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Dean: Biosciences can transform state economy

February 14, 2007 By Brian Mattmiller

Photo of Molly Jahn meeting with Carl Gulbrandsen and Mark Bugher.

Molly Jahn, dean of the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, talks with Carl Gulbrandsen (left), managing director of the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, and Mark Bugher, director of the University Research Park, after a recent meeting. Photo: B. Wolfgang Hoffmann

Few people have a better firsthand take on the value of university-industry collaboration than Molly Jahn, dean of the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences (CALS).

As a plant genetics researcher developing hardier vegetable varieties, that type of collaboration transformed a few small bags of experimental seed from her lab into thousands of acres of commercial crops growing on every continent except Antarctica.

“I’m extremely proud of the fact that public investments in my work have resulted in varieties I can see in seed catalogs, I can see in farmer’s fields and I can see in the supermarket,” says Jahn, reflecting on her work as a plant biologist at Cornell University in New York. “Our varieties also are used right here in Wisconsin.”

Later this year, Jahn’s research lab will reach a milestone by signing its 50th commercial license on patented vegetable varieties, including peppers, cucumbers, potatoes, squash and other vegetables. Many of her varieties are used on organic farms, a high-value market that is burgeoning nationally and in southern Wisconsin.

From seed to harvest — that’s not a bad way to describe the spectrum of Jahn’s challenges as dean of CALS. The seeds of great ideas are evident in classrooms and in more than $100 million in sponsored research conducted at the college. And the harvest will ultimately be seen in Wisconsin’s biology-based economies, which Jahn believes can be transformed by bioscience advances at UW–Madison.

“The new economy will grow from the existing economy,” says Jahn, who began her deanship in July. “We hope that as many players as possible who are part of our traditional economy will become major players in what comes next.”

That next big opportunity for Wisconsin may already be brewing in the nascent biofuels industry. A strong program in university research, as well as intense industry and government support, has Wisconsin poised for leadership in developing renewable and biologically sourced energy, including ethanol, biodiesel and other products.

“We see bioenergy as a way to pull from all sectors of the college, including basic research, production agriculture and natural resources,” Jahn says.

Jahn is developing a plan to pursue one of two federal bioenergy resource centers to be funded by the U.S. Department of Energy at $125 million each. Jahn says Wisconsin has the research prowess and the industrial backbone to be perfectly suited for this initiative. Bioenergy also draws on other university research strengths in the College of Engineering and in the federal Forest Products Laboratory west of campus.

Some promising research projects already are under way. CALS forage specialists are investigating ways to use biomass crops in the bioenergy process. Another project is exploring a glue made from the byproducts of ethanol production that could have high market value. A third is looking at trimming harvest and handling costs to make crop-based biofuels more lucrative.

In Jahn’s view, there is no dichotomy between the “old” and “new” economy, since our traditional economies have the people and the capacity to lead change. Jahn cites the paper industry as a perfect example. It has long been an economic powerhouse in Wisconsin, but the industry is in transition and is looking for new markets, products and revenue streams to thrive.

Along with the soybean industry, the paper industry is one of the most energetic partners in the college’s biofuels initiative, and has offered a commitment to have the Flambeau River Paper Mill near Park Falls serve as a pilot plant in using wood pulp to source ethanol — and deploy university technology advances in a full-scale production setting. That same partner-industry relationship exists with the Badger State Ethanol facility in Monroe, Jahn says.

In her travels around the state to meet with agricultural industry leaders, Jahn says she heard several common themes about how CALS can serve private-sector needs. The production-agriculture industry is keenly interested not just in increasing the pipeline of graduates but also in getting graduates versed in creating profitable new products and markets.

“I continue to hear — across the board — that turning out business-literate graduates is a high priority,” Jahn says. “I also hear a lot more about lifelong education and long-term connections back to the university. We need to continue to serve our graduates throughout their careers.

“If we know one thing about the future our graduates will face,” Jahn adds, “it’s that they will be in a very fast-changing world and that any set of facts we give them today will likely be obsolete in the very near future. So we need to prepare our grads with the capacity to adapt, the capacity to access new information as it presents itself, the capacity to make informed decisions and contribute to organizations broadly.”

To further cement the link between business needs and the undergraduate program, Jahn is creating a program guaranteeing that all of CALS’ 2,200-plus undergraduates will have a meaningful internship experience before they graduate. The experience will be related to students’ fields of study and contribute to their academic growth, she says.

Other academic programs in development are responding to industry needs where there is no corresponding academic program. One of those is a new undergraduate program in development in environmental science and sustainability. Another program, in collaboration with the School of Veterinary Medicine, will develop a “veterinary scholars” program at UW–Madison and other UW System campuses that will prepare students for eventual work in large-animal medicine, a critical service to Wisconsin’s animal livestock industry.

Jahn is looking toward the future of her college with tremendous excitement. The college is a semester away from christening a new Microbial Sciences building, which will be the largest building on campus and a “crowning jewel” that will house research efforts in bioenergy, chemistry, food science and public health.

The college is also very entrepreneurial, forward-looking and relatively youthful: one in every three CALS faculty members has been hired in the last seven years.

“We are a community of rising stars,” she says. “And in higher education right now, that is a very, very precious thing. I think it will afford us the energy, the vision and the sense that we are in this for the long haul, which is something I personally share.”

Coming to UW–Madison from Cornell was not a big leap in some respects, given that both are land-grant institutions with a strong agricultural legacy and focus. But one major difference is between the two states themselves. More so than in New York, Jahn says Wisconsin’s agricultural economy is woven into the state’s identity. So many people are connected and can trace their family roots here to agriculture, she says, and there’s a great respect for the land and for stewardship.

Jahn wants to see that legacy thriving for decades to come.

“It is our job in the college to think ahead,” Jahn says. “We were founded to be a resource for the future. We need to think about how we contribute people, technology and strategies to find the brightest way forward.”