The College of Agriculture and Natural Resources will hold its Spring 2018 Commencement on Saturday May 19th at 3:00 pm in the Reckford Armory building. This year, Dr. Chavonda Jacobs-Young of the United States Department of Agriculture will be speaking as a leader of Research, Education, and Economics and the Agricultural Research Service. We caught up with Dr. Jacobs-Young for a preview of what to expect this Saturday, and to discuss the importance of rigorous science and a sound agricultural education for the future of the field.
Q: Can you briefly describe your role and what inspires you most about your job?
A: I am currently serving as the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Acting Chief Scientist and Acting Deputy Under Secretary for Research, Education, and Economics (REE). The REE mission area comprises four agencies – the Economic Research Service, National Agricultural Statistics Service, National Institute of Food and Agriculture, and the Agricultural Research Service (ARS). I am also serving as the Administrator of ARS, USDA's chief scientific in-house research agency. ARS has approximately 8,000 employees, including approximately 2,000 scientists working at ARS labs across the country.
In my roles at the USDA, I am most inspired by the opportunity to advance science and deliver solutions to many of America’s high priority agricultural challenges. I am excited about the many recent technological advancements that have come from research and the availability of breakthrough technologies that are supporting and leading innovation in America’s high-tech food and agricultural economy. By helping to protect U.S. agriculture, increase agricultural efficiency, and increase resilience of U.S. farms, these innovations contribute to farm productivity and profitability and expand the ability for U.S. leadership to address the global challenge to “feed everyone.”
Q: What was your motivation to pursue the degrees you did, and how did your aspirations guide you into the role you are in now?
A: I was introduced to agriculture while pursuing a college degree in pulp and paper science and technology at North Carolina State University. While a professor at the University of Washington in Seattle, Washington, I had the opportunity to join the U.S. Department of Agriculture in their efforts to advance agriculture through research, education, and extension. This allowed me to advance my STEM career and engage with preeminent scientists around the world.
Q: How important is rigorous scientific research to the practice of agriculture?
A: Prior to becoming Administrator at ARS, I served as the Director of the Office of the Chief Scientist at USDA. In that role, I was responsible for coordinating scientific leadership across the department to ensure that research supported by, and scientific advice provided to the department and external stakeholders were held to the highest standards of intellectual rigor and scientific integrity. So, I believe strongly in the importance of scientific rigor. It is crucial to producing reliable knowledge that we can use to meet the challenges before us.
Q: When you think about educating the next generation of leaders in agricultural and natural resource sciences, what do you think is our most critical priority?
A: Our most critical priority is the challenge to produce enough safe and nutritious food to feed a growing population while being good stewards of our natural resources. Advances in science and technology have had a significant impact on agriculture and the quality of life for Americans. The ability of the American farm sector to feed far more people today than six decades ago, while using less farmland and fewer workers and reducing the environmental impact of food production, is testimony to the impact of agricultural research and innovation.
Q: What advice would you give the next generation of young professionals in this field?
A: One of my favorite quotes is from Arthur Ashe: “Start where you are, use what you have, do what you can.” It’s true, the problems the world faces today can seem overwhelming, but guess what? No one of us has to solve all of them. Each of us has the capacity to work to make a small inroad or change, and to band together with others to address bigger challenges. It does not, however, serve our purpose to stand still. I really believe that every little bit helps in every little way. Many hands make light work, and here’s an added benefit - more people own the success too!