What We Do

As Dean, I represent the 429 faculty, 1488 staff, 3647 students, 43,000 living alumni, 47,000 animals, 11,000 acres that make up the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences at The Ohio State University (give or take any recent changes). We are one college- with three campuses (Columbus, Wooster, and State-wide; with our faculty/staff split evenly among the three) and three missions (Research, Teaching, Extension) all dedicated to one essential purpose: We sustain life.

One of my jobs as your dean, is to remind everyone that what we do is not only essential for our industry, not only essential for Ohio, but essential for the human species and our world. It’s not often that we stop our busy lives and consider what makes it possible to do work of any kind. It takes energy. And really, for our planet, almost all energy can be traced back to one important source- our sun. For over 12,000 years- agriculture and stewarding natural resources have effectively and sustainably harnessed that energy and converted it to the food, fiber, and fuel humans use to thrive.

This past spring, Dr. Rattan Lal, a soil scientist in SENR, received the prestigious Japan Prize from the Japanese Emperor. Lal’s pioneering research is on no-tillage agriculture and on methods to sequester carbon dioxide in the soil, such as by planting cover crops and spreading compost. The Prize foundation said Lal has shown ways to manage change “while improving environmental quality and addressing the critical issue of feeding the Earth’s population.” Dr. Lal is a great example of what we do. See you there.

Being Smarter Together

Last week, we hosted two important planning events within the college. First, the Leadership Team (including cabinet and the Director/Chair team) had a planning retreat, followed by the Animal Sciences Summit on Tuesday. I appreciate when people are willing to invest time in reflecting on our work and planning for the future. I especially appreciate our ability to come together and think as a team. We really are stronger together.

Scott London refers to this as the “Power of Dialogue” and that it is through dialogue that we can overcome differences, find common ground, build meaning and purpose, and set directions. The Greeks believed that if you are unsure about a question, by working together, we can solve almost anything.

Physicist, David Bohm believed dialogue was critical for intelligence and that in the past, individual intelligence may have been enough, but the nature and complexity of today’s problems requires collective thinking. Dialogue is not the same as decision-making or problem-solving.  It requires listening, searching for common ground, exploring assumptions and ideas. It requires that we build relationships with one another. Let’s be smarter together. See you there.


The Land Grant Revolution

A week or so ago, we hosted the University Board of Trustees on our CFAES Wooster Campus. We appreciate their interest and support for our work. Besides welcoming them, President Drake asked me to comment on our land grant mission. I think most of us are familiar with the two general purposes which drove the creation of the land grants:

  1. Meeting the needs of the people through translational and applied research as well as through applied and “practical” education AND
  2. Equal access to that education for Americans.

The creators of the land grants knew that our country, and its citizens, needed scientific and technical knowledge. At first, this knowledge was focused on agriculture and engineering, as most of our citizens were rural and engaged in farming for basic subsistence. The impact of our land grant universities over the past 150 years has been profound, not only successfully addressing the challenges of our young nation in being able to feed itself but growing into a wide spectrum of world-wide impact and technological advancements. Many of those changes began with agriculture but led a revolution in our nation’s technology transfer and our economic and scientific successes.

Now, 150 years later we face a vastly different world with new educational and research needs. We face a world where the interdependency of a global society and the complexity of issues have magnified. We also face a world where innovation, discovery, and creativity contribute to an accelerated tempo of change unlikely to slow. To manage that, takes balancing specialized scientific preparation for students with a broad education engaging humanities, and the arts. It takes depth in research expertise with breadth of disciplines.

In research, it’s no longer enough to have a single discovery to enhance yield, create greater mechanical efficiencies, or vaccinate a population. Now, research must blend bench science with applied approaches and its tandem collections of economic and social adjustments – and yet, find that balance point that still frees bench science to take us to ideas that today we cannot even fathom.

For example, about 80% of cancers are based not in genetics but lifestyle, making the food we consume, the exercise we manage to squeeze into our day, our environment, and the ways we manage stress – all critical tools. Our food alone is critical not just for nutrition, but for benefits which go beyond nutrition to prevent and even treat some cancers and other metabolic diseases such as diabetes, hypertension, dementia, and heart disease.

The ability of our comprehensive university with our depth and breadth across multiple complex systems both internally- such as our microbiome and metabolomics, to the larger local and global systems such as food supply chains and economics—are critical to finding solutions. It will be the integration of interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary approaches that will lead to the greatest innovations, the most powerful solutions, sustainable models, and revolutionary cures. Not just from medicine and within food, agriculture and environmental sciences—but information technology, data science, social sciences, engineering, and public policy.

Our university –and our college– is uniquely positioned to lead nationally and globally. Our comprehensiveness and our commitment to engage across disciplines creates the conditions for the next land grant revolution. See you there.



Becoming Less Wrong

Last weekend, I was reorganizing my kitchen. This is an ongoing effort because there are appliances in my house which the original designer never foresaw when the kitchen was designed. Like the Keurig coffee machine, which doesn’t quite fit under the cabinet. Or the major duty blender which makes smoothies but is shaped differently than the one we used to have. There are also a few items in my kitchen that are a bit of a mystery to me, like the ice sphere mold my son bought me and the remote grill thermometer my brother sent last Christmas. In other words, my kitchen has gotten somewhat complex.

Some things are complicated. Others are complex. For example, airplanes are complicated. But air traffic control is complex. The more complex something is, the more information it takes even just to describe it. To manage complexity effectively, we have to account for things beyond our understanding. Complexity tends to yield what many call “wicked problems”- those predicaments that cannot be definitively resolved and attempts to fix them often generate more trouble. Wicked problems emerge when we have uncertain data, multiple value conflicts, economic constraints, ambiguity, resistance to change, limited time, no central authority, or no clear answer.

Business consultant Greg Satell says that instead of assuming we can find all the right answers to complex problems, we should strive to become less wrong over time. That means shifting from finding solutions to improving our problem-solving abilities. We have to think through problems to figure out whether we’re even applying the right type of solution. We think of it as trying to be “directionally correct.”

The truth is there are few problems left which have easy and simple solutions. To break down complexity, we need to stay focused on our priorities. We have to keep our principles in mind. We have to ensure that people understand their roles and purpose, because it’s easier to innovate when you know where the  boundaries are, and we have to be comfortable with the ongoing experimentation. We may have to partner with others who have expertise we don’t have. We may have to operate in fiscal situations we did not foresee and evaluate opportunities that are uncertain. We have to be ready to take responsibility for that which we cannot control. We can solve some problems. We can strive daily to become less wrong. See you there.

— Cathann

Moving Forward

One thing I’ve learned over the years, is that the complexity in large organizations can become a huge obstacle to doing compelling work, OR the people who inhabit these organizations can provide structure and show up in a way that helps move things forward. Rob Bell says that is a great litmus test for whether the work you’re doing is work that the world needs: does it move things forward?

Because some work doesn’t. Some work takes things in the wrong direction. Every day, we have choices- small, incremental ones- rarely the big life-changing ones. It becomes easy to think that choices define us, like “You are what you eat” “You are what you do” but that’s not true.  You are the person who makes those choices.

How we decide, how we respond to what happens to us, is what gets at who we are as a person, and as an organization. I had the good fortune of growing up in several countries and cultures before landing in the Midwest. One of those countries was Israel. While there I learned about Tikkun Olam. The most broadly understood notion is that of “repairing the world” through human actions. That each of us has a responsibility to change, improve, and fix our surroundings. That the way we repair the world is not by taking on the whole world, but through behaving and acting constructively and beneficially where we are. As a child, I found that powerful. As a middle-aged person, I find that powerful.

It implies that each of us has a hand in working towards the betterment of not just our own existence but that we have responsibility for our community, our state, our world and importantly, the lives of future generations. Essentially, our world is unfinished and we can participate in the ongoing creation of what it will be. Tikkun olam implies that we take responsibility for our world. That we are the stewards of our communities. Like our CFAES community. See you there.

Plan for Friction

We may not spend a lot of time thinking about it, but friction plays a pretty big role in our lives –both positive and negative. Friction is part of what makes it hard to get my bike up the next hill (I’m sure our Pelotonia team can verify that), but it’s also what makes it possible to stop my bike before the railroad tracks. While we can reduce or minimize friction, it’s always present.

So when engineers design engines, they plan for friction. They know when an engine runs, unexpected stuff happens. Determining the exact cause of the problem can be complicated. Seasoned mechanics often will combine computerized diagnostics with their own knowledge and experience to figure out the issue. It’s just part of the design process. There’s no drama involved. We could learn from that approach.

When stuff happens in life, things get more complex. Friction in human relationships or endeavors is more difficult to understand. Often, we increase complexity even more by seeking more information and conducting more analyses. That’s not all bad, but it can spiral into levels of complexity, including organizational complexity — more meetings, decision delays, and specialized teams. We add layers of policy and processes intended to address the complexity, but it could make it worse. Essentially, we replace clarity with detail. As a result, activity increases and so does confusion. At the same time, trust decreases and so does effectiveness. It’s hard to stay focused on staying clear and focused when your legs feel like lead from trying to pump up that last hill.

Just because we encounter friction doesn’t mean we’re headed in the wrong direction or need to abandon the project. We rarely will have the ideal conditions we might wish for. As things get rolling, stuff will happen, so plan for friction. See you there.

Why Are We Here?

For this post, I went back to the comments I made during my first weeks at OSU. It is my hope, that this might remind you why I came and what this work means to me. I encourage you to consider why you’re here and what this work means to you too.

What do I care about?

My early childhood was overseas as part of a military family until I came to the USA as an early teen and lived with my Mennonite family in rural Iowa. While those environments seem extreme and there was some culture shock in coming from Brazil to Iowa (in February). Both families were defined by a strong belief in the importance of service, and that it is through service that we co-create the world.

A second thing you will discover about me is that I’m curious. I’m a question-asker. I have great comfort with “Beginners Mind,” which is that place you are whenever you start something new. I have great appreciation for diversity or conflicting ideas, and I can separate ideas from who I am. That also translates to a deep value for discovery, research, and education. In Extension, there is a creed which is meaningful to me, especially this line:

“I believe that education is basic in stimulating individual initiative, self ­determination, and leadership; that these are the keys to democracy and that people when given facts they understand, will act not only in their self ­interest, but also in the interest of society.”

No matter what topic of human interest, our work likely connects. We are one degree from nearly everything: food, ecosystems, trade, health, manufacturing, foreign policy, and I would argue even the arts. There can be no chance of nearly anything else if we don’t have food. We don’t have food without viable and productive agriculture. And we don’t have productive agriculture if we don’t sustainably manage our resources and preserve biodiversity. I simply can’t think of anything more important than that.

Why am I here?

I’d answer that with questions like why are we here? What can we uniquely contribute? I believe we have the capacity to have profound impact on the world. I believe we can be a place where people can be rewarded and valued for investing themselves in work that is meaningful. I believe there is no better place for a curious question-asker, committed to creating conditions for a better world. See you there.

Welcome to See You There

Welcome to See You There, a blog to share ideas and reflections.

I chose the title because it references a place. I think of it as an aspirational place where meaningful work done well can take us. In my experience, that takes intention to stay on track. It’s easy to get sidetracked by distractions disguised as opportunity, or urgent issues which demand immediate attention and then waylay us. To stay focused takes stopping every now and then and checking. My hope is this blog can help with that by periodically encouraging a pause to consider where we are, what we are doing, how we are doing it, and most importantly, why.

These posts are intended to spark conversation on issues affecting our community. How do they apply to your unit, department, county, region, or program area? How are you addressing the issues? Let’s make this blog a gathering space for a meaningful exchange of ideas. One note, this is not the place to vent frustrations, please just email me directly if you have concerns.

I’m going to try to post weekly. Some weeks, I’ll write a new entry. Some weeks, I’ll curate an entry from my past blogs, and some weeks, there may be a guest blogger. Please join the discussion or bring it up with your colleagues. Pausing to reflect on what we do, and why we do it can help all of us be just that bit better. See you there.

— Cathann