Interim President Constance Hungerford's Charge to Molly Miller Jahn '80

Molly Miller Jahn '80

Molly Jahn, you are a world-renowned authority on plant genetics, a leading research scientist, plant breeder, and educator. You are currently a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, holding appointments in the Department of Agronomy, the Laboratory of Genetics, and the Center for Sustainability and the Global Environment. Your contributions to the field of sustainability are substantial and influential, and the variety of your life’s work, be it in the classroom, lab, government, or university administration reflect your illustrious career and its impact on our world.

Born and raised near Detroit, Michigan, you grew up with an eager curiosity and quickly became fascinated by nature and field biology. A good student bent on pursuing a career as a biologist, you were selected as the Midwest Scholar at Swarthmore College. As an early example of your exceptional drive, you earned a National Science Foundation fellowship and were admitted to MIT for graduate study of molecular genetics. After much consideration, though, you were “drawn to the practical relevance of genetics for crop improvement” and made the decision to transfer to Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, to begin graduate work in plant breeding. 

After receiving your Ph.D. there in 1988, you remained as a faculty member, quickly gaining a reputation for pioneering discoveries in plant breeding and plant genetics and in particular for your work in plant resistance to disease.

Building your interests at Cornell, in the 1990s and 2000s, you first helped found the Public Seed Initiative, a mechanism for bringing smaller seed companies and growers together to source public seed. Through this endeavor you became increasingly aware of the underserved and underfunded area of research on organic agriculture and, with a large federal grant, became the founding director of the Organic Seed Partnership – an effort involving hundreds of farmers across the country and connecting them to public and private sector research programs.

In 2006, you left Cornel to assume the deanship at the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences and directorship of the Wisconsin Agricultural Experiment Station at the University of Wisconsin (UW). You established yourself as strong voice in the nearly $60 billion agricultural industry of the state of Wisconsin. Renovating facilities, energizing capital campaigns, and launching new initiatives to garner and spur more investment by the state, you secured your presence as an important figure in the bioenergy industry. Thus, in 2009, you accepted a one-year offer to provide interim leadership as Deputy and Acting Under Secretary of Research, Education, and Economics at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Returning to the University of Wisconsin in 2011, you were appointed Special Advisor to the Chancellor and Provost for Sustainability Sciences at UW.

Consulting globally on the topics of food security, risk in food systems, and the environment, your thoughts and voice are essential for business, government, philanthropic organizations, and international multi-lateral institutions to hear. Sustainably redesigning our agriculture systems, as you’ve often emphasized, requires a public and private partnership and a serious investment into and application of new technologies and research.

Molly, in your pursuit to educate and affect reform in the world’s approach to sustainable management of landscapes, food production, and complex ecosystems, you provide the foresight and creativity so very needed to address the challenges of climate change. And in that light, your vision and work serve as a guide for us to better the planet, our community, and in the end, ourselves.

Upon the recommendation of the faculty and by the power vested in me by the Board of Managers of Swarthmore College and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, I have the honor to bestow upon you the degree of Doctor of Sciences.