&M AgriLife agencies and Texas A&M College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, is developing leadership skills and strengthening interpersonal and professional relationships for employees in leadership positions.

A groip photo of LEAD AgriLife members standing outside a building. They wear matching maroon shirts.
The 2023-2024 group of LEAD AgriLife cohorts. (Michael Miller/Texas A&M AgriLife)

“The vision of the LEAD AgriLife program is to develop faculty and staff capacity to advance the missions of their agency or college, and Texas A&M AgriLife as a whole,” said Vic Seidel, executive associate vice chancellor and chief operating officer for Texas A&M AgriLife, Bryan-College Station.

LEAD AgriLife aims to equip individuals with skills and principles to thrive in their existing and future leadership roles, Seidel said.

“This program will deploy leaders dedicated to shaping the future of Texas A&M AgriLife,” Seidel said.

The inaugural cohort of 24 leaders in the LEAD AgriLife program comes from the College, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service, Texas A&M AgriLife Research, the Texas A&M Veterinary Medical Diagnostic Laboratory, TVMDL, and Texas A&M Forest Service.

“This cohort will be important for the rest of the participants’ careers, and it cuts across all organizations in Texas A&M AgriLife,” said program leader Matt Baker, Ph.D., head of the Department of Agricultural Leadership, Education and Communications, Bryan-College Station.

LEAD AgriLife goals

The program leverages the collective strengths of the cohort and fosters unity and collaboration among participants as a unified team. This allows LEAD AgriLife to activate strengths within the larger organization.

“Our hope is that each cohort will walk away with the knowledge and skills they need to be strong leaders in multiple areas,” Seidel said.

Some of the program’s key focuses are on expanding networks, leading impactful teams and providing strategic leadership for the organization. This positions each participant to not only lead within their own teams and across Texas A&M AgriLife, but also allows them to do so in partnership with other System and external members when opportunities arise.

Baker noted how LEAD AgriLife builds bridges between the teams by uniting their leaders.

Group of people standing in a circle with their hands touching in the middle.
The LEAD AgriLife program leverages the collective strengths of the participants and fosters unity and collaboration among the cohorts. (Michael Miller/Texas A&M AgriLife)

Those bridges in turn will lead to more research, programs and projects that are multi-department. Baker also sees it as a tool for people to utilize the resources already on hand.

“We have so much talent here that, when brought together, we can accomplish anything,” Baker, who led the initial cohort, said. As the first class wraps up their training this summer, Caitlyn Calvert, assistant vice chancellor for Educational Development and Engagement, Bryan-College Station, will be handed the baton from Baker for the next cohort.

“Caitlyn is phenomenal, and I am excited for what she’ll add to the program in the future,” Baker said.

LEAD AgriLife cohorts

The first cohort members are unique in the sense that they are helping to establish the foundation of the program for those who will follow.

“These individuals are not only participating in the program, but they’re shaping how we build LEAD for the future to ensure it becomes a legacy program that will be around for years to come,” Seidel said.

Cohort members met online over summer for a program orientation. In the fall they met at the Texas 4-H Center near Brownwood in a retreat-style setting to get acquainted and to begin the team-building process. Their final meeting will take place at Texas A&M AgriLife Research and Extension Center at Dallas in June.

Each member in the cohort went through an application process and was selected by the appropriate agency director, professional service unit or the executive associate dean for the College, depending on their work location.

For this upcoming class, employees can nominate themselves for the program through the end of the month, and their respective unit leadership will then review applicants for consideration. Seidel said this opens the possibility of acceptance to all individuals interested in leadership-development opportunities. The 2024-2025 participants will be announced in June.

The inaugural cohort includes:

Aaron Tarone

Aaron Tarone, Ph.D., has worked in the Department of Entomology since 2009. Tarone is the director of the accredited forensic and investigative sciences major and an associate department head for undergraduate education and part of the academic leadership for the Center for Advanced Research in Forensic Science. He is currently the principal investigator of a federal legislative community improvement project for funding, targeted at enhancing and improving forensic science education, research and training at Texas A&M.

He was awarded the 2022 Dean’s Outstanding Achievement Award for Administration and has thrice been elected professor of the year by entomology/forensic and investigative sciences undergraduates. Tarone earned a bachelor’s in genetics from the University of California, Davis, and a doctorate in zoology from Michigan State University. He did his postdoctoral research in the Molecular and Computational Biology program at the University of Southern California. 

Angela Burkham

Angela Burkham, Ph.D., serves as the executive associate director for AgriLife Extension. She leads operations ensuring that all the systems, resources and people are in place to achieve the goals of the agency. Burkham provides leadership of the daily operations of the agency and its 1,400 employees. She works collaboratively with the team of associate directors to engage more than 24 million in annual direct teaching contacts and more than 86,000 volunteers providing over 4.2 million hours of service. Burkham also provides leadership to the Office of Data and Accountability and to the Disaster Assessment and Recovery, DAR, unit as the agency engages communities in preparedness, mitigation, response and recovery.

Burkham has 32 years of service as an educator and leader in AgriLife Extension outreach programming. Prior to her current position, Burkham served in a wide variety of roles ranging from a family and community health agent to a regional program leader. Burkham holds a doctorate in agricultural education from Texas A&M and Texas Tech University, and master’s and bachelor’s degrees in home economics education from Texas Tech.

Audrey McElroy

Audrey McElroy is head of the Department of Poultry Science. In addition to her role as department head, she is a professor, conducts intestinal health research through mentoring graduate students, teaches an undergraduate poultry capstone course and provides educational programming for the commercial poultry industry. Her research includes intestinal responses to coccidia and necrotic enteritis and the ability to minimize the impact of these on growth and performance in commercial broilers through management and dietary strategies. She has received over $6 million in external research funding, and in 2019 received the Novus International Scholar’s Award for her research. 

She previously was a faculty member in the Department of Animal and Poultry Sciences at Virginia Tech University for 15 years and spent several years on the Poultry Technical Service Team at Merck Animal Health. McElroy has given 43 international invited presentations in 17 countries and 112 invited presentations in the U.S. Her teaching was recognized with the Poultry Science Association Teaching Award in 2011, and in 2014 her extension programs were recognized with the Virginia Poultry Federation Distinguished Service Award.

Betty Cotton

Betty Cotton has worked in the Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics for 23 years. During her career, she has assisted four department heads: Jim Wild, Ph.D., Greg Reinhart, Ph.D., Dorothy Shippen, Ph.D., and currently Josh Wand, Ph.D. She has been involved in hiring a department head, 28 tenure-track faculty, eight academic and professional track faculty, processed over 40 promotion dossiers, and has hired, trained and supervised numerous administrative staff and organized dozens of events.

Cotton’s dedication has been recognized at multiple levels within Texas A&M. She is the recipient of the 2019 College of Agriculture and Life Sciences Dean’s Award of Excellence, the 2016 Texas A&M AgriLife Vice Chancellor’s Award in Excellence and the 2015 Texas A&M University President’s Meritorious Service Award. Cotton has been honored twice within her department with the Department Award of Excellence in 2002 and 2018. Cotton is a 1994 general business graduate from Sam Houston State University.

Chris Elam

Chris Elam has served as the strategic initiatives lead for AgriLife Extension since 2022, providing forward-thinking goals and plans for the growth of the agency and its employees. Over the course of his career, he has developed strong relationships and leadership roles in state and local government throughout Texas, having worked with elected officials in the U.S. Congress, the Texas Legislature and numerous state agencies. Elam has served as a governmental relations specialist and communications director at the Texas General Land Office and as the former statewide spokesman and deputy executive director of the Republican Party of Texas.

Prior to his roles in state and county government, Elam worked as an independent political and communications consultant, directing or managing over 100 campaigns, political action committees and bond initiatives in Texas and New Mexico. Elam graduated cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in political science from Texas A&M in 2001.

David Jones

David Jones assumed the position of business administrator at the Texas A&M AgriLife Research and Extension Center at Vernon in 2016. He provides leadership for operations ensuring that all the systems, resources and people are in place to achieve the goals of the Texas A&M AgriLife center at Vernon. His AgriLife Research career started in 1993 as a research technician working with the range ecology and brush control projects, using prescribed fires to sculpt brush and improve range ecology. In 2003, he was promoted to research associate and transferred to the Texas A&M AgriLife Research Station at Chillicothe, where he served as the farm manager and was responsible for overseeing critical infrastructure projects including the addition of center pivot and subsurface drip irrigation systems.

Jones has worked with Texas A&M AgriLife Foundation Seed to grow wheat and millet seed increases and continues work with alternative crops such as canola and sesame, as well as cotton variety trials. He has also worked with various chemical companies for weed control of summer crops. In 2011, he accepted a superintendent position with a national grain elevator. He was recognized for industry safety and was invited as a speaker to Oklahoma Fumigation and Grain Handling Workshops hosted by Oklahoma State University. He is a 1992 graduate of Cameron University, with a bachelor’s degree in agronomy.

David Wright

David Wright is the AgriLife Extension urban program director and agency director for Harris County. He provides oversight to all aspects of the urban unit including programming, personnel and budget management, and external evaluation. In his professional trajectory, he has been awarded and managed over $7.1 million through local, state and national foundations and government entities since 2008, serving as principal investigator and co-principal investigator on most of the projects.

Wright has a deep understanding about and passion for the educational and experiential needs of students and has strong on-going relationships with local and regional U.S. Department of Agriculture, USDA, agencies, federal and state government, and private and nonprofit sector organizations. Wright has over 25 years of experience including as an AgriLife Extension county agent and 4-H Urban Outreach program director. Wright earned a bachelor’s in agribusiness from Sam Houston State University and a master’s in agricultural education from Texas State University. Wright has dedicated his life to urban development and has numerous certifications focusing on leadership and youth development.

Desmond Ng

Desmond Ng is an associate professor of agribusiness and strategy management in the Department of Agricultural Economics. His teaching philosophy is based on creating a student-centric class experience in which students develop practical management skills that increase prospects for career and personal success. This applied learning focus has a learning objective of developing a student’s soft skills in communication, problem solving and critical thinking.

Ng is currently serving on the editorial boards of Human System Management and the International Journal of Complexity, Leadership and Management journals. He has also served as a guest editor on a special issue of the Pluralism of Agribusiness for the International Food and Agribusiness Management Review. He is the chair of the Western Education and Research Activities Committee on Agribusiness and organized and chaired the 2009 Agribusiness Research Forum. Ng is also the chair for the Agribusiness Economics Management section of the Agricultural and Applied Economics Association.

Gabriel Gomez

Gabriel Gomez, DVM, Ph.D., serves as the assistant agency director for pathology at TVMDL. Gomez has worked in veterinary pathology for 19 years. He joined TVMDL after completing his graduate work in 2013 and currently oversees the pathology departments at the laboratories’ Canyon and College Station locations. Prior to this position, he held the position of assistant section head for necropsy and section head for pathology at the College Station laboratory.

Gomez has a special interest in immunology, infectious diseases, neoplasia and prion — chronic wasting — diseases. He obtained bachelor’s degrees in both animal science and biological sciences and his veterinary sciences degree from Oklahoma State University. Gomez earned his doctorate in veterinary pathology from Texas A&M, where he also completed a residency in anatomic veterinary pathology.

Jaehak Jeong

Jaehak Jeong, Ph.D., is a professor of biological and agricultural engineering and water management and hydrological science in the Department of Biological and Agricultural Engineering. Jeong is internationally known for his leadership in the Agricultural Policy/Environmental Extender model. He has conducted research in eco-hydrologic modeling, land management and climate change impacts on water resources and crop production, greenhouse gas emission controls on croplands, watershed hydrology and water quality, urban stormwater management practices, soil erosion and sediment transport, parameter sensitivity analysis, and model optimization and integration.

Jeong is a leader in computational hydrology and cropping systems modeling research. He has authored or co-authored 107 peer-reviewed publications, which have been cited more than 3,200 times. Jeong’s research and service have contributed to improving water resource conservation through computational modeling, assessments and watershed protection.

John Wegenhoft

John Wegenhoft has led Texas A&M Forest Service’s employee development department for nine years. His staff supports agency headquarters and field offices and Texas A&M AgriLife human resources with personnel in-processing and administration, institutional safety, required training and committee leadership. Wegenhoft also manages leadership and employee development.

Wegenhoft retired from the U.S. Army as a lieutenant colonel in 2013 after 26 years of service. As an artillery officer, he served overseas and stateside preparing and leading soldiers for actions in tactical environments. His early tours included wartime command in Southwest Asia, armistice watch in Northeast Asia, and tactical unit leader and trainer stateside. Later as a strategic intelligence officer, Wegenhoft led staff elements within headquarters of joint and multinational forces leading and serving alongside service members of all branches, of foreign militaries, and with Department of Defense and Department of State civilians. His academic education includes Joint Military Intelligence College’s Post Graduate Intelligence Program, U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, and other NATO, defense, joint and service-related schools and courses. Wegenhoft holds the Legion of Merit, Bronze Star, and other medals and ribbons.

Julie Gardener

For over 29 years, Julie Gardner, Ph.D., has served the people of Texas. She has served in her current position of AgriLife Extension specialist for healthy lifestyles since 2018. Since 2016, Gardner has been the co-coordinator for Path to the Plate. In her position, she provides oversight for youth health and wellness programs throughout the state. She has been instrumental in developing partnerships and programs related to healthy eating, physical activity, school-based interventions and community-based participatory research. Gardner has also served in multiple statewide AgriLife Extension and Texas 4-H leadership roles and initiatives.

Gardner’s work resulted in an 1115 Medicaid Transformation Waiver Regional Project known as the Central Texas Community Health Initiative, a multi-million-dollar project responsible for delivering health education in schools and communities within seven counties in Central Texas. Gardener earned her bachelor’s in home economics in 1994 and master’s in educational administration in 2000 from Tarleton State University. In 2019, she earned her doctorate in the philosophy of health studies with an emphasis in population health from Texas Woman’s University.

Kari Curtis

Kari Curtis assumed her current position of assistant dean for finance in the College in April of 2023. Prior to joining the College, she served within Texas A&M AgriLife as controller for AgriLife Research. Curtis has held positions with four of the Texas A&M system members over the course of the last 21 years.

Curtis was born in Nebraska and moved to Texas in 1998. She is a 1992 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, with a bachelor’s degree in finance.

Katie Lewis

Katie Lewis, Ph.D., joined the AgriLife Research at the Texas A&M AgriLife Research and Extension Center at Lubbock and Texas Tech University faculty in 2014. As an associate professor of soil chemistry and fertility in the Department of Soil and Crop Sciences, Lewis is provided the opportunity through research, service and teaching to enhance the agricultural sustainability of the Texas High Plains, which is vitally essential to both Texas and the nation. Lewis is determined to optimize management strategies for cotton producers across the Texas High Plains and the Cotton Belt of the U.S. to ensure the longevity of farming operations while conserving soil and water resources. Her program has received $5.5 million in federal, state and local funds.

She has been the chair of the Great Plains Soil Fertility Planning Board since 2020. Lewis has received numerous awards for her research on cotton and for her work as a soil scientist. Lewis earned her master’s degree and her doctorate in soil science from Texas A&M in 2010 and 2014, respectively, after completing her bachelor’s in chemistry from Sam Houston State University in 2008.

Katlin Shoemaker

Katlin Shoemaker currently serves as the assistant director for strategic initiatives with Educational Development and Engagement, EDE, and as the education director for Cross Border Threat Screening and Supply Chain Defense, CBTS. In her work with EDE, Shoemaker leads efforts to promote innovation on educational platforms and processes. Shoemaker joined CBTS in June and is working to leverage the AgriLife Learn platform and develop the CBTS educational portfolio on topics that support the detection and elimination of biological threats moving through global supply chains.

Shoemaker earned both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the Department of Agricultural Leadership, Education and Communication at Texas A&M. She then began developing educational content and a career as an instructional designer for the Texas A&M Engineering Extension Service, developing in-person and online training for emergency responders. In 2019, she transitioned to Texas A&M AgriLife, working to build out the AgriLife Learn online course catalog.

Kiril Dimitrov

Since 2021, Kiril Dimitrov, DVM, Ph.D., has served as the TVMDL assistant director for microbiology and research and development. Joining the department in 2019, he initially served as the virology and molecular diagnostics section head at the Amarillo laboratory then joined the College Station laboratory to serve as the virology section head. Dimitrov came to TVMDL from the USDA National Poultry Research Center, where he served as a visiting scientist and worked on the development of rapid diagnostics tools, researched viral molecular epidemiology and evolution, next generation sequencing methodologies and bioinformatics, and vaccines.

Dimitrov earned his master’s and doctoral degrees from Trakia University, Bulgaria. After graduation, he trained at various agencies specializing in food safety, avian disease diagnostics and molecular diagnostics. In 2013, he earned a doctorate from the National Diagnostic and Research Veterinary Medical Institute in Bulgaria, focusing on molecular-epidemiological studies of Newcastle disease.

Loren Burns

Loren Burns is the program manager for the Agribusiness, Food and Consumer Economics Center in the Department of Agricultural Economics. She is responsible for managing the day-to-day operations of the center, as well as maintaining account records that include directing authorization and allocation of funds. Burns also works with external and prospective clients to successfully define parameters, transaction terms and limitations surrounding research projects for faculty members.

Prior to joining the department, Burns was a proposal administrator at both the Texas A&M Research Foundation and The Texas A&M University System’s Sponsored Research Services, where she worked with Texas A&M System researchers to provide a smooth transition into proposal and project management. Burns earned her bachelor’s in agribusiness with a minor in agricultural economics from Texas A&M in 2009. In 2023, she was awarded the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences Staff Excellence Award.

Marco Palma

Marco Palma, Ph.D., is a professor in the Department of Agricultural Economics. His areas of research include consumer economics, experimental and behavioral economics and neuroeconomics. Palma serves as director of the Human Behavior Laboratory, HBL, a transdisciplinary facility that integrates neurophysiological responses to traditional methods to study human behavior to improve understanding of the underlying motivation of decisions and choices. The mission of the HBL is to understand the motivations of individual behavior to promote health, well-being and prosperity for Texans and people around the world. 

Palma is a Texas A&M Presidential Impact Fellow, a Texas A&M AgriLife Faculty Fellow and associate member of the Institute for Advancing Health Through Agriculture. Palma has published more than 100 peer-reviewed articles, raised $97 million in grants as principal or co-principal investigator and served on the committee of more than 100 graduate students. Palma is passionate about working with graduate students and inspiring them to discover and reach their true potential and to develop the passion and work ethic instrumental to their careers.

Mary Leigh Meyer

Mary Leigh Meyer joined Texas A&M AgriLife in 2020, working within Texas A&M AgriLife Marketing and Communications in various capacities. Currently, as the associate director of marketing and communications, she oversees a robust team of marketing and communications professionals tasked with elevating the Texas A&M AgriLife brand and the various agencies, College, programs and units within it. Prior roles include working with the Harris County Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management’s public information officer and media relations team and working within marketing, sales and business development at a multi-million-dollar general contractor.

Specializing in connecting and engaging with external audiences via strategic and translational content across a variety of digital platforms and traditional mediums, Meyer enjoys solving complex communications challenges while engaging with internal and external stakeholders. Meyer’s wide breadth of experience helps her bring together a diverse, passionate and expert team that serves one of the largest comprehensive agriculture and life sciences programs nationally. Meyer earned a bachelor’s degree in both communications and Spanish at Texas A&M, then earned her master’s degree in public relations with an emphasis in crisis communications and health communications from the University of Houston.

Nithya Rajan

Nithya Rajan, Ph.D., is a professor of agronomy and agroecology in the Department of Soil and Crop Sciences. Rajan’s extensive research contributions are reflected in her publication record, including over 68 peer-reviewed journal articles, two book chapters, and over 250 abstracts and presentations. Rajan and her team have secured over $250 million in funding from agencies including USDA, National Science Foundation, U.S. Department of Education and NASA. She is currently serving as a member representing academia on the Farm, Ranch and Rural Communities Committee of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. She was also elected as the 2024 chair for the climatology and modeling section of the American Society of Agronomy. She also serves as the program planning officer for the Crop Science Society of America, actively contributing to shaping the organization’s programmatic activities.

Rajan earned her bachelor’s from Kerala Agricultural University, India, and her master’s in soil science and agricultural chemistry from A.N.G.R. Agricultural University, India. She earned her doctorate in agronomy from Texas Tech. After her post-doctoral research at Texas Tech, Rajan joined AgriLife Research as an assistant professor in cropping systems at the Texas A&M AgriLife center at Vernon in 2010. Currently, she holds a tenured professor position in the Department of Soil and Crop Sciences and leads a research program on climate-smart farming.

Rachel Bauer

Rachel Bauer serves as the associate program director for the AgriLife Extension Disaster Assessment and Recovery, DAR, unit.  She is officed in Austin at the Texas Division of Emergency Management, TDEM, and serves as the AgriLife Extension liaison to the State Operations Center.  Bauer coordinates the agencies’ disaster preparedness and response efforts with DAR leadership, TDEM and other state agencies. Since 2019, she has coordinated agency response efforts during the COVID pandemic, multiple wildfires and severe weather events.  

Prior to her service with the DAR Unit, Bauer served as an AgriLife Extension agriculture and natural resource agent in Comal, Hays, Caldwell and Bastrop counties from 1992-2019. She provided leadership in beef cattle, forage and pecan programming, and worked extensively with volunteers in the Master Gardener, Master Naturalist and 4-H and youth programs. Bauer earned her bachelor’s in animal science from Texas A&M and a master’s in agricultural education from Texas State University. 

Sonia Irigoyen

Sonia Irigoyen has worked in the Texas A&M AgriLife Research and Extension Center in Weslaco for the past eight years, where she is currently a senior research scientist. With more than 20 years of experience in research, she has worked in breakthrough research, collaborating with Texas A&M faculty as well as other higher education institutions, and co-authored several publications. In 2022, she was one of the recipients of the Texas A&M Technology Commercialization’s Patents and Innovation Awards. Irigoyen has served on the editorial boards of PeerJ-Life and Environment, Journal of Plant Growth Regulation and currently serves on the Frontiers in Plant Microbiology editorial board.

She earned her bachelor’s degree in biology in 2001 and her master’s in genetics in 2005 from the Universidad Autonoma de Nuevo Leon, Mexico. In 2011, she received her doctorate in molecular and environmental plant sciences at Texas A&M and worked as a post-doctoral researcher in the Department of Biology until 2015.

Steven Klose

Steven Klose, Ph.D., is professor and associate department head for AgriLife Extension in the Department of Agricultural Economics. Klose joined AgriLife Extension in 1997 to help facilitate the launch of a new state risk management initiative, FARM Assistance, an intensive extension effort to assist agricultural producers on an individual basis with strategic planning and risk management analysis. FARM Assistance has been used to provide strategic decision information for almost 2,800 crop and livestock operations across Texas and has earned numerous honors and recognitions from agricultural associations. In 2022, Klose was appointed the associate department head for AgriLife Extension in the department.

Klose graduated from Texas A&M with a bachelor’s in agricultural economics in 1992.  He also earned his master’s and doctorate degrees in agricultural economics from Texas A&M in 1995 and 2001.

Tom Lyster

Tom Lyster is the director of information technology, IT, for the AgriLife Extension and AgriLife Research. He joined Texas A&M AgriLife in 2007 as a software specialist with his responsibilities expanding to include project, team and operational management. Lyster manages a team of IT professionals tasked with supporting statewide IT operations for Texas A&M AgriLife.  Additionally, he coordinates a group of IT specialists whose focus is innovative solutions to broad scope needs in the area of business, research and operations. 

Lyster began his career in the defense industry as a design engineer with E-Systems. After completing his master’s, he transitioned to telecommunications where he managed the development of standalone and web-based applications for Motorola and TXU Communications.  Prior to joining Texas A&M AgriLife, Lyster was a lecturer in Texas A&M’s College of Engineering where he taught courses on industrial automation and electricity. He holds a bachelor’s in electronics and a master’s in computer science from Texas A&M. 

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