First MSABD Ph.D. grad receives ‘40 Under 40’ honor

By Jim Massey, Freelance writer

Aaron Bodie wasn’t sure what to do when he got the word that Steve Ricke, his mentor and dissertation adviser at the University of Arkansas, was taking a job as director of the Meat Science and Animal Biologics Discovery program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Aaron Bodie

Bodie heard Ricke give a class presentation about food safety microbiology a few years earlier and it sparked his interest in the topic. He ended up working in Ricke’s food-safety lab as a technician, completed an undergraduate major in biology, and began in earnest working toward a Ph.D. in food science under Ricke’s tutelage.

So what did he think when he heard Ricke was leaving the University of Arkansas and heading to Madison, just as a worldwide pandemic was breaking out?

“Honestly, I wasn’t going to go,” he says. “I didn’t know anything about Wisconsin, to be honest. All I knew was the weather was going to be cold. But a few of my co-workers encouraged me to go and my mom was the deciding factor. She said I would be a fool not to go.

“I would do it again 10 times out of 10.”

Bodie, who eventually became the first Ph.D. graduate under Ricke in the Meat Science and Animal Biologics Discovery program, was recently honored by the Alliance to Stop Foodborne Illness as one of the industry’s “40 Under 40” rising stars in food safety. The alliance highlights young men and women who are “revolutionizing the field of food safety.”

Bodie grew up in Nassau, the capital city of the Bahamas, so making the move to a cold-weather state like Wisconsin was no easy decision. Ricke tried to be reassuring, telling Bodie that “they have fireplaces and coats” in Wisconsin, so not to worry.

“I brought all three of my graduate students up from Arkansas, and Aaron was one of them,” Ricke says. “Obviously everybody had an option and they all collectively thought about it and decided they wanted to come up to Wisconsin. They helped me with the transition up here, and Aaron was right in the middle of it from the start. He probably had the toughest transition, to come up here, register in a new program and move his research up here, all during the middle of Covid.

“It’s a bit of a miracle that we pulled all that off, but Aaron was a big part of that.”

While studying under Dr. Steven Ricke, Aaron worked closely with lab manager Dr. Peter Rubinelli.

Bodie’s Ph.D. work was in animal and dairy science, with his research on rapid detection of Campylobacter. His master’s work in Arkansas was on Listeria, so he switched organisms for his Ph.D.

“That was the need in the field at the time,” Bodie says. “Campylobacter is one of the harder organisms to take on and people don’t want to deal with it. I tried to tackle it anyway.”

Bodie’s undergraduate major was in biology, with his initial goal to become a general practice physician. That all changed after he met Ricke.

“I didn’t even know food safety was actually a thing,” Bodie says. “(Ricke) gave the correlation to microbiology and how microbiology and food all relate (in his University of Arkansas lecture). I went up to him afterward and he gave me a recommendation on how to get into studying the topic.”

Bodie says he pursued a doctorate degree because he didn’t want anything to hinder him from getting a good job in the food-safety field.

“To be frank I’m an international student and also a black man,” he says. “For me to go further in my career I would have to be my best for (companies) to take a look at me. I wanted to do everything I could possibly do to make that happen.”

He works now for an Arkansas company called “We Are Food Safety,” at which he consults with small businesses who are operating meat companies. He helps the companies deal with U.S. Department of Agriculture and Food Safety and Inspection Service regulations and gain the certifications they need. 

Aaron Bodie enjoyed time at a recent International Products and Processing Expo, posing with an oversized pig.

Ricke notes that he has developed three tracks in the MSABD as he helps students explore their career goals. Some students lean toward jobs in the industry, others want to work in academics while still others want to work for the government doing research-based regulatory work.

“Whichever track they choose, it doesn’t change how I train them,” he says. “They get hard-core innovation, science and research, regardless of what they’re going to do. I feel like those critical skills you develop in research are going to serve you well if you’re in industry, academics or regulatory work.

“I train them to multi-task, especially students who want to go into industry work. I try to get them directly engaged with our industry partners. That gives them confidence and gets them used to the pace at which the industry works. It helps them decide if that’s what they really want to do.” 

Ricke says he is particular about who he brings into his program because he wants people who will embrace the multi-tasking philosophy. 

“Students come up with innovative research on their own and advance the science beyond where I planned on taking it,” he says. “At the Ph.D. level I think that’s really important. They often have a job waiting for them when they’re done. That’s good for me and good for them and good for the MSABD program.”

Bodie says he didn’t really know what he wanted to do as he was winding up his Ph.D. research. 

“Frankly, I was doing (the research work) for the love of microbiology and food safety,” he says. “I was getting close to graduating and I didn’t know what was out there. The consultancy came out of nowhere.”

Bodie, who got his Ph.D. in 2022, isn’t quite sure why he was nominated for the “40 Under 40” recognition.

Aaron is in his element in the classroom and hopes someday to be a professor.

“I try to be honest and do the best work I can,” he says. “Maybe the people I consult with or one of my co-workers nominated me.” 

Being the first Ph.D. graduate from the MSABD program is a “big deal” to him, Bodie says.

“Coming from where I started, yes, it’s a big deal,” he says. “(The MSABD at) UW–Madison is a tremendous place. Everybody raves about it in the food-safety world. 

“I had a great time in Madison. The school was amazing and the people in Madison were amazing. I had a church family up there that embraced me like family. The pastor in Madison was from my hometown in the Bahamas so that was really special.”

The Alliance to Stop Foodborne Illness, the organization that honored Bodie, describes itself as the “voice for people affected by foodborne illness.” The organization, rebranded from Safe Tables Our Priority, or STOP, in 2011, advocates for effective food-safety policy and facilitates culture change to increase food safety.

In a news release, the organization noted that Bodie is an avid writer for the Frontline Data Solutions food-safety blog and has been the face of viral food-safety videos on social media under the pseudonym “Dr. Micro Food Safety,” engaging audiences in the food-safety goings-on in the world.

Bodie says he has been building his online presence because “a lot of people don’t know a lot about food safety.” He is creating a website and newsletter on the topic that is expected to be available this spring. 

Bodie is engaged to be married and has a daughter who turned six months old on Valentine’s Day. He met his fiancé in a class at the University of Arkansas.His long-term goal is to become a professor and possibly build a consulting business on the side.