Dr. Jeanetta Tankson Shares Her Passion for Science and Food Safety
Dr. Jeanetta Tankson loves her work as a microbiology staff officer in the Laboratory Quality Assurance, Response and Coordination Staff (LQARCS), a staff co-located with the FSIS Eastern Laboratory in the Richard B. Russell Agricultural Research Center in Athens, Georgia. The 16-year FSIS staff member conducts federal and state laboratory audits, leads laboratory workgroups in method validations and laboratory policies, and creates and reviews laboratory methods in support of ISO 17025 compliance guidelines. Tankson also serves as a subject matter expert in various laboratory projects (such as method development), assists in updating the Microbiology Laboratory Guidebook, and supports FSIS’ collaboration with state and other federal government agencies, including USDA’s Agricultural Research Service and Agricultural Marketing Service, as well as the Food and Drug Administration at the Department of Health and Human Services.
It Began With Her Love of Science
What makes Tankson so passionate about her job is her role in ensuring that meat, poultry and egg products are safe to eat. Her lifelong interest in science led her to pursue three degrees in the subject. She earned her Bachelor of Science degree in microbiology from Mississippi State University in 1992, where she found it interesting to study organisms that cannot be seen without the aid of a microscope, yet have so much effect on our daily lives.
After completing her undergraduate degree, she worked as a microbiologist for a poultry company in Mississippi. While continuing to work full time, she took night classes at Jackson State University and earned a Master of Science degree in biology in 1996. She explained, “The degree program was the closest I could get to microbiology. However, my academic advisor at Jackson State allowed me to specialize my master’s degree work and thesis in microbiology and food chemistry.”
She continued her education by returning to Mississippi State University in 1998. Because she had extensive experience with poultry through her work in the industry, she pursued a doctorate degree in animal physiology with a minor in poultry science, so that she would have a better understanding of the broiler’s physiology. She earned her Ph.D. in 2001.
Tankson Joins the USDA Team
After receiving her Ph.D., Tankson worked at ARS where she was responsible for determining the characteristics of various Salmonella species (both unusual and well-known); studying the epidemiology of Salmonella isolates (including drug resistance issues as well as surveillance and prevention methods); and collaborating with the FDA and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in research and data sharing.
Tankson first learned of FSIS because ARS and the FSIS Eastern Laboratory share building space. She decided to apply for a position with the Eastern Laboratory because she was impressed with FSIS’ mission and how the agency operates. Her education and work experience prepared her very well for a career in FSIS.
Career Move to FSIS
In February 2006, Tankson joined FSIS as a microbiologist where she tested meat, poultry, egg and products for the presence of Salmonella, Listeria monocytogenes and Escherichia coli O157:H7 and characterized the genetic material to learn about each isolate in further detail.
In May 2007, she was promoted to microbiology staff officer in LQARCS. A typical workday for Tankson involves communicating via meetings, emails or in person with laboratories concerning laboratory quality assurance and quality control questions or issues, communicating with laboratories regarding audit findings, creating and revising laboratory documents to ensure the laboratory is in compliance with ISO 17025 guidelines, assisting the FSIS field service laboratories in microbiology programs and projects, and answering questions concerning the FSIS laboratory system.
Dr. Louis Bluhm, Ph.D., is the director of LQARCS and Tankson’s supervisor. He describes her as a “model employee. She has that rare combination of talent, ability and self-motivation that makes her so valuable to the FSIS laboratory system and the agency as a whole. No matter what obstacles she faces, she always manages to keep projects moving forward. She enjoys teaching and is an excellent mentor. We are fortunate to have her!”
2021 — A Milestone Year for Tankson
A highlight of Tankson’s FSIS career occurred in 2021 when she received the Administrator's Award for Employee of the Year — Non-In Plant and the Under Secretary’s Award. She was recognized for developing a “surge cadre” workforce to meet staffing shortages due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In the early days of the pandemic, Executive Associate for Laboratory Services Dr. William Shaw, Ph.D., identified a need to develop a team of FSIS and ARS scientists who could sustain laboratory operations across FSIS’ three laboratories and asked Tankson to make it happen. She began by communicating with the different sections of the Eastern Laboratory management staff to determine their needs. Next, she established the training program that each scientist would need to complete for their assigned analytical method or extraction procedure, so they could quickly be approved to work on regulatory samples if the staffing shortages occurred. Because of the pandemic, she had to ensure that all scientists and laboratory staff felt safe. While all FSIS employees wore a mask in the workplace, Tankson also had to incorporate social distancing in the training. Scheduling training sessions was a challenge, but she worked it out with all scientists, supervisors and trainers.
Educating the Next Generation of Scientists
As an adjunct professor at Athens Technical College in Athens, Georgia, Tankson shares her love of science by teaching a microbiology lecture and lab. While teaching this class, she discusses the relationship between academia and “real world experience.” She explains how microbiology relates to food safety and the roles industry and the federal government play in keeping our food safe.
When she is not working, Tankson can be found landscaping in her yard. It relaxes her mind, and she likes that she can see the results of her work.
Below, Tankson teaches microbiology lab students in per position as an adjunct professor at Athens Technical College in Athens, Georgia. Photo by Maverick Stephens.