Molly Jahn |
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Molly Jahn


  • Fellow
  • 2012
  • Talks
Science, Genetics, Agronomy

Dr. Molly Jahn is a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison where she holds appointments in the Department of Agronomy, the Nelson Institute, the Global Health Institute, and a $0 appointment in the Wisconsin School of Law.  She teaches a course entitled, “Systems Thinking,” required for the UW-Madison Sustainability Certificate, which appears to be unique in higher education and is regularly noted by undergraduates to be transformative.  She was on leave for government service for the academic year 2019-20, on contract from NASA HQ and Guest Faculty at the U.S. Naval War College in the Ethics of Emerging Military Technologies Program. Jahn is also Adjunct Senior Research Scientist at Columbia University where she collaborates with a DARPA-funded group, she is a Special Government Employee at NASA and provides Scientific and Engineering Technical Assistance (SETA) at DARPA in the Strategic Technologies Office. The Jahn Research Group ( focuses on domestic and global food system stability and security operating on the University of Wisconsin campus in a federal building under a Cooperative Agreement for Research and Development with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.  Her recent work has appeared in a wide range of publications including peer-reviewed science journals, the Middle East Quarterly, the Journal of International Relations, TIME, a major report published by Lloyd’s of London on Evolving Risk in the Global Food System, the U.S. Army War College Report “Implications of climate change for the U.S. Army,” and a book commissioned by the Special Operations Combatant Command (SOCOM) focused on unleashing strategic latency in a revisionist world order.  She serves as editor for the PLoS-One channel, “Crop science, food security and food systems,” and is the Director of a non-profit organization, Knowledge Systems for Sustainability Consortion (KSS), a global network anchored at premier research institutions focused on building and testing decision-relevant knowledge systems. Her innovative approaches to inter-sector, international, transdisciplinary partnerships; her engagement with emerging institutions; her active commitments to work with deeply challenged communities in the U.S. and abroad; and her integrated, very large projects focused on impact and technology transfer; have been highlighted widely in academic and popular press.  In 2017, Jahn received the highest award from the Milwaukee Public Schools, “Excellence in Education,” for her work with a community of students, teachers, administrators, industry and higher education to found the Vincent High School of Agricultural Sciences, modeled after and greatly assisted by colleagues at the Chicago High School of Agricultural Sciences. 

Jahn began her academic career in 1991 when she was appointed Assistant Professor at Cornell University and established a molecular genetics laboratory in support of field-based vegetable breeding programs in the Department of Plant Breeding.  She developed a new course, Advanced Plant Genetics, for which she was awarded the Young Faculty Teaching Excellence award in 1997.  She built a large research team funded by USDA, NSF, the seed industry, commodity boards and philanthropy focused on genetics, breeding and genomics of vegetable crops, led, since Jahn’s departure in 2006, by her former postdoc, graduate student and technician, Prof. Michael Mazourek and endowed by Jahn/Munger royalties.  She has trained many students who have gone on to stellar careers in academia, industry and government, and who maintain their associations with the Jahn Lab.  Her two most recent postdoctoral associates, Dr. Sarah Collier and Dr. Buddhika Jahaya have recently been appointed Assistant Professors at the University of Washington at Seattle and the U.S. Air Force Academy.  Jahn’s research teams at Cornell University and at University of Wisconsin have produced dozens of commercially significant varieties grown on six continents, many of which are widely recognized in the industry as market founders or leaders, including Cornell’s Bush Delicata squash, awarded the All America Gold Medal.  She has several more All America selections, plant variety certificates, >100 peer-reviewed publications, >60 active commercial licenses, several patents, and she has authored a series of influential reports with commercial partners such as Lloyd’s of London, Cargill, the Geneva Association, and Thomson Reuters. 

In 2006, Jahn was appointed as the 12th Dean of the University of Wisconsin-Madison College of Agricultural and Life Sciences and Director of the Wisconsin Agricultural Experiment Station.  During Jahn’s deanship (2006-11), she balanced the budget from a 7-figure structural deficit, extramural funding in the college nearly doubled, and funding for several major college facilities was secured including the US Department of Energy Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center and Wisconsin Bioenergy Initiative (~$265M), the Arlington Integrated Dairy Research Center ($5.1M), the Wisconsin Energy Institute for sustainable and renewable energy research ($58M), and the first carbon neutral football game (10/25/08) and football season (2009) in the Big Ten.  She began fundraising for a badly needed renovation to the Food Science/Dairy Plant Building and the Meat and Muscle Biology Laboratory.  Jahn led both administrative and curricular reform, resulting in a new cross-college degree system that allowed an Environmental Sciences major, a global health certificate that now enrolls more than a thousand undergraduates, implemented animal health standards accredited college wide by AAALAC, improved salary equity, support of pre-tenure faculty, and cyber and physical security.  She hired more than 70 faculty, with a record number of joint hires with other schools and colleges.  She launched the Rural Youth Scholarship Fund to address specific financial challenges faced by outstanding scholars with rural backgrounds in the State of Wisconsin, actively built strong relationships with the UW System comprehensive universities with strengths in agriculture and life sciences, developed strong relationships with the College of Menominee Nation and the Wisconsin Technical College.  Within the College, she incentivized updated administrative structures that better serve faculty, staff and students, and founded a new magazine, Grow, to foster a shared identity for Wisconsin’s life sciences, agriculture, food which has received numerous awards for excellence in ag publishing.  She regularly appeared in agricultural media, and continues as a radio personality and resource for the Mid-West Farm Report.      

In 2009-10, she was called by President Obama under an Interagency Personnel Agreement to provide interim leadership as Deputy and Acting Under Secretary of Research, Education and Economics at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, responsible for USDA's two research agencies, the Agricultural Research Service and the National Institute for Food and Agriculture, and two federal statistical agencies, the Economic Research Service and the National Agricultural Statistical Service.  In 2012, she was recognized for her work at USDA focused on improved climate and inclusivity at the USDA Agricultural Research Service with the department’s highest recognition, the Secretary’s Honor Award.  She returned to the deanship as soon as the candidate for Senate confirmation successfully completed her hearings.  In 2011 on the incoming Governor’s inauguration day, she stepped down from the deanship, and continued to serve as the Special Advisor to the UW-Madison Chancellor and Provost for Sustainability Sciences through the Provost’s retiremebnt (2011-14).  In 2011, she also was selected to represent the U.S. on a 13 member International Commission for Sustainable Agriculture and Climate Change.


Fom 2013-2019, Jahn co-directed the major USDA grant on U.S. dairy sustainability, led by University of Wisconsin.  From 2017 to present, Jahn has been subcontracted to serve as director of strategic outreach for NASA’s Harvest Consortium, a $14.7M grant to the University of Maryland.  In 2016, she was selected to lead a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement for the US Government entitled “Food security, food systems and national security interests.”  In 2018-9, she served as a resource for a Department of Defense Report on Vulnerabilities of the Global Food System with relevance to U.S. National Security.

Jahn has served on numerous boards and advisory panels around the world including the US National Academies of Science Board on Agriculture and Natural Resources, NASA’s Applied Sciences Advisory Committee, Chair of the NOAA Data Access and Archiving Requirements Working Group, the Santa Fe Institute Science Board, the International Agricultural Research Center System (CGIAR) Consortium Board, Government of Canada Standing Selection Committee for National Centres of Excellence, the International Life Sciences Institute Research Foundation Board of Trustees, the Advisory Board of the Gobal Assessment Report for the UN Special Representative for Disaster Risk Reduction, Chair, Energy and Environmental Sciences Scientific Advisory Committee at Oak Ridge National Lab, and on university and company advisory boards in Europe, Asia and Australia. A longtime consultant for East West Seeds, she successfully nominated this company’s founder, Simon Groot, for the World Food Prize, awarded in October 2019.  Also, in 2019, she oversaw and chaired the decadal review team for the Queensland Alliance of Agriculture and Food Innovation on behalf of the Government of Queensland and the University of Queensland.  She consults globally for business and finance, governments, philanthropic organizations, and international multi-lateral institutions focused on agriculture, food systems, risk, life sciences, development, national security and environment with a particular focus on insurance.

Dr. Jahn received the BA with Distinction in Biology from Swarthmore College, holds graduate degrees from MIT and Cornell University, and has been awarded Honorary Doctor of Science degrees from Swarthmore College and Anglia Ruskin University.  She was named a Rothamsted Fellow in 2014, the first Lilian Martin Fellow at the University of Oxford’s Martin School in 2015, Commencement Speaker at the University of Sydney (2016), and is a Fellow of the AAAS and the Wisconsin Academy of Arts, Sciences and Letters.


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