Transformative, transparent and fair are how colleagues describe Patricia Curtis, department head of the Prestage Department of Poultry Science. Curtis was named department head in 2017, but prior to accepting the position, Curtis said that the department had to be willing to change.
“I never wanted to be a department head,” said Curtis. During her interview for the job, Curtis told the hiring committee that she was only interested in coming back to NC State to help lead the department in a new direction.
“I felt like we needed to make some changes in the department in order to prepare students for their role in industry five, 10, 15, 20 years from now. I don’t want to come if you’re not ready to change. So, everybody knew changes were going to be involved when I came on board,” said Curtis.
With only six departments of poultry science in the country, Curtis said they all looked very similar. The only thing that made NC State stand out from the others is that it had all three commodities: layers, broilers and turkeys.
In her more than 30 years working in higher education, 15 of those years at NC State, Curtis has become well respected in the industry and among her peers.
“A lot of us in the department were looking for a change. There were some power structures in the department that needed to be broken down,” said Ken Anderson, a professor in the Prestage Department of Poultry Science and the director of the North Carolina Layer Performance and Management Program. “I think she took the bull by the horns and made the changes that needed to be made.”
Anderson and Curtis first began working with each other in 1991 when she came on board as a Poultry and Egg Extension specialist for the Food Science department. The two built a strong working relationship and friendship over the years, even after she was lured away to Auburn University. But one component that always stood out to Anderson about his friend and colleague: she was never afraid to get dirty.
“When you’re collecting samples from an egg processing machine, you’re sticking your hand in dirty wash water to get samples and take them to the lab,” Anderson shared.
And getting dirty wasn’t just about rolling up her sleeves. Curtis fought hard for the department and the poultry industry as a whole.
“She wasn’t afraid to go to battle for us with upper administration,” said Peter Ferket, William Neal Reynolds Professor of Nutrition and Biotechnology. Typically known for being a male-dominated industry, Ferket believes Curtis has helped shift the industry’s landscape.
“Dr. Curtis was the very first female department head,” Ferket shared. “When you look at our current student population, 70% are female. We’re also hiring a lot more female faculty. Having Dr. Curtis in this leadership role has set a positive example for our female students that you can do anything, especially in poultry science.”
In addition to creating a more equitable department, Curtis says she likes to mentor new faculty.
“Here at NC State, we’ve always tried to do things and it seemed like we were ahead of our time,” said Curtis. “It was a challenge to figure out the path we needed to take and I like to encourage new faculty to not let those things get in the way. Don’t say, ‘Well that hasn’t been done before, so we can’t do that.’ Instead, ask yourself where you want to go and what’s the best path to get you there?”
Curtis says her leadership is certainly different than those who have led before her. In addition to being more transparent about the department’s budget and fair-use among facilities, Curtis had one major rule — 100% compliance.
“I wanted to make sure we were 100% compliant with everything that we were doing, whether it be research or auditing, there was no reason not to be compliant,” Curtis said. She even created a staff safety officer position to make sure everyone in the department could keep up with all the rules and regulations.
“The respect that the industry has for her is easily seen through her participation with the Food and Drug Administration and the United States Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service. Pat is one of the people they call upon and that’s a testament to her historical work in industry,” said Anderson. In August 2020, the USDA appointed Curtis to the National Advisory Committee on Meat and Poultry Inspection.
“We greatly appreciate all that Pat has done for the Prestage Department of Poultry Science,” said John Dole, interim dean for the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. “This nationally recognized department has prospered under her leadership. The poultry industry is very important to North Carolina and Pat has worked to ensure that the department meets industry needs.”
As Curtis wraps up her last few weeks at NC State, her colleagues believe she’s laid the foundation and groundwork for the department’s next leader to elevate the department to new heights.
“We have a stronger infrastructure and much better facilities and it’s really because of her leadership and being equitable and being open,” said Anderson.
As for what’s next for the outgoing department head? “I’m moving to Illinois the first week of July. My son, daughter-in-law and grandkids are there. I’m going to spend time with them, do some traveling with my friends and just enjoy life,” said Curtis. “NC State has been a good place for me… I met some of the greatest people that I’ve enjoyed working with and that’s what I will miss.”
This post was originally published in College of Agriculture and Life Sciences News.