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In Service to Science

From a top post at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Chavonda Jacobs-Young ’89, ’92 MS, ’98 PHD oversees research that shapes how food is grown.

Photography courtesy of U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Chavonda Jacobs-Young ’89, ’92 ms, ’98 phd, oversees wide-ranging research efforts in her role as a top official at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, dealing with critical subjects such as climate change and nutrition. Much of it will help shape how the world’s crops are grown in the future and help people be smarter about the food they consume.

As the chief scientist and undersecretary for research, education and economics at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), Jacobs-Young oversees more than 8,500 employees working in programs such as the Agricultural Research Service, the Economic Research Service, the National Institute of Food and Agriculture and the National Agricultural Statistics Service.

“The science we conduct is critically important to the success of the industry,” says Jacobs-Young, who has worked at USDA in various capacities for 20 years. “The science that we deliver. . . is critically important to helping feed people.

“I’m not at the bench, but I know I’ve made it possible for people at the bench to make discoveries. That excites me.”

Jacobs-Young shared that excitement with NC State’s latest crop of graduates in December when she delivered the keynote speech at the university’s commencement ceremony for summer and fall graduates. She acknowledged that figuring out what to say had been stressful.

“What do you say to these young people that they are going to remember, that’s going to make a difference for them?” she says.

Jacobs-Young was mindful that college students have experienced difficult challenges throughout the pandemic, but hopes that sharing some of the lessons she has learned will be useful. “Throughout my life and my career, even in college, being persistent and having tenacity have been very, very important,” she says. “And so the things that our kids have experienced the last couple of years, will they be able to take those lessons and turn them into opportunities and grow from them? I believe in everything there’s a lesson.”

That attitude helps explain why Jacobs-Young got involved in a recent campaign to promote women involved in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). The campaign led to the Smithsonian displaying 120 life-size 3D-printed statues of women in science in and around various museums in March. One of the statues was of Jacobs-Young.

A 3D-printed statue of Chavonda Jacobs-Young ’89, ’92 MS, ’98 PHD stands in the Smithsonian.

“We realized there were very few statues of real women in the United States,” she says. “It was just so impactful. To me, exposure is everything.”

Jacobs-Young is appreciative of opportunities to give back to NC State, be it speaking at commencement or serving on the university’s Board of Visitors. It was at NC State, after all, that she became the first Black woman in the United States to earn a doctoral degree in wood and paper science. She was also a three-time ACC champion in the high jump at NC State, was active in her sorority, and sang in a gospel choir. She even met her husband at NC State.

“I had an amazing NC State experience, just an amazing experience,” she says. “I got a lot of gifts from NC State — three degrees and a supportive husband.”

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