How Research Gives Hope: Dr. Susan Percival and the Power of Inspiration

Dr. Susan Percival smiles while wearing an orange sweater, Dr. Percival | Food Science and Human Nutrition UF/IFASLearn more about Dr. Percival’s groundbreaking research and service to UF by downloading the full version of this feature here.

December 1, 1989. Two months into her new position in the Food Science and Human Nutrition Department at the University of Florida, Dr. Susan Percival receives a letter that will forever change her view on research. In this letter, the writer thanks Dr. Percival for sharing details about her research into Wilson’s disease, an inherited disorder of abnormal copper accumulation that had devastated the writer’s family. Amid the struggle of illness, this writer wished Dr. Percival to know how much her research gave them hope.

“Before that letter, research was like cooking,” says Dr. Percival. “You follow a recipe for research, and at the end, you get information instead of a cake. I’ve always liked the discovery part of research. But to know that I could give hope through my research added an extra layer of meaning to my work.”

For the next three decades, Dr. Percival kept this letter as a reminder of how research can give hope. This memento inspired her throughout her career in research, teaching, leadership, and mentorship.

Dr. Percival in her office
Dr. Percival in her first FSHN office.
First Glimpse of UF/FSHN Turns into a Successful Career

April 1989. Eight months pregnant, Dr. Percival meets the faculty at the University of Florida for her first interview for the new assistant professor in nutrition position. She had just completed her postdoctoral associate position at Texas A&M University under the mentorship of Dr. Edward Harris.

“I remember I was late to the meet and greet because I couldn’t walk very fast at eight months pregnant!” Sue recalls, laughing.

In his reference letter, Dr. Harris praised the strength of Dr. Percival’s research and teaching skills. Despite being thrown into her new research area of copper transport, Dr. Harris remembered how Dr. Percival excelled, publishing several impactful articles and attaining a National Institutes of Health (NIH) fellowship during her two years as a postdoctoral associate. Dr. Harris attributed her high level of success to boundless curiosity matched by research skills honed through years of hard work.

Dr. Percival stands in a laboratory doorway.
Dr. Percival working in her lab.

By July, the UF/FSHN department had offered Dr. Percival the job, and Dr. Percival had accepted. “This position is a tremendous opportunity,” she wrote in her acceptance letter, “and you can be assured that I will do my best to enhance the successes of the program.”

She would go on to serve the department for nearly 35 years, helping to continue its international reputation as a high-quality research and teaching institution. During this time, the grateful letter she received a few months into her time at UF continued to encourage her.

Letters of Praise: Teaching, Advising, and the Superior Accomplishment Award

Spring 2002. The University of Florida Superior Accomplishment Awards Program gives Dr. Percival the Superior Accomplishment Award in Faculty Service. As part of the nomination process, several faculty, staff, and students wrote letters detailing Dr. Percival’s many accomplishments and contributions. These letters emphasize the dedication Dr. Percival gives to the success of the FSHN Department and its members, as well as the wider community.

As a teacher, she made an exceptional effort to ensure her students gained a thorough and engaging education. Her Advanced Human Nutrition classes were always popular, and despite high enrollment numbers, she made sure each student was engaged in the class. Student evaluations reflected high satisfaction from course attendees.

Dr. Percival stands outside with two other women wearing Minion shirts.
Dr. Percival at an event held shortly after taking over as the FSHN Department Chair. The shirts were made by Janna Underhill, who is currently the Director of Advising at the UF Herbert Wertheim College of Engineering. Dr. Percival was referred to as “Queen of the Minions” for the day! L to R: Julie Barber (FSHN administrative support), Tish Adams-Waters (a chemist who retired in 2023 after 36 years at UF), Dr. Percival.
Stepping Up as FSHN Department Chair

July 12, 2013. After a successful year as Interim Chair of the FSHN Department, Dr. Percival receives a letter offering her the position of Chair. Her eager acceptance of the position underscored her commitment to leading the department to even greater achievements.

“By the time I reached this stage in my career, I had served under many chairs at UF and other institutions,” she recalls. “I based my mentorship style on the attributes I liked in all these other great leaders.”

Over the next ten years, Dr. Percival continued championing the department’s teaching mission while supporting students, faculty, and staff. Her efforts helped recruit faculty and increase the total value of grants awarded to the department. In addition, Dr. Percival’s initiative encouraged increased participation in activities such as the FFA, Florida Youth Institute, and TailGATOR. She spearheaded the department’s relationship with Taste of Immokalee, a student-created and -operated business teaching social entrepreneurship skills in one of the poorest counties in Florida. The Taste X UF collaboration resulted in the second annual experiential program for Taste of Immokalee students this past summer.

Overall, Dr. Percival remembers her time as the department chair with fondness. “I had great support from administration and faculty to improve the facilities. For example, I kept a 1996 memo from a food science faculty member about the deplorable state of the FSHN Pilot Plant. We had little pride in the facility and therefore were not motivated to maintain it. I’m happy to say that now we can be proud of the Pilot Plant facility.”

Upgrading the Pilot Plant Leads to Department Pride
An empty warehouse with polished floors.
The Pilot Plant after renovations.

Some of the modifications made to the facility include creating the experimental food lab with eight units for teaching. In addition, all the cold rooms were replaced or repaired and on monitors. The floors were redone, the light ballasts were changed, and energy-saving LED bulbs were put in. Dr. Perival replaced much of the small equipment, including a fryer, drying ovens, balances, and the muffle furnace. She also organized the donation of a pasta extruder.

Other improvements improved the teaching environment. By alleviating traffic to the ice machine, Dr. Percival created space for teaching and research. The department also improved the steam facilities and other important teaching equipment, such as replacing three autoclaves and upgrading the third-floor teaching lab equipment.

In reviewing her work, members of the department lauded Dr. Percival for her active support of faculty research, promotion of all students’ successes, and commitment to addressing feedback. Her dedication to project flexibility and outreach helped department members engage in fulfilling work with real-world impact.

Two women holding two young boys stand in front of a Christmas tree.
Dr. Percival enjoys an FSHN Department Christmas party in 2012 with her daughter, Melanie, and her grandsons, Jason (L) and Orion. Header: Rasha Mansouri, a former Ph.D. student in Dr. Percival’s lab, gives a poster presentation at an Experimental Biology conference. L to R: Cheryl Rowe (a long-time technician in Dr. Percival’s lab who retired in 2013), Camila Rodrigues (former Ph.D. student), Rasha, Dr. Percival, Brandon Eudy (former MS student).
Man and woman stand in front of a snow-covered mountain.
Dr. Percival and her son, William.
Two black and white dogs stand outside.
Dr. Percival’s furry friends, Molly (L) and Shadow.
Identity and the Power of Inspiration

August 17, 2023. “Who am I?”

On her last day as FSHN Department Chair, Dr. Percival reflected on her distinguished career. “Am I a teacher? A scholar? A mentor? A leader?”

In reviewing her career accomplishments, we see that she embodies all those roles. Even in retirement, Dr. Percival continues to encourage students, faculty, staff, and alumni. She has never forgotten the power of a conversation, phone call—or a letter from a grateful friend—to inspire someone in their career and life.

“I feel pretty lucky to have been able to do what I did throughout my career, and I feel pretty happy with what I was able to accomplish,” Dr. Percival says. “If I had an impact on people, it was because they took advice and ran with it, becoming successes in their own right. My hope now is to have a creative and active life with my dogs, my friends, and my family. Thank you to everyone who has inspired me throughout my career.”

Dr. Percival holds her nameplate while wearing Gator colors | Food Science and Human Nutrition UF/IFAS
Dr. Percival holds the nameplate she received after becoming the FSHN Department Chair.

Check out the full version of Dr. Percival’s feature here.


Jessie Erwin, Nutrition Communications Consultant for the UF/IFAS FSHN department.
Posted: March 18, 2024

Category: Food Science & Human Nutrition, Health & Nutrition, UF/IFAS Teaching, Work & Life
Tags: Antioxidants, Bioavailability, Ceruloplasmin, Copper Research, Copper Transport, Dr. Percival, Dr. Susan Percival, Faculty Feature, Faculty-research, Functional Bioavailability, Nutritional Sciences, Nutritional-sciences-faculty-feature, Phytochemicals, Polyphenolics, Sue Percival, Susan Percival, Taste Of Immokalee, Taste X UF, Taste X UF Experiential Program

Subscribe For More Great Content

IFAS Blogs Categories