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Alumni and Friends

CALS Alumna is Carving Her Own Path

A dedicated scientist and mentor, Ondulla Toomer has built a career focused on opening doors and making a difference in the lab and beyond.

woman in a white coat stands in a lab with science equipment

Ondulla Toomer likes to ask questions. She likes to follow each answer, see where things lead and, ultimately, learn something new.

The three-time alumna of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at NC State University has always used that innate curiosity and formidable determination to push forward. It’s how, as woman of color in the STEM fields, she has successfully spent the last three decades building a career as a research chemist and nutrition scientist.

“It was not easy,” Toomer says. “There were definite challenges as a person of color and as a female through my education as well as my career. So, I have come up with a strategy to focus on what’s important and keep moving forward in my education and career. I try to stay positive and focused on what’s strategically important for me and my family.”

Finding Her Way

Growing up in a predominantly Black neighborhood in Selma, North Carolina, about 40 minutes from Raleigh, Toomer didn’t know many people with careers in the sciences. As a little girl, she dreamed of being an archeologist and spent hours digging in the dirt in the backyard of her home after seeing a TV show about an archeologist searching for treasure.

But in high school, a science teacher quickly noticed her knack for chemistry and encouraged her to keep exploring that talent through Advanced Placement courses and other opportunities. By the time she was ready to go to college, the high school guidance counselor, impressed by Toomer’s strong grades and skills in science, suggested she go to NC State.

“They just kind of prodded me along because I didn’t know anybody who was a scientist,” Toomer says.

So, in August of 1990, she enrolled at NC State as a double major in chemistry and biochemistry. Going to college in Raleigh allowed her to continue caring for her elderly grandmother back in Selma, while also exploring her interest in the sciences. She continued to excel academically, but it was hard majoring in fields without many people from similar backgrounds.

“There were not many students in biochemistry or faculty that looked like me 30 years ago,” says Toomer. “Thirty years ago, there was not a great deal of support for minority students in the sciences. As a consequence, I worked harder to achieve my academic and career goals.”

Undeterred, she completed her undergraduate degrees and quickly landed a job as a quality assurance technician in the Chemistry Quality Assurance Lab of Abbott Laboratories in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, where she tested in-progress and finished pharmaceutical products. After a few years, though, it turned out that working in industry wasn’t for her.

“I didn’t like that I had no questions to answer or something to keep me engaged intellectually,” Toomer says.

That led her to return to NC State and earn her master’s degree in physiology, focusing on gastroenterology, with a particular interest in digestive health and nutrition. The unanswered questions around health and nutrition then led her to pursue a doctorate in nutrition science.

“The importance of nutrition for our health and the nutritional value of the foods that we eat cannot be overstated and it’s an interesting puzzle to solve,” she says.

a woman in a lab coat stands in front of a computer
Ondulla Toomer in her USDA Agricultural Research Service lab on the NC State campus.

For the Love of Science

After relocating to Massachusetts in 2005, Toomer landed a postdoctoral fellowship in the Mucosal Immunology Laboratory of Pediatric Gastroenterology at Massachusetts General Hospital/Harvard Medical School where she studied the immunological health benefits of probiotics in neonatal development. She went on to complete a second postdoctoral training program at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service (USDA ARS) in Maryland, researching differential gene expression in the reproductive tissues of turkey hens.

Toomer then spent seven years with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration – Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition as a senior staff fellow-research biologist, investigating the development and prevention of pediatric food allergies.

“My research over those years focused a lot on nutrition research, nutritional chemistry and nutritional immunology” she says, noting her work at the FDA was the perfect blend of her expertise. “At the FDA I did a lot of work with food allergens and immunological responses, specifically focusing on pediatric peanut and tree nut food allergies.”

But by 2016, Toomer, then a married mother of two, was ready to come home. She landed a USDA ARS position with the Food Science and Market Quality and Handling Research Unit, based at NC State.

Paying It Forward

For nearly eight years now, Toomer’s days have been consumed by peanuts: studying peanuts as an alternative feed ingredient for poultry and fish; investigating how to use peanut skins, an agricultural waste byproduct with nutrient value, to benefit human health; and researching the benefits of improving the nutritional quality of eggs or poultry meat by using hi-oleic peanuts as a feed, among many other research projects.

“There’s always something new to answer or address,” she says. “That’s what keeps me going — I like being in this space where I’m free to think.”

Being located at NC State also gives Toomer the opportunity to serve and inspire the next generation of Wolfpack scientists as a research adviser through the USDA.

You do what’s in your heart and do it with passion — no matter where you come from or what you might look like.

Kari Harding, who is pursuing her Ph.D. in poultry science at NC State, is one of the students to benefit from Toomer’s guidance and expertise. Toomer served as an adviser on Harding’s master’s project that focused on how alternative feed ingredients, such as hi-oleic peanuts, sweet potatoes and whole in-shell peanuts, affected laying hen performance and production.

“Dr. Toomer really helped shape me as a research professional in many different ways, including how to set up and run a laying hen project, how to analyze data and how to complete publications, all of which have helped me transition into becoming a Ph.D. candidate,” Harding says. “Dr. Toomer also taught me what it means to be a successful woman in the industry and what true leadership looks like, and for that I am deeply grateful.” 

And that’s Toomer’s goal.

“I want students to know that it’s OK not to hold to any stereotype. You do what’s in your heart and do it with passion no matter where you come from or what you might look like,” she says. “I think me being here is important because other people who look like me, hopefully, will be inspired by what I’m doing.”