Connecting Agriculture & Public Health to Support Families’ Well-Being

Family Science Impact: Q&A with NCFR Member Ahlishia Shipley, Ph.D., CFLE
/ NCFR Report, Fall 2022

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Family Science Impact highlights how NCFR members are making a difference through their Family Science career and showcases their career journeys. See more about the many careers and professions of Family Science.

Ahlishia Shipley, Ph.D., CFLE
Ahlishia Shipley, Ph.D., CFLE

Name: Ahlishia Shipley, Ph.D., CFLE

Current Job Titles:
—Capacity Program Leader, Office of Director, National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA)
—Owner, AJS Relationship Strategies, LLC

Tell us a bit about your current work and why it’s important.

My work with NIFA — a federal agency within the U.S. Department of Agriculture that provides leadership and funding for programs that advance agricultural sciences — crosses the institute’s two main functions: national program leadership and federal grant administration. In partnership with the land-grant university system and other public and private partners, I lead, develop, implement, and support efforts in research, education, and extension that empower all families and communities to achieve optimal well-being through informed decisions and through policy, systems, and environmental change approaches. 

In my current role, I provide leadership for NIFA’s Family and Community Health portfolio and other departmental initiatives that support underserved communities and producers to sustain a resilient, diverse, capable workforce in food, agriculture and natural resources, and human sciences. The work NIFA supports lies at the nexus of public health and agriculture, so we are in an ideal position to impact global health by facilitating the exchange of innovative ideas and strategic partnerships to support creative funding opportunities. 

What was your path to your current role? What shaped or influenced that path?

I was professionally “raised” at a land-grant university working across research, education, and extension. I have also been blessed to have many mentors and leaders who guided me and helped me along my journey.

As an undergraduate at the University of Kentucky, I majored in Family & Consumer Sciences (FCS) Education. During that time, I interned at the local county extension office with the FCS agents and was able to be a part of the century-old experiment in democratizing education by connecting the public to the academy through research-based outreach. After that experience, I interned with a state specialist and with the state FCS administrator, and I also worked in the Office of Diversity recruiting underrepresented audiences to the College of Agriculture. During my master’s program, I was fortunate to connect with Dr. Gladys Hildreth, chair of the Family Studies Department at the time, who was instrumental in me joining the Family Studies (now Family Sciences) Ph.D. program.

During my doctoral program, I also participated in the Visiting Scholars Program at NIFA, where I met my director, Dr. Caroline Crocoll, who in 2011 hired me in my first position as a program specialist in NIFA’s Division of Family and Consumer Sciences. After working across programs in the division, in 2015 I was promoted to a national program leader. Since then, I joined the National Institutes of Health as a scientific review officer, leading peer review for a chartered study section. I returned to NIFA in 2021.

How do you use Family Science knowledge or skills in your current work?

Applying the systems lens that we learn during our coursework is one of my main approaches to decision-making, program development, relationship-building, and stakeholder engagement. Additionally, I feel I have the responsibility as someone trained in Family Science and in human development to elevate the human and social dimensions of food and agriculture, because people — along with their knowledge and everyday choices — are at the heart of a productive, resilient food system.

What is most rewarding or makes you proudest about the impact of your work?

I feel proud when I contribute to positive outcomes — whether leading a program and peer-review process that elevates innovative and promising projects, connecting my colleagues to opportunities that support work they are passionate about, fostering networks that spark new ideas and partnerships, or asking the right questions to get to the best solutions. In other words, when the people and organizations around are me successful, I feel proud of contributing in some large or small way to their success. I have worked with some of the brightest and most intelligent people on the planet, in the food and agriculture world, in public health arena, and in the Family Science community, and it has been such an honor.

What do you wish you would have known sooner along your education or career path?

I think it is really important to know what will fulfill your spirit and to go after that as much as you can, in all aspects of life and especially in the professional realm, since we spend so much of our time working. I heard a gem that had stayed with me over time: Rather than thinking about what you want to do, think about what you want to be, and then you will know what to do. I think we are conditioned to decide what we want to do and make decisions from there. I think by focusing on what you want to be, how you want to show up in the world, and what you want to contribute will yield decisions that are better aligned with your spirit, which is so valuable. If you can get in touch early on with what you want to be, I think that would serve anyone well.

What do you want the world to know about your work, or about Family Science?

  1. Producers, including farmers, ranchers, and forest landowners, are some of the most important people on the planet because they have a huge role in our survival. They and their families deserve our gratitude, respect and support, particularly in the ways we can take care of the environment and advocate for their health and well-being.
  2. Many social issues we face today can be traced in whole or part to family. It is important to be proactive and make investments now for families in the future. Family researchers and practitioners have such an important role in advocating for families and policies that meaningfully support families’ health and well-being. There is so much more that can and needs to be done in the policy arena for families, in all their beautiful diversity, to provide equitable opportunities and spaces for all families to thrive. It is vital that we seize opportunities to share what we have learned from our science (which is so vast) to inform decisions that influence families and children.