Dr. Chavonda Jacobs-Young has served as Administrator of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s chief scientific in-house research agency since February 2014. She also is currently Acting Chief Scientist of the USDA.
Previously, Dr. Jacobs-Young had served as ARS Associate Administrator for Research Programs, where she led the Office of National Programs, which directs the research programs and projects of the Agency, and the Office of International Research, Engagement, and Collaboration, which is responsible for ARS’ liaison with its international partners.
Prior to moving into her roles at ARS, Dr. Jacobs-Young served as the Director of the Office of the Chief Scientist at USDA, where she was responsible for facilitating the coordination of 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. She also served as the Acting Director for USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) and has spent time as the Acting Deputy Undersecretary for the Research, Education, and Economics Mission Area in USDA which includes ARS, NIFA, the Office of the Chief Scientist and sister agencies the Economic Research Service and the National Agricultural Statistics Service.
Dr. Jacobs-Young has also served as a senior policy analyst for agriculture in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy where she supported the President’s science adviser and the Executive Office of the President on a variety of agricultural scientific activities and worked across the Federal Government to improve interagency cooperation and collaboration on high-priority scientific issues.
Dr. Jacobs-Young is a native of Georgia. She holds M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in Wood and Paper Science and a B.S. degree in Pulp and Paper Science and Technology from North Carolina State University. She is a graduate of American University’s Key Executive Leadership in Public Policy Implementation Program.
Here is a recent interview with Dr. Chavonda Jacobs-Young:
How did you get involved in public service?
I joined the public service in 1995 when I became a professor of Paper Science and Engineering at the University of Washington in Seattle, WA. I continued my career in public service in 2002 by joining the Federal civil service at the United States Department of Agriculture as a National Program Leader in what was then the Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service and is now NIFA.
Which of the 12 Grand Challenges resonates most with you?
Grand Challenge “Steward Natural Resources and Address Climate Change – steward natural resources and protect the environment for us and future generations.” The ARS mission is to deliver scientific solutions to national and global agricultural challenges. Globally, we all have the challenge of feeding a growing population while being good stewards of the environment. USDA-ARS is uniquely positioned to build on a legacy of innovation and discovery to help meet the challenge.
Reflecting on your career thus far, is there a highlight, a greatest accomplishment, or a funny store you’d like to share?
I am fortunate to have had some amazing experiences already in my career; quite a few that were challenging and therefore fostered my growth and drove many accomplishments. I will share an experience we are currently leading. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, ARS maximized telework across the country, with many of our scientists and staff operating from their home offices. To maintain a sense of connectedness, my leadership team and I are offering experiences to learn and grow together as an agency. Over the course of the first three weeks at home, we engaged nearly 11,000 people in real-time discussion via webinar on topics of importance and interest, both scientific and practical.
What advice would you give someone wanting to start a career in public service?
I personally need a compelling reason to come to work each day. Feeding the world and protecting our natural resources drives me. So my advice is find a mission that energizes you. A purpose that compels you to get up each morning to give your best to meet the mission and serve the public good will keep you engaged, sharp, and accountable.
What was the best trip you’ve ever taken?
I am fortunate to have several great travel experiences both here in the U.S. and abroad. There are far too many to pick just one! I’ve experienced beautiful flora standing in a large field of sunflowers at the ARS lab in Fargo, North Dakota, observed nature at it wildest on safari in South Africa, marveled while touring the burial sites of terra cotta soldiers in China, and tasted the bounty of agriculture in the ripest, sweetest, and juiciest of peaches at the ARS Germplasm collection in Davis, California.
What was the last book you read or one that you would recommend?
I recommend one of my favorite leadership books, “Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive Through the Dangers of Leading” by Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky. I first read this book when taking a course taught by Marty Linksy at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University many years ago. I have read the book several times to revisit the five strategies for successfully surviving while leading REAL change. My favorite strategy is “getting on the balcony,” basically taking a step back to get a better perspective. This doesn’t mean disengaging, it’s akin to leaving the dance floor and moving up to the balcony to look back at the dancefloor and observe all the moving parts while staying in the party. This helps me identify all the players on the scene and, more importantly, my role and informed course corrections.
Do you have a favorite podcast, journal, newspaper, or other kind of media?
My favorite professional media is Science Magazine and personally I really enjoy Oprah’s SuperSoul Conversations podcast.
What do you work toward in your free time?
I dabble in genealogy during my free time, working to propagate the branches of my family tree. I can spend hours delving into historical records searching for nuggets of information.