To Consume or Not to Consume

USDA's Mike Appell on food safety and what foods you should avoid
A variety of foods
Image credit: Canva

What non-technical skills are most responsible for your career success, both with the USDA and in countless roles as an ACS volunteer? 

Four non-technical skills most responsible for success in my career are a strong work ethic, problem solving skills, interpersonal skills, and the ability to be adaptable.  Success is not easy, and a strong work ethic is necessary to overcome limitations and challenges. Problem solving skills can improve efficiency and enable new avenues to solve problems. Organizations are about people, and interpersonal skills can help gain acceptance to advance initiatives.  Often, leaders are defined by how they address circumstances that arise beyond their control, and adaptability will allow a leader to best address those emerging issues.

How does a recent chemistry undergraduate – aiming for a career with a government lab – decide about investing the time and money to pursue a PhD? What should they think about as they make this important decision?

Pursuing a graduate degree certainly requires years of special dedication, as well as, costs time and money. Position advertisements are valuable resources that provide information on duties and requirements for positions in government labs that can help an undergraduate student decide the type of education needed to meet their career goals. advertises most government lab positions with details covering education requirements and duties.  I use to keep up with the job market in my areas of expertise.

What is the best professional advice you have ever received? 

At an ACS Leadership Development course, I was advised to make the most of a person’s talents.  Specifically, organizations can accomplish more by asking people to do what they are good at.  Success is most easily achieved by asking people to use their talents.  Equally, extra effort and resources will be needed if someone is required to do something that they are not good at doing.

How did your parents influence your leadership style?

I grew up on a family farm and learned the value of a strong work ethic at a young age.

What’s been the most gratifying aspect of your career to-date?

The most gratifying aspect of my career is nominating colleagues and collaborators for awards.  

You can ask one question of any scientist who ever lived. What is the question? And who would you pose it to?

I would ask Dmitri Mendeleev his thoughts on our current periodic table.

In part, your focus with the USDA is on food safety. Generally, how would you characterize the safety of food in the U.S.? Any particular foods that cause you concern?

The food in the USA is reasonably safe considering the resources that are invested to promote food safety.  Foodborne illness is preventable, however 1 in 6 people experience foodborne illness each year in the USA.  Generally, specific foods do not cause me concerns.  I keep informed and avoid foods associated with current outbreaks.  Also, it is important that food is properly stored and prepared. 

You have served as an ACS volunteer in a very large number of roles. What has been the most rewarding to-date?

Serving as Chair of the ACS Division of Agricultural and Food Chemistry (AGFD) was a very special role.  AGFD was founded in 1908 as one of the first technical divisions in ACS, and it was my first major leadership position (leading an organization with over 2800 members).  It was very humbling to have scientists that are world experts invest time to mentor and advise.  Serving as AGFD chair also provided access to ACS leadership training which greatly benefited my career at the USDA and the communities I served within ACS.  Technical divisions, local sections, and governance are each special communities within ACS.   

What’s the secret to working well in a team environment, something employers of chemists these days view as an almost non-negotiable skill?

Team environments benefit from members that share credit and celebrate the achievements and contributions of others.  

You are a member of the Knights of Columbus, supporting programs that assist people with intellectual disabilities. How did this cause come to be a passion of yours?

People with intellectual disabilities contribute to better society through science, culture, and the economy.  We all need help to contribute to the fullest extent of our capabilities, and the Knights of Columbus Intellectual Disability Drive (KofC ID Drive) is a popular event held each year to raise funds for organizations that support people with intellectual disabilities.  I became passionate about raising funds through the KofC ID Drive by witnessing the impact of funds on people and the strong support of the community for the beneficiaries of the program.

With a busy job, a large family with young children, and serving as an active volunteer with ACS and other organizations, do you have any free time? And if so, how do you like to spend it?

I am fortunate to be able to spend my free time with my spouse Melissa and children Isabelle, Abigail, Gabriel, and Maximilian.  ACS and its K-12 AACT program has many great resources to share science with the family.

Mike Appell, Research Chemist, USDA National Center for Agricultural Utilization Research
Mike Appell, Research Chemist, USDA National Center for Agricultural Utilization Research

Michael Appell received a BS in Biochemistry from the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) and a PhD in Medicinal Chemistry from the University of Illinois (UIC) College of Pharmacy. 

He joined the USDA in 2002 and conducted research in the areas of food safety, carbohydrate chemistry, and lipid science. His current research involves the development of approaches to reduce exposure to toxins in agricultural commodities and beverages. This research utilizes a combination of synthesis, analytical science, cheminformatics, and materials science. 

He is an active ACS volunteer, past-chair of the ACS technical division of Agricultural and Food Chemistry (AGFD), past-chair of the ACS Illinois Heartland Local Section, invited editor of two food safety books, and an active organizer of symposia at ACS National Meetings. He is an American Chemical Society Fellow (ACSF), a Fellow of the Division of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, and recipient of the AGFD Distinguished Service Award and the ACS Illinois Heartland Chemist of the Year Award.

This article has been edited for length and clarity. The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the view of their employer or the American Chemical Society.

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