An inspiring career in public service – An interview with Dr. Chavonda Jacobs-Young

Interview conducted and written by Modesta Abugu

Dr. Chavonda Jacobs-Young is the administrator of the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS). She obtained her Ph.D. at North Carolina State University in Paper Science and Engineering and spent about 6 years teaching and researching at the University of Washington before joining the USDA in 2002. In 2014, she became the first woman, and person of color, to lead USDA’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS). Dr. Jacobs-Young is a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the National Academy of Public Administration and a Presidential Rank Award winner.

Her achievements and career are a real inspiration for all of us, and we are really happy to share this interview.

“I am a lifelong learner; one best practice I’ve instituted that works for us is a custom of debriefing and lessons learned.”

Dr. Chavonda Jacobs-Young

You work in one of the most prestigious organizations in the country. How did you get there?

It was definitely not a direct shot from achieving a Ph.D. in Paper Science and Engineering to becoming the leader of ARS. After a thorough and inspiring undergraduate and graduate education at North Carolina State University in wood and paper science, I was recruited to a tenure track position at the University of Washington. I was there for nearly a decade, teaching and researching, and I really loved working with the students. In 2002 I took a big leap and left Washington State for Washington, D.C. and the USDA, taking a job as national program leader in the organization now known as the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA). I had a number of positions there, including serving on the leadership team to set policy and goal planning for the $220 million Competitive Programs Unit; providing administrative and budgetary oversight for the $180 million National Research Initiative (which was at the time the largest competitive grants program within the USDA); and leading agency and departmental efforts in bioenergy research supported by competitive funding in the area of value-added biobased products.

In 2008 I joined the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy where I served as a subject matter expert for the President’s science adviser and others within the Executive Office of the President on a variety of agricultural scientific activities. When I returned to USDA in 2010, I had several positions, including being named the first Director of the USDA Office of the Chief Scientist and Acting Director for NIFA, USDA’s largest extramural science agency. I then joined ARS as Associate Administrator in 2012. I applied and was selected for the position of ARS Administrator in 2014.

Tell us some more about your work as the administrator of the USDA’s chief scientific in-house research agency.

I am so proud to be the Administrator of ARS. ARS is the world’s premier agricultural science agency with approximately 8,000 employees, 90 locations (including 4 overseas laboratories), a field to table scope, and $1.7 billion in annual congressional appropriations. My role is to provide the high-level vision for our science and the supporting infrastructure. In addition, it is vital to work cooperatively with stakeholders, Congress, and the Administration in meeting the high priority needs of agricultural research.

ARS is home to some of the world’s most prominent agricultural scientists. To meet the pressing needs of a growing demand for food, feed and fiber, they must have access to modernized infrastructure. They deserve facilities and equipment commensurate with supporting revolutionary research to help agriculture meet pressing challenges. The average age of ARS facilities nationwide is over 47 years. As a result, over the past 6 years my team and I have made improving the ARS infrastructure one of our highest priorities. We are extremely fortunate to have secured over $1 billion in Congressional appropriations to improve ARS’ over $4 billion in facilities in recent years. This level of investment is a positive sign of support for our important research.

Infrastructure isn’t just about buildings, it’s also about information technology and people. In the last 6 years we’ve established the agency’s first scientific network, including Internet II access, high performance computing, secure storage, and bioinformatics expertise. I have put together a strong and diverse leadership team and we champion continuous improvement by implementing agency-wide transparent, equitable, and consistent processes to ensure high level data driven agency decisions. We’ve also focused on improving agency-wide communication by establishing ARS’ first intranet and publishing ARS’ first online interactive magazine. We started a series of interactive webinars with all employees where anyone can listen and discuss important topics with me and my team. We have adapted this “Inform & Engage” webinar series during the Covid-19 pandemic to allow us to meet more frequently, twice a week, with our employees. A total of nearly 30,000 employees have logged on for 22 webinars at the time of this interview.

I’m sure every job comes with its own challenges. What challenges have you faced in this job and how have you handled them.

My time as ARS Administrator has not been without challenges. In fact, we’ve had several big tests so far. From a national media front page exposé, to grave allegations of scientific integrity wrongdoing, to hurricanes and pandemics, our team has developed and gotten stronger with each instance. I am a lifelong learner, so one best practice I’ve instituted that works for us is a custom of debriefing and documenting lessons learned. After a challenge is met, my whole senior leadership team will get together and look at how we handled the challenge; what we did well and where we can improve so we can do better the next time. We even took a comprehensive, agency-wide look at the first 5 years of my administration at different levels of the organization, gathering best practices as we went along. The agency, our teams and our work seem to improve in effectiveness year to year as is evident by increasing budgets, infrastructure investments, and external recognition.

Tell us about the other roles you’ve played in your career. Have you had any women mentors or mentored others in your career?

I have benefited from the mentoring and guidance of a diverse cadre of mentors during my career. Because of this, I believe it is important to both repay and pay it forward. In my roles as ARS Administrator and a woman in science I receive many invitations to speak to students and young professionals. Last year I was selected as an AAAS If/Then Ambassador to serve as a role model for young girls with an interest in STEM. Participation in the program amplifies my efforts to reach young people. I have been fortunate, and increasingly so as my career advances, to have opportunities to speak to thousands of students, kindergarten through high school, college and graduate school. I remember how important it was to me throughout my matriculation and in my career to have exposure to women in science. Because of this, I rarely turn down an invitation to speak to a student or group of students. And I get so much from the interaction myself; the fresh take young people have on problems and the energy they bring to a meeting is inspiring.

If you had any advice for upcoming scientists, what would that be?

Consider a broad array of career options, including public service. When I was a graduate student, I was aware of primarily two options: academics or industry. A career in public service as a federal scientist was not on the radar. Public science is a great option for young people today. At ARS we offer a meaningful career choice in an agency with an awesome mission. ARS’ roughly 700 research projects, coordinated in 15 national programs, provide an opportunity to work with some of the best scientists tackling agricultural problems of high national or regional priority. Any one scientist’s work is automatically leveraged for its greatest impact. And at ARS we are known for our close customer and partner relationships, so our scientists’ work has high value upon delivery. After all, our mission is to deliver scientific solutions to national and global agricultural challenges! ARS is just one of many great federal science organizations where upcoming scientists can make a difference with a public service career.