Editor's note: This story has been updated with information on the funeral. 

Sue Duncan, an ebullient and well-respected leader, professor, and researcher in the Virginia Tech College of Agriculture and Life Sciences for more than 32 years, passed away suddenly on Oct. 12.

Duncan started her career at Virginia Tech in 1990, when she was the first woman hired as an assistant professor in the Department of Food Science and Technology. After her promotion to the rank of professor, she was named the associate director of the Virginia Agricultural Experiment Station. She also served as the director of the Center for Advanced Innovation in Agriculture with her trademark enthusiasm, drive, and intellect.

“Sue had an enormous impact on the college and the university over the last three decades, not just in terms of her leadership and research, but through her positive outlook and warm demeanor,” said Alan Grant, dean of the college. “We are all shocked and deeply saddened by her passing.”

Sue is survived by her daughter, Taylor, and her son-in-law, Nick. Sue's husband, Bob Duncan, was an associate professor in the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine who passed away suddenly in 2007. For years, Sue organized a memorial run in his honor. 

Funeral services will be held at 11 a.m. on Oct. 25 at the Dublin Baptist Church. Her family will receive friends at the church on Oct. 24 from 6-8 p.m. In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations be made to the National Park Foundation or the Bob Duncan Memorial Scholarship by sending checks made out to the Virginia Tech Foundation and identifying the contribution in support of the Bob Duncan Memorial Diagnostic Veterinary Pathology Scholarship Fund. Checks can be mailed to the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine, Advancement Office, 225 Duck Pond Drive, Blacksburg, Virginia 24061. A wreath commemorating her life was displayed at Virginia Tech’s War Memorial Chapel on Monday, Oct. 17.

Sue joined Virginia Tech after earning her Ph.D. in food science from the University of Tennessee. At Virginia Tech, she focused her research on the sensory and chemical characterization of food and beverages.

Ever a big picture thinker, Duncan quickly noticed a distinct lack of formalized food sensory research being conducted, and by the early 1990s, she’d founded the Virginia Tech Sensory Evaluation Laboratory. Through the lab, she worked with partners in academia and the food industry to evaluate how and why people perceive food the way they do. One such study found a way to incorporate omega-3 fatty acids into milk in heart-health boosting doses without altering its flavor or shelf life. Another identified an age-related decline in the ability to taste iron in people over 50, bringing to light important health concerns for older Americans who need less iron.

Duncan’s research grew to be wide-ranging and encompassed everything from food packaging to water quality to food system cyberbiosecurity. However, her interest in dairy products became a recurring motif throughout her career, with her serving on the board of the American Dairy Science Association and encouraging food science students to join the Virginia Tech Dairy Judging Team. Duncan extensively researched how light exposure causes milk to oxidize, affecting its lifespan, taste, and nutritional value. Her work resulted in light-protective retail packaging for dairy products, and before long she was considered one of the country’s leading authorities on the subject.

“Sue always had an impressive ability to think on a broad scale, always looking for ways to connect people across wide ranging disciplines to solve complex problems,” said Renee Boyer, head of the Department of Food Science and Technology (FST). “She’s been a member of FST for over half of its history. We’ve lost a longtime pillar of our department.”

It was Sue's focus on milk that earned her the affectionate nickname “the Dairy Queen” among her students, countless of whom she shepherded through their academic careers. Her intense focus coupled with her warm, supportive mentoring style made a permanent impression upon them. Daryan Johnson, who graduated from Duncan’s master’s program in 2012 and is now Research and Development Manager at Kagome Foods, credits her with talking him through a moment of crisis. 

“I was like, here I am in this place, and I’m just not sure if I can do what’s expected of me to get through the project, let alone get a master’s degree,” Johnson said. “I remember going to Dr. Duncan, and I was just like, ‘I’m lost. I’m not sure I can do this.’ And she just looked at me and said, ‘Daryan, have you ever written a thesis before? Have you ever been in a master’s program before?’ I said, ‘No, ma’am.’ She said, ‘I’m aware this is your first time doing this, and we’re going to get through this together'."

According to Johnson, Duncan’s true talent as an advisor was helping students believe in themselves and giving them the tools they needed to make themselves successful. 

“She just really coached me up when I needed it and was always providing those little nuggets of insight to keep me going,” he said. “She was truly an amazing person.”

When the university built the new Human and Agricultural Biosciences Building 1 in 2014, Sue oversaw the construction of a new state-of-the-art food sensory lab complete with high-tech equipment such as facial monitoring software, which examined facial motions to find clues to the emotional response to food. A specialized face-reading software program interpreted muscular motions to translate study participants' facial expressions into emotions, which are then compared to how well the food is liked by the taster. The lab was part of the department’s continued collaboration with the food and beverage industry to help develop and bring new products to market.

“Food is such a positive experience in so many ways,” Duncan said as her new lab was being finished. “Our research can help consumers make decisions that are healthy as well as emotionally fulfilling.”

Ever the collaborator, Sue worked with researchers in environmental engineering, psychology, accounting and the Institute for Creativity, Arts, and Technology to bring the project to life. She loved the collaborative spirit in higher education of bringing divergent thinkers together to solve complex problems.

Sue was part of a large U.S. Department of Agriculture-funded project to develop a new strain of edamame that can be grown in the U.S. The project involved researchers from across campus who study genetics, food science, bioinformatics, horticulture, entomology, plant pathology, and agricultural economics.

“This is a great project where so many different people, with so many different viewpoints, are working together to benefit both American consumers and producers,” she said.

In 2016, Duncan was named the associate director of the Virginia Agricultural Experiment Station, which is the research organization that supports the programs of more than 350 researchers in three colleges — the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, the College of Natural Resources and Environment, Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine. The research network also includes 11 Agricultural Research and Extension Centers located throughout the state.

“Sue had a passion for supporting our researchers from around the university,” said Saied Mostaghimi, the associate dean for research and director of the Virginia Agricultural Experiment Station. “She was instrumental in developing collaboration opportunities for faculty across campus and with many other institutions. She also was a leader and significant contributor to the development and implementation of the Roadmap for Research Agenda at the national level, setting the research priority agenda for the Agricultural Experiment Stations across the nation. She will be greatly missed.”

In 2021, Duncan was named director of the newly created Center for Advanced Innovation In Agriculture (CAIA), which was formed to bring together diverse groups of people who operate at the intersection of technology, data analytics, and decision-making to address challenges and security issues in the natural world and human society in the domains of plants, animals, and food systems.

The center focuses on three pillars – data analytics, cyberbiosecurity, and the SmartFarm Innovation Network – the last of which Duncan made sure earned copyright-protection.

“Sue's early leadership in cyberbiosecurity is responsible for the active participation of researchers in agriculture and life sciences in CCI, with incredible results,” said Luiz DaSilva, Executive Director of the Commonwealth Cyber Initiative. “On a more personal note, I just loved working with Sue. She brought infectious enthusiasm and brilliant professionalism to everything she did. We are all better for having known her.”

Today, there are more than 148 CAIA affiliated faculty members from across campus who study everything from artificial intelligence to promote cyberbiosecurity to flying drones to monitor crop health. Faculty hail from departments that include aerospace and ocean engineering, sociology, statistics, entomology, and dairy science, among others. A new cluster of researchers focused on center-based topics was recently hired, which includes a cadre of professors who collaborate on projects, jointly apply for funding, and attend events where they can find new ways to work together.  

“Sue had a great way of bringing people together with her caring personality, deep passion, and enthusiasm. She wanted to harness research to make a difference in the world,” said Kang Xia,  associate director of the center and professor in the School of Plant and Environmental Sciences. “She was a great role model for many of us. We will miss her tremendously.”

—Alex Hood contributed to this story

Share this story