Speaking at the University of Georgia for the first time since graduating in 2008, U.S. Department of Defense's Ada Bacetty presented the “Shattered Ceilings” seminar to the campus community — an engaging conversation about breaking through barriers in pursuit of diversity and inclusion.
Bacetty defied many odds on the long road to earning her doctorate in plant pathology from UGA’s College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences as part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s student career experience program. Although she had a lifelong interest in science, she didn’t always plan on attending college.
Beginning her working career as a cashier at a local Walmart, Bacetty’s inspiration to pursue her initial degree came from an interaction with a woman at the register who inspired her to pursue her goals. Three university degrees later, she is living out her dream and blazing new trails for others to follow.
“Perhaps one of my best learning experiences was under the man, the myth, the legend: Dr. Charles Bacon,” said Bacetty. “He is a major reason why I find myself in the position that I am in right now.”
Bacetty completed her doctorate under Bacon, the recently retired research leader and supervisory microbiologist for the toxicology and mycotoxin research unit at USDA-ARS and adjunct faculty member in the department of plant pathology.
Using her in-depth knowledge of microbiology and working her way up through the ranks of federal agencies, she landed an opportunity to become the director for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Foreign Agricultural Service, where she served from April 2018 until August 2020. Now serving as the department chief of the U.S. Department of Defense’s Biological Threat Reduction Program at the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, her strong will and comprehensive expertise position her at the forefront of our nation’s defenses.
“Her interdisciplinary graduate training in plant pathology — at the interface of plant biology, microbiology and toxicology — prepared Dr. Bacetty well for a career in biosecurity,” said Harald Scherm, head of the UGA Department of Plant Pathology. “With her ability to overcome numerous professional and personal challenges along the way, Dr. Bacetty also serves as an excellent role model for CAES students.”
Bacetty says her model of success does not solely include achievements in the classroom, but on the various battlegrounds for diversity and equality, as well.
“Being a Black Puerto Rican woman at work isn’t always pleasant,” said Bacetty. “I routinely experienced microaggressions, faux constructive feedback and body shaming. Being in the same room as people who see you as a lesser person is often challenging to overcome.”
Asked how she overcomes these challenges, Bacetty said that she does so by “continuing to be a leader” — a particular quality often attributed to her by her peers.
“She has overcome obstacles that shouldn’t even exist,” said Kisha Shelton, academic professional associate in the department. “She has done so with a beautiful determination and it is important to both those who live facing the struggles and those that are allies to hear this story and learn from her journey.”
One of the most instrumental factors for telling Bacetty’s story — and similar stories — is generating authentic conversation throughout the campus community.
In continued celebration of the 60 years of desegregation at the university, leaders within the Department of Plant Pathology have constructed a display to honor African American graduates of the program, current faculty and historical trailblazers in the field of plant science.
“This presentation is a very important part of the current discussions on race and ethnicity that are taking place today,” said Shelton. “The impact goes beyond those who were able to attend the seminar and will hopefully further comprehensive discussion and understanding.”