Where passion meets science

Where passion meets science
Sally Rockey named Ohio State’s 2021 Alumni Medalist

By Alayna DeMartini

The daughter of an artist and a businessman, Sally Rockey was one of four children born in five years. Child number three, packed in there between two boys, Rockey learned early on to be assertive, to get her voice out there, to be heard.

Growing up, she moved around a lot with her family as her father, who worked in sales for General Electric, transferred to new positions. They eventually settled in Bainbridge, Ohio, southeast of Cleveland, where Rockey’s fascination with animals turned her into the neighborhood go-to person whenever anyone encountered a wild animal. If someone had a raccoon or opossum under their house or in their trash can and wanted it nudged out, they’d call or knock. Often, she set up live animal traps just to see the chipmunks and squirrels close up before letting them go.

So, it’s not surprising that as an undergraduate at The Ohio State University, she took a lot of biology courses and majored in zoology. But it was the smallest of animals that ultimately won over her fascination. She took an entomology course her senior year and decided that was it. Those tiny creatures—some she considered beautiful, others quite ugly—she would study closely in graduate school. When her parents asked “What are you going to do with an entomology degree?” she didn’t have an answer for them quite yet.

Rockey has been named Ohio State’s Alumni Medalist award winner for 2021, the highest honor given by The Ohio State University Alumni Association.

Scouting Fields

Rockey focused her studies on insect physiology and the ways hormones affected how insects grow and reproduce. Her foray into agriculture began while she was in graduate school and spent nine months as a field scout for Ohio State University Extension, the statewide outreach arm for Ohio State’s College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences (CFAES). She worked with Franklin County farmers to identify pests attacking their crops.

Graduate school was where she met a fellow entomology doctoral student who would later become her husband, Sam Stribling, a native of Mississippi. He was laid back compared to her, but like her, Stribling was outgoing and had a “work hard/play hard” mentality.

In graduate school, Rockey discovered she had a natural forte.

“I was always organizing things for the graduate students,” she said.

“I think a lot of people were loners doing their own thing, but she was in tune with and knowledgeable about what other people were studying”David Denlinger, CFAES emeritus professor

Besides helping form a graduate student organization, she regularly recruited students to participate in a competition during an annual entomology conference. With friends she met off campus, she formed an all-women bluegrass band for which she sang and played the mandolin.

Rockey was gregarious, well-liked, and quick to express her opinion, said David Denlinger, a CFAES professor emeritus.

“I think a lot of people were loners doing their own thing, but she was in tune with and knowledgeable about what other people were studying,” said Denlinger, who taught Rockey and was her advisor.

A natural leader

Her know-how and knack for interacting with and leading people led her to an impressive job offer after getting her PhD in entomology from Ohio State and completing a postdoctoral program at the University of Wisconsin. At 28 years old, Rockey was hired to lead the entomological grant programs for the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

“Frankly, I thought she was not ready for something like that. Usually, you think of people with a little more experience taking on such a job,” Denlinger said. “But she was a quick study. She did very well and rose up in the ranks.”

Rockey provides a briefing to a congressional working group about the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research (FFAR), the organization she has led since 2015.

A year or so into her job at the USDA, a former fellow graduate student, Susan Heady, ran into Rockey at an entomology conference. Heady was surprised how Rockey had transformed her look from Birkenstocks and jeans or prairie skirts to a dark suit jacket and skirt, pantyhose, and high heels.

“I’ve totally embraced the whole heels and pantyhose thing,” Rockey joked to Heady.

And she acclimated quickly to life overall in Washington, D.C. Within a few years at the USDA, Rockey was heading the agency’s extramural research grants program, overseeing the process of awarding all the agency’s grants for research to universities, government labs, and private organizations. In that role, she had to ensure that the process of giving out grants was fair, efficient, and ultimately funded the best science.

Making her own path

Rockey was a trailblazer, a leader in a field dominated by men. But being one of few women in meetings, conferences, or on the farm never daunted her. She was used to it. In the early 1980s, Rockey, Heady, and another graduate student were among only three women in an entomology department with 60-plus men, Heady said.

“Sally was very confident, very forthright. She wasn’t going to take any guff from anyone,” Heady said. “In a sense, she taught me to be more assertive.”

“Sally was very confident, very forthright. She wasn’t going to take any guff from anyone. In a sense, she taught me to be more assertive.”Susan Heady, former classmate of Rockey’s

That spunk mixed with a personable nature helped Rockey navigate her various roles at the USDA. Whatever obstacles she faced in her early years at the government agency didn’t come close to comparing with the sudden and unexpected loss she confronted in 1987: Her father died from injuries from a car accident. He lived for a month after the accident and was paralyzed before dying at age 57.

“I remember thinking, ‘How am I going to separate all this grief so that I can work?’” Rockey said.

She did. Slowly. Dealing with that deep loss helped Rockey put any work challenges in perspective: No matter how difficult they might have seemed, they were work challenges and always could be resolved somehow. So, in the years that followed, even as Rockey took on more and more job responsibilities and managed entire divisions of organizations, she said work never gave her stress.

Always undaunted

“I’m not intimidated by much,” she said. “I’m a very strong person. I don’t ever feel intimidated by complicated work, tight deadlines, or meeting people of power.”

Rockey poses with contestants of FFAR’s challenge to find a digital solution to fall armyworm in Africa.

That confidence, combined with a constant desire to try something new, led Rockey in 2004 to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). There, she became deputy director of extramural research, this time for the largest research-funding organization in the world. The annual grant budget she managed and the staff were significantly larger than what she had managed at the USDA.

Rockey felt a natural pull to the agency, grateful for the research it had funded that she had directly benefited from. At 42, a few years before accepting her position with NIH, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. In the months that followed her diagnosis, she pored over information about the various options, ultimately choosing what was then a new chemotherapy treatment that had been studied by NIH researchers.

After treatment in 2001, she recovered, but two decades later, in January 2021, she got a phone call about results from a routine mammogram. Cancer had returned. It was 20 years to the day that she had gotten the news of her first bout. Again, she recovered, overcoming that cancer as well.

“I really felt strongly about being able to give back to the biomedical community that had helped me survive cancer,” said Rockey, a fourth-generation breast cancer survivor.

Return to agriculture

In 2015, after Rockey had served in government for 30 years, she yearned for a different kind of career challenge. Leaving the NIH, she accepted a job with a then startup organization: the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research (FFAR), the USDA’s foundation.

Rockey would become its first leader, molding the organization in a way that would give it notoriety. It was risky for sure, but an opportunity she couldn’t turn down.

“It let all my creative juices come forward, which I loved,” she said. “It was a chance for me to do something that was completely different. I had worked my entire life in the government. I knew nothing about running a nonprofit, and I had been out of the ag field for 11 years.”

“She can hold her own with Nobel laureates and renowned scientists. And yet she has a down-to-earth personality and can interact with lay people, communicate with them, and garner their respect.”Mark Keenum, chairman of the board of directors, FFAR

And yet, that was the appeal of the job, and the appeal of a lot of the career leaps she’s taken, that the learning curve was steep.

“At the time, we had no staff, no offices, and no organizational structure, and we had $200 million that Congress had given us to fund research,” said Mark Keenum, FFAR’s chairman of the board of directors and president of Mississippi State University.

“Sally built this organization from scratch. We found an unbelievable research leader in her.”

Every federal dollar FFAR can award for research must be matched with at least one dollar of private funding. Rockey has been the catalyst for those public/private partnerships that pay for research in soil, water, and animal health, developing new crops and nutrition along with other topics.

Rockey’s gregarious personality and “razor-edge intellect” is why FFAR has been so successful, Keenum said.

“Her breadth of knowledge of science and research is astounding,” he said. “She can hold her own with Nobel laureates and renowned scientists. And yet she has a down-to-earth personality and can interact with lay people, communicate with them, and garner their respect.”

The through line in Rockey’s career has been creating the framework for research-funding organizations to run smoothly. That might not sound interesting to a laboratory scientist who thrives on pursuing research, but it is exactly Rockey’s niche—what she’s good at and what she likes doing.

“It’s the way my brain works,” she said. “I like to think of how we can be most efficient and put structures in place so scientists can be successful and universities can be successful.”

Rockey sings in the "Rock Docs" band with her colleagues at the National Institutes of Health at the Kennedy Center in 2012.

What excites her is the science itself, constantly evolving, as well as the researchers, meeting them, learning about their research, then seeing how it leads to new discoveries and approaches for solving problems.

“You get such a broad swath of creative ideas coming to you and to your programs that it is just fascinating,” Rockey said. “I’m not exaggerating when I say I’ve met thousands of people. Maybe it’s close to a million in my 35 years of working. Many I’ve gotten to know quite well, and you get to know their science.”

On Stage

Along with company board rooms and Capitol Hill, Rockey’s career has also led her to the stage. For her colleagues, she’s performed skits, written and recited poems, and belted out songs at holiday parties or other events. One of those gigs brought her to the Kennedy Center stage. In 2012, she sang in NIH’s band, the “Rock Docs,” for a lineup that included performances by Stevie Nicks, Mellissa Manchester, and Baby Face.

“It was one of the greatest nights of my life,” she said.

Those opportunities to ham it up for colleagues likely will dwindle. She’s retiring at the end of the year.

Much of the coming years, she and her husband will spend in the vacation home they’re renovating in West Virginia, about an hour and a half from where they live in Maryland. There will be more time for bridge, hiking, canoeing, reading, and eventually travel. Likely, she’ll get a chance to pick up the guitar that’s visible on the daybed behind her when she’s reported to Zoom meetings in the past couple of years. And possibly in retirement, she’ll get to another Bruce Springsteen concert, having been to about 60 since she bought her first album when she was 14 and starstruck.

The way Rockey sees it, she has come full circle with her interest in agriculture. She started out scouting for insects in farm fields and will retire from running an agency that funds nationwide research in agriculture, an opportunity Rockey calls the “cherry” atop a long and fulfilling career.