Discover CALS

See how our current work and research is bringing new thinking and new solutions to some of today's biggest challenges.

By Samara A. Sit
  • CALS Global Fellows Program
  • Cornell AgriTech
  • Cornell Institute for Digital Agriculture
  • Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management
  • Food Science
  • School of Integrative Plant Science
  • Food
Kathryn J. Boor grew up on her family’s dairy farm in Horseheads, New York, which her grandfather purchased in 1926.

As a teenager, she honed her leadership skills as an active member of 4-H, part of Cornell Cooperative Extension. She first visited Cornell as a New York State 4-H Congress delegate, and her lifelong dedication to the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences was born.

Kathryn graduated from Cornell as a food science major in 1980 and then spent two years doing graduate research in Maseno, Kenya, focused on improving nutritional outcomes for rural children. At the time, western Kenya was experiencing rapid population growth, the shrinking size of family farms and increasing malnutrition. What she witnessed there, coupled with her knowledge of microbiology, profoundly influenced her career trajectory and inspired her work to ensure that parents can trust the safety of the food they give their children.

When she returned to CALS in 1994, Kathryn became the food science department’s first tenured female faculty member. Later, she became the department’s first female chair, and in July 2010, she took the helm from former dean Susan Henry as the second female Ronald P. Lynch Dean of CALS. As dean, Kathryn has served as the chief academic and administrative officer for the college, a role that serves both internal and external stakeholders. This year will mark the end of her second and final term as dean.

Kathryn’s career has embodied the Land-Grant principles of supporting knowledge with public purpose and the application of agriculture and life sciences to solve real-world problems. As a microbiologist and an academic administrator, her scientific accomplishments and public service continue to improve the health and well-being of individuals and communities in New York state, across the U.S. and around the world.

Expanding CALS Expertise

The highest priority during Kathryn J. Boor’s deanship has been recruiting and retaining top faculty. Since 2010, she has hired more than 130 tenure-track faculty, keeping CALS at the forefront of scientific inquiry and keeping pace with retirements.

Cornell is ranked No. 1 for agriculture according to the 2020 Wall Street Journal /Times Higher Education College Rankings

Including ongoing searches in spring 2020, 43% of the college’s faculty population will have been refreshed in the last 10 years. Kathryn has also invested resources to strengthen faculty grant proposals, which has helped CALS faculty achieve the highest research expenditure total on the Ithaca campus for the past four fiscal years. We see the success of this effort in many ways, including in our top ranking in the 2020 Wall Street Journal/Times Higher Education College Rankings, which listed Cornell as No. 1 for agriculture, agriculture operations and related sciences.

As our world works to build a sustainable and renewable food supply, the college continues to develop more innovative pathways to address the challenges of our time. To improve our world-class teaching, research and extension efforts, Kathryn initiated critical reviews of the organization and academic offerings of CALS, which led to streamlined academic departments and merged units between our Ithaca and Geneva campuses.

A key achievement was the 2014 launch of the School of Integrative Plant Science (SIPS), which encouraged greater collaboration among our scientists from multiple disciplines. SIPS encompasses five sections of previously separate academic departments. Since revitalizing the plant sciences curricula, SIPS has seen a 50% increase in course enrollment.

One of the great hallmarks of Cornell University, and of CALS, is our ethos of collaboration—to work across disciplinary boundaries and to apply new perspectives to produce new solutions. As CALS tackles the world’s most pressing issues, Kathryn has championed a coalition of scientists that coalesced into the Cornell Initiative for Digital Agriculture (CIDA) in 2017. CIDA projects use emerging technologies to create more profitable, efficient and sustainable agricultural practices—critical for supporting modern agriculture and food systems. With more than 100 affiliated faculty across Cornell, CIDA has funded 15 innovative projects and hosts regular hackathons, lectures and workshops.

Supporting Students

Undergraduate applications to CALS, including the Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management, are at record highs. From 2010 to 2019, the number more than doubled—from 5,185 to 10,636.

Kathryn has also thought critically about creating new opportunities for today’s undergraduates as tomorrow’s global citizens. Curricular offerings and majors have expanded, including the interdisciplinary environment and sustainability major, which includes the best features from two previous majors. First-year student application rates to this major more than doubled one year after its 2013 launch.

Within our classrooms, Kathryn has championed a technique called active learning, in which faculty replace traditional lectures with hands-on learning and responsive technologies. With this transformed in-class experience, CALS students sharpen their critical-thinking skills and become better-equipped to tackle scientific problems in real-world scenarios.

The college also has created new experiential learning opportunities for our students, thanks to Kathryn’s support. Between 2010 and 2018, CALS saw a 15% increase in undergraduate participation in domestic internships and a 7% increase in international internships. And since its inception in 2016, the Global Fellows program has provided nearly 100 CALS students with internship and intercultural immersion opportunities across six continents. CALS also continues to lead the university in faculty-led international course trips.

Improving Our Spaces

At our 116-year-old college, the process of maintaining and improving our facilities is a crucial and complex task—one that Kathryn has stewarded conscientiously and sustainably. In the past 10 years, we invested nearly $254 million to upgrade CALS facilities, including rebuilding the Dimock Nematode Research Lab, expanding greenhouses and upgrading faculty research labs. Additionally, Kathryn has cut the ribbon on the renovations of Fernow Hall, Warren Hall, a renovated Ag Quad and Stocking Hall

During her deanship, Kathryn has raised more than $340 million from college donors, including donations to the Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management from 2011 to 2016.

The four-year Stocking Hall renovation project was a major focus of Kathryn’s food science chairship. It modernized classrooms, installed cutting-edge laboratories and updated the beloved Cornell Dairy Bar. The pilot facility helped forge collaboration with food and dairy industries, giving public and private entrepreneurs the resources and faculty expertise to help them develop and test new products prior to market. The dairy plant also expanded Cornell’s 51-year role in training dairy and food inspectors from the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets.

In Geneva, New York, where Cornell AgriTech fuels agricultural scientific progress and economic development for the state and beyond, the 140-year-old campus has benefitted from Kathryn’s strategic guidance and ability to draw public and private funding. Two highlights are the High-Pressure Processing Validation Center, launched in 2017 as the nation’s first commercial-scale validation facility, and the Cornell Food Venture Center Pilot Plant, which reopened in October 2018 after a $13 million renovation to better meet the needs of food entrepreneurs and businesses in New York state.

Back on the Ithaca campus—as Kathryn’s deanship draws to a close—she is laying the foundation for a major renovation of our plant science facilities, which will include portions of Emerson Hall, Mann Library, Bradfield Hall and the Plant Science Building.

Strengthening Partnerships

During her deanship, Kathryn has propelled our venerable institution to new heights, attracting capital investments, exceptional faculty, and renewed interest from elected officials and news media. Thanks to her strategic relationship-building skills, state decision-makers view CALS as an essential partner in addressing both long-standing and emerging concerns. Such partnerships often bring about new funding and research opportunities.

For example, at a state hemp summit in July 2017, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced research investments to help New York state and Cornell become national leaders in hemp production. This support allowed us to continue existing research trials and expand partnerships with growers.

Our college also benefits from strong partnerships in Washington, D.C. In February 2019, Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., announced a $68.9 million plan to build a new grape genetics research lab at Cornell AgriTech, which will house U.S. Department of Agriculture scientists who work closely with our faculty, extension associates and graduate students.

Beyond CALS: Service and Recognition

On behalf of the university, Kathryn has participated in numerous committees and task forces, notably chairing the search that brought Ryan Lombardi to Cornell as vice president for student and campus life in 2015. Beyond campus, Kathryn served as an inaugural member of the board of directors for the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research—an independent nonprofit that has partnered with more than 340 organizations to expand national research into food, agriculture and related sciences since its creation under the 2014 U.S. Farm Bill.

Peer institutions and organizations have repeatedly recognized Kathryn for her insightful research, which continues to shed light on the roles that bacteria play in food safety. Over the past 25 years, her lab has investigated two main areas: the persistence and genesis of the bacterial pathogen Listeria monocytogenes and preventing bacterial contamination in fluid milk. One of her most prominent academic accolades is a 2016 honorary degree from Harper Adams University in England, which recognized her contributions to food science research as well as her impact on higher education.

Under Dean Kathryn J. Boor’s extraordinary 10-year leadership, CALS has successfully grown the diversity and vibrancy of the student and faculty populations and gained the unwavering support of private and public entities. She has worked tirelessly to perfectly position CALS to fulfill our Land-Grant commitment to New York state and the world for years to come. We are thankful to the 4-H Congress that first brought Kathryn to the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, and we wish her continued success in both her Stocking Hall laboratory and wherever life takes her next.

Header image: Kathryn sits in the corridor of Stocking Hall, home to the Department of Food Science. She played a key role in the building’s renovation and expansion project, which was completed in 2015. Photo by Allison Usavage.

This article was originally published in the CALS Magazine.

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