N.C. Ag in the Lab

by | Jun 2, 2022

We Are Agriculture is a year-long series that will highlight the hard-work done by employees across the Department of Agriculture. Micah Gardner, Chemist and lab Supervisor in our Microanalytical Lab of the Food and Drug Protection Division, is one of those employees. Stay tuned each Wednesday here on the blog or any of our social media accounts and join us in honoring those who continue to drive our state’s agriculture industry forward each day!

Insects are fascinating creatures because they are connected to every industry around the world, including agriculture. Micah Gardner, a Chemist and lab Supervisor in our Microanalytical Lab of the Food and Drug Protection Division, became interested in bugs at a very young age, which set him on the right path for a job in N.C. agriculture. “Agriculture is not far from anyone in North Carolina, so it doesn’t take long to get involved and develop a passion for it,” he said. “Bugs do every job in the world and are integrated in all facets of life, so studying them is the key to unlocking a variety of things in agriculture, from farming to consumer safety.”

After obtaining his master’s degree in Entomology at N.C. State University, Micah began seeking a career that allowed him to utilize his degree and love for insects as well as experience new projects and challenges on a routine basis. “I started this position in 2015 and it was without a doubt where I was meant to be,” he said. “While I was pursuing my education at NCSU, I worked with insect fragment identification and analysis, which is most of what this position entails. Not a lot of entomologists get to work with insect fragments, most just work with the entire insect, so it was that experience that provided me the perfect skillset for my current job.” Seven years later, Micah still wakes up with an incredible drive and passion for his job.

Our Microanalytical Lab has recently moved to the new Steve Troxler Agricultural Sciences Center, which gives Micah and his colleagues a bigger and brighter space to work in. On a typical day, Micah can be found doing routine tasks such as reports and paperwork as well as working with samples received from food distribution and retail centers across the state, conducting chemical tests and other types of analysis. “We conduct a variety of analysis types in this lab, including wet chemistry and extraction,” he said. “Basically, our job looks out for things that are too small for the human eye to see in the products they are purchasing from area retail stores. By conducting these analysis’ and reports we help producers find where their problem originated if they have one.”

From insect fragments to rodent hairs and other infestation issues, Micah and his team work hard to keep consumers safe each year and ensure what they are digesting is safe and healthy. “We look out for people’s faith in the quality of the food that they purchase,” Micah said. “For example, we monitor the bug parts in processed grains and cereals like cornmeal and flour, which is required to be less than 100 parts per 50 grams. People don’t want to purchase products that are contaminated with bugs, rodents or anything else for that matter. We work with producers to help them determine where the origin of the problem is, so that the final product in the consumers hands is safe for consumption.” In addition to processing statewide samples, Micah and his co-worker also process samples for the FDA where necessary. “We have a close partnership with the FDA and have undergone several trainings with them to ensure that we are certified and equal in skillset to them,” Micah said. “Depending on their sample volume, they will send samples to us to be processed. We enjoy that partnership and working with them each year.”

Research lam
One project that Micah is particularly fond of is the creation of an Insect Identification Guide with his lab partner. “We started from scratch and used our learned memories as well as other official documentation from the FDA to create this guide that is now well over 100 pages long,” he said. “It has been a lot of work, but we are very proud to have something that we can pass on to those who fill these positions after us to help them better fulfill the roles of this job and accomplish the projects that they are assigned to.”

Although he loves a variety of aspects about his job, the absolute best moments for Micah are when he is thrown into a challenge and given an insect that is not typically seen or dealt with. “I love working with weird or non-standard insects,” he said. “I thrive on a good challenge and thankfully this job is so busy that it presents me with a lot of them. For example, we recently worked with the vet division on a problem with bot flies, which was very interesting because they are a quizzical insect.” His favorite insect to work with, however, is beetles because of their capabilities and varieties as a species.

Currently, Micah and his colleagues are working to become Board Certified Entomologists. This certification requires extensive study as well as the completion of a rigorous exam and must be recommended by a certified Entomologist. “Obtaining this certification would broaden the scope of what we are already able to do because not many entomologists here have it,” Micah said. “This certification would allow us to consult on many things at a professional level and open up new opportunities. We would also then be able to train others in obtaining that certification.”

When he is not working, Micah can be found enjoying a quiet evening at home with his wife and two dogs, Grace and Murphy, or playing the drums. “I have been playing drums for about 26 years now and it is a lot of fun as well as a great escape,” he said. Join us in thanking Micah for all of his hard work!

Working in a Lab