Jolley: Five Minutes with Dr. Mindy Brashears and a happy life being lived well

One of the most important things a person in the cattle industry can do is sit down at the end of a long day and say to themselves, "Yeah, I made a difference, today." What that difference is can be many things; a positive impact in your business or professional life? The warmth and comfort you can bring to your family? To meld two advertising phrases, making a difference is job #1, just do it!

I've been fortunate enough to know many people who make a difference. All of them are very busy and all of them can sit down in the evening and know they've accomplished something worthwhile. They'll allow themselves a bit of a smile at the end of the day; they all get up in the morning and do it all over again.

One of those people is Dr. Mindy Brashears who spends some time at teaching at Texas Tech, travels to Honduras in Central America to help that countries" cattlemen become more competitive, and raises three excellent daughters. Hers is a life lived well and I've always wanted to know more about what she does and why she does it. So, I posed a few questions to her just before she packed up the family and headed out for a well-deserved Disney vacation.

Q. Mindy, let's start by talking about your career. Texas Tech seems to be your home base and the cattle industry seems to be your passion. Tell me about how you came to the cattle business and how it led you to TTU.

A. I grew up on a farm in Wheeler, Texas where my family raised cattle and cotton. My family still farms there and my parents have a herd of Registered Red Angus cattle. Several recipient cows on their farm were recently implanted with Registered Red Angus embryos of which we will choose my youngest daughter's first heifer she will show next year. 

This will be our first heifer to raise ourselves even though we spend our time working in the cattle industry. With 3 very active daughters there hasn't been time for cattle and we have focused on showing lambs and pigs but after this year, we will just have one daughter at home and she has a passion for raising heifers so we will begin our personal cattle business.  

Q. Why did you attend Texas Tech?

A. Growing up I never dreamed of living my life doing work in slaughter plants in Latin America. It just wasn't on the radar! I majored in agriculture at Texas Tech for one reason only, a FFA scholarship from the Houston Livestock Show which required me to major in agriculture so I ended up in the Department of Animal and Food Sciences as a Freshman as a Food Science major. 

After the first year, I realized how much I loved the field and decided I wanted a PhD. My high school sweetheart, Todd Brashears, said I "made" him go to Texas Tech (I will argue that he followed me) and he was an agricultural Economics major. He grew up on a ranch in Shamrock, TX (also in Wheeler County). He and I married after our freshman year of college (at age 19) and 2 doctoral degrees and 3 daughters later, we celebrated our 25 anniversary last year.  

After our undergraduate degrees, we moved to Oklahoma State University where I finished a MS and PhD in Food Science specializing in food microbiology. He finished a MS in agricultural education working for the cable company putting me through grad school. Our first daughter, Bailey, was born while I was in grad school.

Q. You earned your degree, you started a family. Tell me about your first steps into the working world.

A. I took a position at the University of Nebraska as the Extension Food Safety Specialist and Assistant Professor in the Department of Food Science. The bulk of my research and outreach work was in collaboration with the Department of Animal Science. I had two significant events early in my career. 

First of all, the first day of my job was the day of the Hudson Foods ground beef recall. It was the largest recall of ground beef in US history at the time and the company was in Columbus, Nebraska. Day 2 of my job, I was quoted on the front page of the Omaha World Herald and I was wondering what I had gotten myself into! 

This event had a major economic impact on the state and resulted in state funding for research to mitigate the E. coli O157:H7 problem. All work had to focus on pre-harvest research which was great because I had already started developing a cattle probiotic to reduce pathogens prior to harvest. The early work on this product was completed at the University of Nebraska.

The second significant event was the fact that the first USDA regulations were being implemented just as I was starting my job. Nebraska was the #1 state in beef harvest and I spent many hours travelling the state visiting processors, assisting with HACCP implementation and teaching HACCP workshops with Dr. Dennis Burson the Department of Animal Science at Nebraska. I learned so much from this hands-on experience with the beef industry spending 2-3 days/week in plants and directly working with the industry.

Q. Nebraska was your starting place but you were lured away after a few years. 

A. I was very happy at Nebraska and our second daughter, Reagan, was born there. I had no intention of leaving. One day I opened a trade journal and saw a "Double T" and a "food safety" announcement for an assistant professor opening at Texas Tech. It was a new position as Texas Tech had never had this type of opening with a food safety emphasis. I quickly set it aside and decided I could not even consider it. However, through a variety of events, and much persuasion, I ended up going on the interview and taking the job.

I primarily moved to Texas Tech to be close to family, but never realized how this was exactly where I needed to be. Texas Tech has been exceptionally supportive of the work I do and have allowed me an environment to pursue my dreams and build a program. My husband finished his doctorate in agricultural education there and joined the faculty and our 3rd daughter, Presley, was born in Texas.

Q. You teach at Texas Tech, of course. What other kinds of work did you do?

A. Early in my career at Texas Tech, I did extensive pre-harvest cattle work with the probiotic I had worked on at Nebraska in collaboration with a ruminant nutritionist, Mike Galyean and Dr. Guy Loneragan, a veterinary epidemiology. We did many studies at the Texas Tech Burnett Center examining probiotics and pathogen reduction. And eventually the probiotic was commercialized as Bovamine Defend and is now fed to a large portion of the cattle in the US to reduce pathogens in cattle prior to slaughter. 

Over the years I have done extensive research in food safety in pre and post-harvest environments. Texas Tech has allowed the program to grow from me as the first food safety faculty member to a team of 6 now, Dr. Guy Loneragan, Dr. Kendra Nightingale, Dr. Marcos Sanchez, Dr. Alejandro Echeverry, and Dr. Henk Den-Bakker along with myself. We have outstanding facilities and institutional support for all we do.

Q. You're splitting your time between Lubbock and Central America. First, what are your duties at TTU? And why so much time in places like Honduras?

A. I progressed through my career from assistant to associate to full professor over the past 12 years at Texas Tech and was named the Director of the International Center for Food Industry Excellence building the food safety program. Over the years I mentored many PhD and MS students and that part of my job became the most rewarding. I was successful in obtaining funding and publishing and getting awards and all the things expected of a faculty member, but something was missing. 

At the end of the day, I did not want to do the same thing over and over again year after year and started asking myself, "Am I having an impact on anyone's life"?  "Am I helping anyone?" What talents and abilities have I been blessed with that can make a difference in the world? 

Simultaneously we were having many groups from Mexico coming to Texas Tech through the USMEF and they always told us of the great need in Mexico for food safety training and research and urged us to come to Mexico so we did! That is where the international work started. 

When reviewing statistics of deaths from foodborne illnesses in developing countries we realized we could make a BIG difference through small interventions and training. The need for education is tremendous and teaching someone to wash their hands and to have a clean water source in a slaughter plant made tremendous differences.

I worked very closely with my husband and Dr. Mark Miller and Dr. Alejandro Echeverry at Texas Tech. We all still work closely together today. We did studies in the markets of Mexico to determine sources of pathogens in meat and pork and worked backwards to the plants to reduce the prevalence. During the course of this work, we hired many students from Central America because we needed Spanish-speaking individuals.

These students led us to their home countries and we have had small projects in Nicaragua, Panama, and Costa Rica but our emphasis and the largest growth has been in Honduras.  Working with the beef slaughter plants connected us with CAFOGA, a cattleman's group in Honduras. We met with them two years ago because they had a concern over the declining numbers of cattle in the industry in Honduras. 

They were being shipped to Guatemala and Nicaragua and there were declining numbers of cattle being finished in the country. Grass-feeding took 3.5 years and it was becoming economically challenging to do this. They asked us to help them in any way possible. Dr. Sara Trojan, a ruminant nutritionist, was engaged to help with this aspect. We wanted to develop a sustainable diet from by-products readily available in the country. Our search led us to African Palm which is a by-product of the Palm Kernel industry in the country. Combining this with other locally available ingredients, diets were formulated. 

We have had several groups of cattle on this diet and they have gained up to 4 lbs/day and were finished within 6 months. On average, we have increased the amount of edible meat on each carcass by 50 lbs. We are also examining the carcass quality and food safety aspects and will examine consumer acceptance in the near future. 

Q. You're using a lot of collective nouns. Are there a lot of people involved with this project?

A. This is very much a team project! Dr. Mark Miller oversees the meat quality work. An ag economist, Dr. Carlos Carpio, is leading the economic analysis of the diets and the cost of feeding in relationship to the weight gain. Dr. Todd Brashears is overseeing the communication aspects of the project among the cattlemen, CAFOGA and Texas Tech. 

In total, we expect 5 thesis projects from this work within the next year in a diverse number of areas from ruminant nutrition to meat quality to economics to communication and food safety. Texas Tech fully supports our work. Our president, Duane Nellis, recently asked faculty to develop ideas for new faculty hires in "cluster groups". We proposed a Food Security cluster and were one of only 3 groups selected to be funded. We have hired 4 new faculty members to work in food security and the University is supporting the work and the growth of the program.

Q. Most of your work is centered in Honduras. Using a school test phrase, would you compare and contrast cattlemen in that country with cattlemen in the U.S.?

A. It has been wonderful working with the cattlemen in Honduras. In general, cattlemen in Honduras are the same as those in the U.S. They are passionate about their cattle and meeting their feeding needs and want the best program for the best final product. They drive pick-ups and wear wranglers and like to hang out on the ranch and have long conversations. Each and every farm visit from Roatan to Choluteca ends with freshly made tortillas, Honduran cheese and beer in the bunk house. 

The industry wants to improve genetics and the quality of the animals to preserve the cattle industry on a long term basis. They have the same goals as the cattlemen do in the US. I am so blessed to work with them and I cannot wait to see what the future holds for the cattle industry in Honduras. We had the opportunity to meet the president of Honduras and have great relationships with the Minister of agriculture and the Vice-Minister of Agriculture has cattle in the project. They are helping us obtain funding and other support for the research.

Our passion for Latin America is not limited to research, it is also involves training of students and has spread into the development of the SOWER scholars program. SOWER stands for "Sustaining Our World through Education and Research". We bring in 12-15 interns from Zamorano University (An ag university in Honduras) who are beginning their senior year. Many of them come back for graduate school. The represent many countries across Central America. 

Our goal is to train our students and invest in them giving them "seeds" of knowledge so they can return to their home countries after their education is complete to "grow" the knowledge. We utilized the parable of the Sower to develop this concept. And obviously…"sowing seeds" is a good analogy for improving food security.

Q. Some of those Central American countries have serious problems with gang activity and political unrest. Do you ever feel unsafe during your travels?

A. I am often told how dangerous it is to go to Honduras or Mexico or …fill in the blank. Of course I am told by those who have never been there. I have never felt that I am in danger but we are very cautious in everything we do taking the highest measure of safety precautions. Travelling abroad is different but it is the most rewarding thing I do. 

Investing my life in the lives of other people and utilizing the gifts that God gave me to make the world a better place is the most satisfying part of my life. I want my children to grow up with a passion for all people with no reservations about interacting with different people groups. I maintain a very diverse laboratory population with varying beliefs representing just about all parts of the world. My children have grown up around diversity for their entire life.

Q. Anyone who knows you or follows you on Facebook understands that the two most important things in your life are your religion and your family. Your work and the travel you have to do takes a big bite out of your life, too. Where do you see the balance point?

A. I am often asked, "How do you do it" when it comes to balancing work, travel, family and the many responsibilities I have.  I always have one answer, "Jesus".  At this point, most people look away and change the subject.  However, it is true. I am a Christian and I am not ashamed of it and I know that the power of Christ in me gives me the strength to do all I am called to do. It's pretty simple to me. 

Although I am a Christian, I do not consider myself "religious". Let me explain. I am NOT legalistic. I simply believe that there are many people in the world who need to be loved and it is my responsibility to show the love of Jesus by serving them with the talents I have been given. When all is said and done, I want to be able to say, "I love you" despite your faults because I know you love me despite mine. It is about unity and knowing God placed me in a specific place to meet needs of other people. That is what it is all about…Love God and Jesus and love others. May everything I do be for God's glory and not my own.

Which leads me to the last and most important part, my family…the loves of my life. My husband and 3 daughters mean everything to me and I pour everything I have into them. I obviously work side-by-side with my husband which is very rewarding. We engage our children in all we do. We encourage them to live out of the box and to NOT conform to worldly expectations or definitions of success. I do not want to put them in a box and try to direct their paths. That is God's job and it is my job to accept their calling and support them. 

My oldest daughter is at Rice and is majoring in cognitive science with a specialty in neuroscience. She aspires to get a PhD. My middle daughter will be a senior this year and plans to go to Baylor as a pre-med major. I do NOT expect them to go to Texas Tech. I would love for them to choose to go there as I love Texas Tech but they need to pursue their own dreams. My youngest is still in middle school and aspires too many things so we will see where she ends up. I want them to be happy and to love other people and have a passion to make the world a better place utilizing their gifts. 

We are a very close family who spends lots of quality time together from traveling the world to going to the grocery store. We sometimes live in a state of chaos, but we do it together. When I get worn out, I wonder why we are doing all of this and then I remember…because it is fun! I love my life. I am blessed! I just want to help people and change the world to make it a better place!