2023 York Distinguished Lecture Series Features Chavonda Jacobs-Young

Web AdminAgriculture Research, Education, Events

By Maegan Beatty

On May 3, the Harn Museum of Art hosted the 2023 York Distinguished Lecture Series. The speaker was Dr. Chavonda Jacobs-Young. She serves as the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Under Secretary for research, education and economics and chief scientist.

York Distinguished Lecture
Dr. Chavonda Jacobs-Young delivers an inspirational lecture to the audience. Photo taken by Tyler Jones.

Jacobs-Young helped establish USDA science priorities in supporting precision nutrition research, building scientific infrastructure and the next generation of agricultural scientists and leaders and advancing equity through research and partnerships. As chief scientist, Dr. Jacobs-Young advises the Secretary of Agriculture and other senior officials on scientific matters and chairs the USDA Science Council, which convenes all parts of USDA’s scientific enterprise.

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, and a proud fellow of both the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the National Academy of Public Administration.

The auditorium was filled with scientists, university administration and students to hear the lecture. Jacobs-Young delivered a factual, yet inspirational talk regarding her view of revolutionary research for a growing world. She is the first person to deliver a York lecture since the pandemic.

The York Distinguished Lecturer Series was established in 1984 through SHARE by an endowment from Dr. and Mrs. E. T. York, Jr. Each year, at least one recognized leader is nominated by faculty and invited to campus. The lecturers are individuals who have achieved outstanding international distinction in agriculture or a related discipline.


As a scientist herself, Jacobs-Young clearly values research as it contributes to agricultural technologies, farming techniques and feeding the growing population. Jacobs-Young explained to the audience how much the United States chooses to invest in scientific research compared to other countries.

“Yet once the world’s leader, the United States now trails the major nations in public agriculture research investments,” she said.

While the federal government invested $3.24 billion in agricultural research in 2019, the contributions to the field have fallen by more than a third in the past two decades. Agricultural research is essential to feeding the expected population of nine billion by the year 2050.

York Distinguished Lecture
Senior Vice President of Agriculture and Natural Resources Dr. Scott Angle with Dr. Chavonda Jacobs-Young. Photo taken by Tyler Jones. 


Jacobs-Young described the three keys to building innovation during the lecture.

Be Prepared – By using the knowledge and resources from the past, Jacobs-Young believes we can be better prepared for a sustainable future. She encouraged agriculturalists to always keep looking for new possibilities within the agriscience field.

“Thinking five, 10, 20 years into the future is a major part of our business model. I believe we can’t wait until tomorrow to prepare for tomorrow,” she said, “When we all work together, we become greater than the sum of our parts.”

Push the Envelope – The United States has a lot of “sticky” problems, but Jacobs-Young believes that we should persevere during trials and adjust our perspective about failure. While the state of Florida along with the rest of the United States is searching for new ways to handle pests and invasive species, it is only through trial and error that solutions can be found.

“I challenge us to remember that enabling higher risk and petitioning for higher transformation in research sometimes requires us to remove barriers for that progress,” she said.

Pass the Baton – We will not be able to move forward in the field of agriculture without working together with past, present, and future scientists. Jacobs-Young said “pass the baton,” to share research with other scientists in order to solve the “stickiest” problems in agriculture.

“It’s not easy, but what makes it easier is practice and knowing your partners, both the ones in the front and in the back. Our innovations are nothing if they are not used. Our revolutionary research is nothing if it is just sitting on our shelves. If we drop the baton, or don’t even bring it to the race, then the next runner cannot go on,” she said.