Long before she led the effort to modernize food safety for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Catherine O’Connor Woteki ’69 was a student lab assistant in Combs Hall.
“Doing behind-the-scenes prep work and just being able to hang around the lab was so helpful,” she said of her 1968 position in Mary Washington’s biology department. “I became much more comfortable working in a lab environment.”
Woteki, who goes by Cathie, earned a bachelor’s degree in biology and chemistry from Mary Washington, where she served as class treasurer and helped pay her way through school with summer jobs. She wants to provide today’s UMW students with opportunities to discover their strengths and passions, just as her early lab experiences helped to inspire her career as an internationally known leader in science policy with a flair for food and nutrition that’s influenced public wellbeing.
Through the end of July, Cathie and husband Tom will match, dollar for dollar, all gifts to UMW’s Beyond the Classroom Endowment for student research and learning. The University’s College of Arts and Sciences (CAS) aims to raise $1 million for this new fund to support internships, study abroad, independent research and other high-impact learning experiences.
“Two years ago, [CAS Dean] Keith Mellinger told me about his idea to create a fund that will give students more experiences outside of the classroom, such as traveling to present research, attending professional society meetings and completing internships,” said Woteki, who works closely with Mellinger as a member of the CAS Advisory Board. “After he shared his vision, I knew I wanted to help make it happen.”
A well-respected scholar who has received many awards for her contributions to science and society, Woteki was inducted into the National Institute of Food and Agriculture Hall of Fame in 2017. She has held leadership positions in academia, industry and government, including dean of the College of Agriculture at Iowa State University, global director of Scientific and Regulatory Affairs for food product manufacturer Mars Inc., and USDA chief scientist.
As the USDA’s first undersecretary for Food Safety, a position created by the Clinton administration, Woteki led the agency through a transformation of the meat inspection system. Her efforts to base the process in science led to lasting benefits for public health.
“Through the introduction of pathogen testing in meat-processing plants, we were able to illustrate a dramatic reduction in foodborne illnesses,” she said. “The application of science to benefit people is incredibly rewarding.”
Woteki credits her Mary Washington professors with instilling confidence and providing a strong scientific foundation, putting her on the path to scholarship and leadership.
“Many of my classmates in graduate school came from larger universities where they had more experience with advanced instrumentation, but when it came down to it, I was more capable than many of them,” said Woteki, who earned a Ph.D. in human nutrition from Virginia Tech. “The quality of the Mary Washington education was just that good.”
Mellinger said he relied on Woteki’s insights and guidance to narrow his focus for the endowment.
“She was instrumental in the creation of the fund, so her sponsorship of this match is perfect,” he said. “It’s incredibly rewarding to hear that Cathie’s experiences at Mary Washington played such an important role in shaping her career. We are ever grateful that she and Tom are now creating those same opportunities for our next generation of students.”
Woteki has long been a loyal supporter of Mary Washington initiatives, including a scholarship endowed by the Class of 1969 in honor of their 50th reunion. She said she views her match for the Beyond the Classroom Endowment as a way to lead by example.
“My classmates are enormously successful, and so many other Mary Washington alumni have gone on to do amazing things,” Woteki said. “I hope others will join me in giving back as a way of saying thank you for the education we received.”
To make your gift to the Beyond the Classroom Endowment and have it matched dollar-for-dollar during the Catherine O’Connor Woteki ’69 and Tom Woteki Beyond the Classroom Match, please donate before the end of July. Online gifts can be made on the Beyond the Classroom fund page, and checks can be mailed to:
1119 Hanover Street
Fredericksburg, Virginia 22401
Please note “Beyond the Classroom Endowment” on the check’s memo line.
Questions about giving should be directed to the Office of Advancement at 540-654-1024 or firstname.lastname@example.org.