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FALL 2010
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Dean's Message

Q&A with Dean Kathryn J. Boor

On July 1, 2010, Kathryn J. Boor, chair of the Department of Food Science, became the Ronald P. Lynch Dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. CALS News sat down with Dean Boor to discuss her new role, her local roots, her research, and her aspirations for the college.
Interview by Linda McCandless

Dean HenryTell us about your background and how it makes you uniquely qualified to be the Robert P. Lynch Dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

I was interested in becoming dean as a consequence of my broad experience and training across the agricultural and the life sciences.

I grew up on a small dairy farm in upstate New York, in Horseheads, that my grandfather purchased in 1926. Over the years, the farm evolved into a considerably larger enterprise run by my father, and now by my brother, who also is a CALS graduate in what was known as agricultural economics at the time. In the 70s I came to Cornell as an undergraduate student interested in learning various aspects of food production, so I found food science as a major.

I have gained my entire education at land grant institutions: Cornell University, then a master’s degree in food science from the University of Wisconsin–Madison, and finally a Ph.D. in microbiology from the University of California–Davis. And so my background is in understanding the land grant mission, the concept of public scholarship, and the integration of agriculture and life sciences for solving real-world problems. This is the set of ideas that has shaped my entire career and brought me back here to CALS.

What attracted you to CALS as a young faculty member?

I was attracted to CALS as an assistant professor back in the mid-90s because of my understanding of the appreciation here at Cornell for work that spans discovery right up through application, and a true commitment to work of that nature.

The faculty in the Department of Food Science, when I was interviewing, made it very clear that problem-solving research that focused on dairy microbiology issues would be valued here at Cornell, and that made it clear to me that I would have a comfortable place where my work would be appreciated.

What has been your research focus and what impact has it had?

My research has focused on the factors that enable bacteria to be transmitted through food systems. I work on bacteria that nobody wants in their food systems. They’re not necessarily ones that will make people sick, but they certainly can include bacteria that can cause spoilage, so they can cause economic problems. I focus on keeping bacterial spoilers out of dairy food products to ensure that those products are as tasty and wonderful as possible for human consumption.

In my other research program, I focus on factors that are intrinsic to a bacterial cell that enable it to respond to environmental cues in a way that enhances survival of the cell and allows it to become a better human pathogen, more likely to create infection in the human body.

One particular success story involved tracing the full ecology of the listeria monocytogenes organism across food systems, starting on the farm and going through foods that are present in the retail environment. My team discovered a link between specific foods that were available on the market and the microbes that were making people sick. That enabled us to identify a nationwide outbreak of food-borne listeriosis, remove the food from the market, and prevent other people from becoming ill. It was exciting.

What are some of the challenges facing CALS and how is CALS positioned to meet those challenges?

We have a long and wonderful history at Cornell University of striving to be, I’ll say, all things for all people, while still creating opportunities for people broadly across academic disciplines. A challenge that we face, then, is to make sure we focus on where we are best suited and best able to have an impact. That means making some decisions about areas in which we will be the best in the world, where we will make investments and really focus our efforts. Here at CALS, those include the life sciences, food and energy systems, the environmental sciences, and applied social sciences.

We also simultaneously have a greater understanding of the fact that many of the most important issues that we face as a globe—climate change, food security, economic and environmental sustainability—are complex questions that require multidisciplinary solutions. We aim to build upon our history of providing a comprehensive network of faculty members so that when we address these particularly complex questions, those collaborations are natural, and we have the entire team in place. That is one of the aspects that drew me to Cornell in the first place: the understanding that we had outstanding chemists here, for example, as well as outstanding nutritionists and others who really could bring power to the element of food science in which I was interested.

Tell us more about how CALS faculty, staff, and students carry out the college’s land grant mission.

The land grant mission here at Cornell University is based on a philosophy and a practice of public scholarship, and so we embed this throughout our entire process, whether it’s education, research, or outreach. Horticulture is a really good example of a program where there is true clarity from the point of fundamental discovery up through problem-solving—not only in research, but in outreach.

If you have visited New York City and you have enjoyed urban trees, you have enjoyed the benefits of some of the work of Nina Bassuk in the Department of Horticulture. She studies and understands how trees and other plants can thrive in urban settings, which certainly makes those settings much more pleasant for all of us. We have a chair in that department, Marvin Pritts, who still personally delivers outreach programs for those who are interested in growing berries, whether those are at the individual level or at the larger level.

And we have students who work with both of those faculty members to ensure not only that they will carry this information on to the next generation as they enter their own careers, but they can also enact a lot of the work in practice at the time.

You’re a mentor to many students and have had numerous advisees. What excites you about working with students?

I think the most wonderful thing about being at any university anywhere in the world is the opportunity to continuously work with people who are excited about ideas. The beauty of this particular job is I can continue to age but the students stay young, and that keeps everything fresh.

I have had, over the years, more than 50 undergraduate students who have conducted research in my laboratory, and it has been tremendously rewarding to watch those students go on to success in their careers, whether in medicine, research, or in food companies around the world. Graduate students who have come through my program have become epidemiologists, for example, for the state of California. One of my former graduate students now runs the Public Health Surveillance System for all of Canada.

It is tremendously rewarding to be able to help people get started toward the pathway of attaining their own dreams. It’s one of the most rewarding aspects of what we do.

What is one of your favorite places to spend time on campus?

When I tell you my favorite place to spend time on campus, you’ll realize that I am truly a geek. My very favorite place on campus is my research laboratory. It is located on the fourth floor of Stocking Hall, which is a wonderful place. It overlooks the track and the soccer fields, so if I need to take a break from research or working with my students or writing, I can look out there and watch people enjoying those athletic facilities.

On the other end of my laboratory, I look out over Cornell Plantations. One of my true pleasures in life is to be mindful of the seasonal changes, to look down to see the lushness of the green in the summer, the glorious colors that emerge in the fall, the starkness of the snow in the winter, and the rebirth of life in the spring. I also love my laboratory because of the excitement of the people who work there, the staff and the students who are truly dedicated to discovery.

What makes you excited to come to work in the morning?

I think anyone who is lucky enough to do what they love never feels like they have to go to work, and I feel very lucky to have been able to do what I love throughout my entire career.

I truly believe in the mission, not only of CALS, but also of Cornell University, which is to ensure that we create students who are trained to be leaders when they leave, that we do research that is designed to enact changes and improve people’s lives, and that we have outreach that is designed to support and translate our research so it reaches its intended target audiences. Because I believe in the functions that we serve here in CALS and at Cornell, it makes every day an exciting challenge.