College of Agriculture & Natural Resources

Faculty Research in Focus: Shirley Micallef

Department of Plant Science and Landscape Architecture
Image Credit: 
Edwin Remsberg

Whether at work or at home, Dr. Shirley Micallef has no trouble juggling dual roles as a scientist and a mother.

On the homefront, she’s making sure her two young children are safe, well-fed, educated and loved. As part of her work here at the University of Maryland, she’s helping to ensure fresh produce in the region is safe from pathogens, that her students and farmers around the state are well-educated in the newest advances in food safety, and that her passion for microbiology and plant science translates into solutions that make us all healthier.

With degrees in plant biology and microbial ecology, Micallef never considered she might one day be working in the ever-evolving and critically important arena of food safety. However, her unique background and interests landed her a position at UMD with a joint appointment in the Department of Plant Science and Landscape Architecture (PSLA) and the Center for Food Safety and Security Systems (CFS3).

“I really could not have imagined the road that brought me to this place but now it seems to be perfect for me because I do a little bit of plant biology, a lot of microbiology and ecology,” she says. “It just kind of fits me and my background very well and it’s just great.”

Much of Micallef’s current research focuses on cropping practices and how they can contribute to contamination of fresh fruits and vegetables with bacteria that lead to foodborne illnesses in humans. She travels to farms around the state and region conducting experiments in the field as well as overseeing controlled experiments in her lab and at the university’s Research Greenhouse Complex. Micallef is also part of a collaborative research team comprised of faculty members from seven universities working on a large USDA-funded project to develop food safety standards for tomatoes and leafy greens.

“I have kind of a broad perspective on food safety. Rather than just looking at the pathogen and the food, I’m interested in the system as a whole,” says Micallef. “I’m looking at the pathogen on the food of course but also, what are the other microorganisms that might be present that might be competing with that pathogen?”

In addition to her work here in the United States, Micallef is participating in an international collaboration to study how agricultural practices in South Korea could be contributing to outbreaks of listeria on cantaloupe. She’s also recently been awarded a USDA-AFRI grant to assess cropping methods and the effectiveness of food safety training on farmers. “We never tend to follow what these growers are doing once they leave (food safety) training. You know, we teach them some good agricultural practices and talk to them about food safety and about what they can do to minimize pathogens on their farm, but then we don’t know whether they go back and actually change anything,” says Micallef.

Growing up in Malta – a small, island nation located below Italy in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea – Micallef says she was “brought up to be a scientist” by parents who encouraged and pushed her. She describes the University of Maryland and its close proximity to agencies like the Food and Drug Administration and the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service as “limitless” when it comes to finding resources for implementing experiments or research projects.

As for her newfound calling in food safety research, Micallef says it plays directly to her strengths – as both a scientist and a mother.

“I love it because food safety is something that we all do and we all have to do even if we’re not thinking about it. Of course I think about it maybe too much,” she says. “But it really feels like you’re making a difference in everybody’s life because if you can improve the food that’s being produced in your grower’s fields that are probably in your backyard, then that’s going to affect your family and it’s going to affect many people. It’s something that’s with us constantly because we all eat.”

 

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