A spark was lit when, as a teen, Sara Toal watched her younger brother slip into a coma from an infectious disease. Although her brother luckily recovered, from what turned out to be viral meningitis and encephalitis, Toal knew right then she wanted to help people fight illnesses.
“I met his doctor and became interested in how diseases spread and in practices to keep people safe,” Toal said.
Dr. Catherine O’Neal, chief medical officer at Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center, assistant professor of clinical medicine specializing in infectious diseases, as well as an alumna of the LSU College of Agriculture, describes the beginning of her interest in infectious diseases in a similar way. She had a sick uncle, and a retired physician took the time to understand what was causing her uncle’s illness.
“I wanted to be that person, I wanted to be an infectious disease doctor who sits with someone and figures out what they have that nobody else thought about,” O’Neal said.
O’Neal realized her goal years ago, while Toal, a junior from Tioga, Louisiana, majoring in nutrition and food sciences in the LSU College of Agriculture, is laser-focused on achieving hers.
The two women are linked through their career choices and the College of Agriculture, but their connection goes deeper. They both credit FFA, a youth organization formerly known as Future Farmers of America that prepares members for leadership and careers in the science, business, and technology of agriculture, as the source of their confidence to see the spark.
“FFA has been such a big part of my life,” Toal said. “I don’t know where I’d be without it, and it is still helping me get to where I want to be.”
O’Neal, meanwhile, called FFA one of the “biggest defining parts” of her life:
“For a small-town kid, I saw the ability to travel, to get a scholarship for college.”
O’Neal grew up in Vidrine, Louisiana, where her family farmed until the late 1980s. She showed cattle through both the 4-H program and FFA, participated in FFA activities and competitions, and held state office through the organization.
She described FFA as a door opener for her, as it has been for thousands of students every year. Louisiana has more 10,000 high school students currently enrolled in FFA, which is headquartered at the LSU AgCenter. Cade LeJeune, Louisiana FFA executive secretary, said the strong curriculum of the high school agricultural education program offers youth technical agriculture experience.
“Most people see FFA as the organization that offers leadership skills and they think of the students public speaking on stage in blue jackets, but they don’t always see inside a classroom,” he said. "The students learn modern agriculture theory and techniques, greenhouse management, plant genetics, animal sciences, and help run on-campus farms.”
O’Neal’s FFA experience with animals guided her down an unusual pathway to medicine. She was recruited to LSU through her FFA chapter by Dr. Robert Godke, a renowned LSU Boyd Professor who focused on reproductive physiology.
She said Godke convinced her that she would have more research opportunities in animal sciences than she would in any other major and offered her a scholarship. She worked diligently in the animal sciences lab while majoring in animal sciences before attending LSU Health New Orleans School of Medicine.
Toal, meanwhile, grew up on a sheep farm and considered following in her mother’s footsteps and becoming a veterinarian. While she chose a different path, she picked the College of Agriculture to prepare her for the medical profession. She said between FFA and the College of Agriculture, she feels ready for medical school.
“Through FFA, I have learned to articulate my thoughts, give reasonings,” Toal said. “It has bestowed on me the dedication and self-efficacy to study hard and challenge myself. That is what FFA has done for me.”
FFA collaborates with the agricultural industry, community colleges, and agricultural programs at universities to ensure the organization is helping youth develop skills directly applicable to jobs in agriculture. The program offers credentials in agricultural technology, welding, forestry, pipe fitting, and drone technology, to name a few. These credentials can help students find employment right out of high school.
Louisiana 4-H is another youth organization under the umbrella of the LSU AgCenter. The program reaches more than 100,000 youth in Louisiana, in every parish, and allows children and teens to participate in hands-on projects in many areas, including health, science, agriculture, and civic engagement.
Toby Lepley, LSU AgCenter associate vice president and program leader for 4-H youth development, said the diverse programs offered through 4-H allows students to explore various career options.
“We have impactful programs like our Marsh Maneuvers program, which immerses students in wetland sciences and student meet and talk to people in different wetland conservation careers, and that often creates an interest for these students.”
Many students, such as O’Neal, grew up participating in both 4-H and FFA. With offices and events on the LSU campus, both organizations have helped introduce youth to the university, and for many rural youngsters, this helped them see LSU as a welcoming place.
“With FFA events and cattle shows, I had roamed campus my entire youth,” O’Neal said. “Even though I was from a small town, there was nothing daunting about going to LSU.”
Toal was able to meet O’Neal virtually when she interviewed O’Neal for an FFA video series. Through this connection, O’Neal helped Toal sign up to volunteer with a COVID vaccination team. After their meeting, Toal said O’Neal “embodies who I wanted to be when I was growing up.”
O’Neal said she is glad to have taken an unusual pathway, which has led to a well-rounded and fulfilling career. She said she believes she had better experiences going her own way, like Toal is doing.
“You can do everything you want to do, and go off the beaten path, and not only do fine, but excel.”
[LT1]The or There
Dr. Catherine O'Neal. Photo provided
by Franciscan Missionaries of Our
Lady Health System