Dr. Chavonda Jacobs-Young: Creating a healthier future for Americans

By Mary Mik, ASU Food Systems graduate student.

While in Washington D.C., our ASU sustainable food policy cohort met with key stakeholders in the agriculture realm—both virtually and in person. We were honored to have the opportunity to hear from Dr. Chavonda Jacobs-Young, who since our visit has become the newly confirmed Under Secretary for Research, Education, and Economics (REE) so she will oversee USDA’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS), the Economic Research Service (ERS), the National Agriculture Statistics Services (NASS), the National Institute for Food and Agriculture (NIFA) and the office of the Chief Scientist. Prior to her current position, Dr. Jacobs-Young was the Director of the Office of the Chief Scientist at the USDA.

As ARS Administrator, Dr. Jacobs-Young shared the list below which highlights some noteworthy accomplishments from her time while at  the ARS:

  • SARS-CoV-2 research: Conducted livestock and poultry disease infection studies, mosquitoes and biting midge infection studies, and white-tailed deer studies to ensure America’s agricultural system remained safe.
  • Climate hubs: Developed locally-specific tools and resources to help build climate change adaptation capacity throughout the United States.
  • Asian Giant Hornet: Completed the first full genome of a newly-invasive species, which led to a paradigm shift in how to respond to invasive species; collaborated with the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) to sequence all subspecies to determine origin and, therefore, aid control; applied newfound knowledge to the desert locust and Mormon cricket.
  • Ag100Pest: Took the lead on the Ag100Pest Initiative Working Group with a goal of producing annotated, reference quality genome assemblies for the top 100 US arthropod agricultural pests through arthropod pest management and agricultural genomics research.

In our conversation, Dr. Jacobs-Young also discussed being a leader in the White House’s Cancer Moonshot: a mission to accelerate the rate of progress against cancer which includes heightened cancer advocacy and more robust research efforts. President Biden initiated this in 2016 while Vice President under the Obama administration and reignited the plan as President. 

One of the first goals of the Cancer Moonshot is to enable individuals to get cancer screenings who missed their appointments due to the COVID-19 shutdown. Increased funding in the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Cancer Initiative (NCI) made this possible, as well as further biomedical research. Another Cancer Moonshot goal is to decrease the death rate of cancer by 50% in the next 25 years.

Dr. Jacobs-Young emphasized that the highest priority of the ARS is cancer prevention, specifically through precision nutrition. Prior to our conversation, she had a roundtable at the White House to discuss this. Dr. Jacobs-Young explained that she sees the utmost importance of cancer prevention with this strategy because she saw how a preventable nutrition-related disease plagued her home state of Georgia. 

Precision nutrition, she explained, means that foods must be accessible and available for communities that need them most. She emphasized that this is why collaboration, relationship building, and maintenance is key in the ARS to successfully tackle this issue and by doing so, “we can control some portions of our longevity.”

To make progress towards this, Dr. Jacobs-Young emphasized lifestyle change through better nutrition. While this may seem like a multifaceted task, Dr. Jacobs-Young seemed hopeful and driven that she and the ARS can truly make a difference in the lives of Americans now and in the future.

On June 7th, 2022, the Senate confirmed Dr. Jacobs-Young as USDA Undersecretary for REE. On June 13th 2022, Secretary Vilsack tweeted upon Dr. Jacobs-Young’s confirmation as he swore her in to her new role:

“I had the privilege of swearing in Dr. Chavonda Jacobs-Young, USDA’s newest Under Secretary of Research, Education and Economics this morning. Dr. Jacobs-Young is uniquely qualified to serve in this new role and we are grateful for her leadership and continued service.”

After an insightful meeting with Dr. Chavonda Jacobs-Young, the students of our graduate cohort are also grateful for her leadership and service in agriculture. As for the future, we are looking forward to following her continued success and innovative work! 

This blog is part of a series from the May 2022 Washington D.C. Immersive component of the Swette Center graduate programs. Students met with federal food and agriculture-focused officials at USDA, the White House, and Congress alongside many other important influencers of policy in industry and non-profits.