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CALS dean to serve in USDA post

October 12, 2009

Molly Jahn, dean of the University of Wisconsin–Madison College of Agricultural and Life Sciences (CALS), has been appointed to a senior position in the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), university officials announced today (Oct. 12).

Jahn will serve as deputy undersecretary of research, education and economics, a position responsible for leading three units within the USDA that provide research and service on issues related to food and agriculture. Under the leadership of U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and USDA Undersecretary Rajiv Shah, she will help guide the agency’s efforts to ensure a safe, healthy, abundant and affordable food supply for the nation and the world.

“I am humbled and deeply honored to be asked to serve in this capacity, which I consider a once-in-a-lifetime chance to be a part of the conversation about our national priorities relating to agriculture, food, nutrition, energy and the environment,” says Jahn.

Jahn will begin her new duties Nov. 9. Chancellor Biddy Martin has granted Jahn a one-year leave from her duties as dean to accept the post. The chancellor will confer with Provost Paul DeLuca and others before identifying a transition plan for CALS leadership.

“This is an excellent opportunity for Dean Jahn, one that will allow her to use her many talents to influence the nation’s agricultural agenda,” Martin says. “The university has a long history of providing service to government, and we are delighted to support Molly in carrying on that tradition.”

Jahn will provide leadership for the USDA Agricultural Research Service (ARS), the Economic Research Service and the National Agricultural Statistics Service. The largest of those units, the ARS, funds approximately $1.1 billion in research projects annually. Some 2,100 scientists and 8,000 employees work at more than 100 ARS research facilities around the nation.

Three ARS units reside on UW–Madison’s campus: the U.S. Dairy Forage Research Center, the Cereal Crops Research Unit and the Vegetable Crops Research Unit. The CALS faculty includes 20 USDA scientists, who share facilities with campus scientists and provide training opportunities for UW–Madison graduate students.

“The USDA network represents one of the most outstanding resources in the world on issues related to food and agriculture,” says Jahn. “I am fully committed to help bring that expertise to bear on the important challenges facing our nation’s food systems.”

Jahn notes that the USDA impacts hundreds of millions of lives through administration of food aid and education programs, as well as through agricultural research and extension. “The agency has a tremendously important role to play in securing a safe, nutritious, abundant food supply for our nation and the world. My primary role will be to ensure that those programs are informed by timely, relevant research that helps us advance those goals.”

Jahn has served as CALS dean since August 2006, when she became the college’s first female dean. Her tenure has included several major landmarks for the college, including winning a $130 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to establish the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center on campus. Since her arrival, extramural research funding at CALS has increased by 48 percent.

Jahn has led several infrastructure projects, including construction of a new dairy facility at CALS’ Arlington Research Station and a significant renewal of the college’s faculty. She has been involved in the hiring of more than 70 professors, representing nearly one-quarter of the CALS faculty.

Leading one of the nation’s top land-grant colleges gives Jahn “firsthand knowledge of how the organization and structure of the USDA research missions affect research in the state experiment stations,” says Bill Tracy, chair of the UW–Madison agronomy department. “Molly will bring the background of a successful researcher, plant breeder and administrator, and I think she will have a very large role in determining the future direction of U.S. agricultural research.”

In academic research, Jahn is recognized as an innovative scientist with a commitment to projects that make a difference in people’s lives. As a professor of plant breeding and genetics and plant biology at Cornell University from 1991-2006, she bred vegetable varieties used around the world and identified genes responsible for important crop traits. She directed the Public Seed Initiative and the Organic Seed Partnership, an outreach activity based on an alliance of public-sector researchers, seed companies and nonprofit groups that worked to improve the use of public plant varieties and promote genetic diversity.

Jahn earned her bachelor’s degree in 1980 from Swarthmore College. She holds graduate degrees from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Cornell University.

“This position is both an honor and a wonderful opportunity to serve our government,” says Jahn. “The public sector supported my training as a scientist, and I’ve spent most of my career in public institutions. I can think of no better way to repay that investment than by helping our society meet these challenges and secure a healthy future.”