Alumni Spotlight: Steve Shafer
(Click the links below to learn more about alumnus Steve Shafer.)
From Marion, Ohio to leading agricultural researcher in the U.S.
Steven Shafer grew up on Marion’s west side--a regular kid growing up in the shadow of the Marion Power Shovel Company. He worked for one of the industrial plants in town during his high school years. Like his friends, he attended Marion Harding High School, graduating in 1974. Then, like many others before and since, Shafer decided to attend the local campus of The Ohio State University. At that time, it was just one building, Morrill Hall, located in the middle of what had been the Marion County Home and Farm.
It was there that Shafer’s intellectual light was turned on. Under the guidance of Ohio State Marion biologist, Dr. Larry Yoder, Shafer was drawn to microbiology, and eventually, plant pathology. He moved to the Columbus campus where he finished his undergraduate degree, then a master’s degree in plant pathology. It was on to North Carolina State where he obtained his Ph.D. and began working for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
During his career at USDA, Dr. Shafer directed the Agricultural Research Center in Beltsville, Maryland, USDA’s largest research installation just outside Washington D.C. His name appears on many research articles involved in climate change and its effect on crops and the planet’s ability to feed a burgeoning population.
Dr. Shafer recently ended his career at USDA as the Associate Administrator for National Programs in the Agricultural Research Service. He has just assumed the role of Chief Scientific Officer for the Soil Health Institute in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina, where President and CEO Dr. Wayne Honeycutt said, “We are thrilled to have Dr. Shafer join our team. The breadth and depth of his research and leadership experience will ensure that the Institute provides world-class research, ultimately increasing agricultural productivity, resiliency and environmental quality by improving soil health.”
Dr. Shafer recently visited his hometown and first college campus on the occasion of Ohio State Marion’s groundbreaking for a new state-of-the-art science and engineering building. He spoke with Ohio State Marion’s Dave Claborn about his time in Marion, feeding a rapidly growing population, and the role of Ohio State in moving Marion into the future:
Early years in Marion and at Ohio State Marion
Dave Claborn: So, you grew up in Marion?
Dr. Shafer: Right, I grew up here in Marion since about the time I was 5 years old. And went to Marion Harding and graduated in 1974 and spent the first two years of my college education at OSU Marion.
DC: Was it what you expected?
Dr. Shafer: In fact it was not at all what I expected. I expected to go out there and be in some classes and be a nameless, faceless person in the crowd at Ohio State--and actually, what the experience is, going to OSU Marion is analogous in going to a small, private college while having the 800 pound gorilla and resources and opportunities of all of Ohio State behind you. It’s really an amazing opportunity.
DC: Where did that start lead you?
Dr. Shafer: I started out wanting to study biology in general and I think I was interested in microbiology. And, what often happens with incoming freshmen, you get a series of tests and they determine which courses you can skip. I was signed up for introductory biology and was told I can skip that about a week into classes. So, when I went to see my professor, Dr. Larry Yoder, to tell him I was not going to take his class anymore, he asked me a question that had a domino effect throughout my life—and that was a very simple question. He said, “What are your interests?” And that began a discussion with him that lasted for the next two years. And really did affect the direction and kind of career and life that I’ve had.
DC: Your connection to Dr. Yoder has turned into a lifetime association, hasn’t it?
Dr. Shafer: It sure has. I made a lot of friends in the two years at OSU Marion that continued after I went to the Columbus campus at the beginning of my junior year. There, I had an advisor in the microbiology department who was another great mentor. He wasn’t my mentor for very long, but what made him so influential was, he figured out what my interests were when I didn’t really know myself and pointed me in the direction of plant pathology at Ohio State, which I didn’t even know existed! By working with Dr. Yoder here at OSU Marion, I had gotten interested in plant science in addition to microbiology and I didn’t know how to put that together—and my advisor in the microbiology department figured that out and sent me in the direction of the plant pathology department. From there, that’s how my career developed.
DC: You got your bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Ohio State?
Dr. Shafer: Yes, I was sort of a rare bird. I think there were only a couple dozen of us in all of Ohio State. Then, I got a master’s degree in plant pathology. Then, which is pretty typical of people in graduate school, I had the opportunity to go to North Carolina State another leading school in plant pathology, where I got my Ph.D. After finishing my degree, the U.S. Department of Agriculture invited me to take a job and stay there. So, I was hired by Agricultural Research Service, which is the main research agency of the U.S.D.A. And they just said, stay there in Raleigh and work with North Carolina State faculty members. And so, for 14 years, that’s what I did.
Then, after 14 years, I decided to go a little bit different direction with my career and went into some policy analysis, risk analysis, those sorts of things for the Department of Agriculture. Eventually moved to the Washington area and became the national program leader for ARS, the Agricultural Research Service in the area of climate change research. Later, I was an area director for the Midwest area, eight states. I was located in Peoria, Illinois, and then came back to headquarters as what they call the Deputy Administrator for all of the natural resources and systems research in ARS. I held that for about five years. Then, a little detour over into being the director of ARS’s largest laboratory, which is the Beltsville Agricultural Research Center in Beltsville, Maryland, about 6600 acres and a hundred scientists and several hundred other people. Then, back into headquarters again as Associate Administrator for National Programs, which means I have the responsibility for organizing, and leading, and planning the staff that really sets the directions for all of ARS’s research nationally.
DC: That’s quite a ride for a kid from Marion, Ohio!
Dr. Shafer: It is! And it’s been a fascinating trip. There’s no question in my mind, though, that without the experience of spending my freshman and sophomore years in an environment very much like a small, private college—I think there were about 1200 students at the time—there was only one building, Morrill Hall, but the atmosphere of a small campus, and yet, all of those resources of one of the largest universities in the country--I don’t think that I would have had the kind of thinking or the kind of imagination to pursue that kind of a career without my experience at OSU Marion.
DC: You just witnessed the groundbreaking for a new state-of-the-art science and engineering building. The campus has grown exponentially since you were here.
Dr. Shafer: It has. In fact, I got lost and turned around a couple of times. It’s quite a different place from when I was here. When I was here, about two years was all you could do at OSU Marion in any kind of science or engineering. I think this [the new science and engineering building] will really help get more students on a solid path toward science and technology careers.
Dr. Shafer: You know, you think about some of the challenges that face our world. Many students going into the sciences, they want to cure cancer, they want to solve climate change and energy problems—they want to do those kinds of things. That’s all admirable and the world needs that.
From my perspective of having spent 32 years or more in the Department of Agriculture, what I see is the fact that we are going to put some two billion more people on this planet in the next 35 years, are the projections. The population of the United States now is about 300 million. So that means about every five years for the next 35, we will add another country with the population size and the resource demands of the United States on to the planet.
Several years ago there was a study done in Australia by some scientists and economists, and they concluded that by looking at the population growth and the longevity of humans and how we produce food in the modern world, and how much waste there is in parts of the world, including the United States—they supplied a lot of analysis to this—and they concluded that agriculture needs to produce as many calories—that’s the unit to figure this out—as many calories in the 21st Century as has been produced in all of human history, from antiquity, up to the 21st Century. That’s a shocking thought! We have to produce as much food in this century, as in all of human history up to the beginning of our lives.
A student who is interested in the sciences, I don’t know of anything they could do that would be more worthy of their talents and their thinking than attacking that. That’s going to take physicists, and chemists, and biologists, and engineers—and that’s the kind of program that’s going to be in that new building at OSU Marion. I think there’s a great deal of potential for students coming through the program and getting that start at that campus and in this new facility that will set people on a course to help solve those issues. It’s not going to be me that solves it—I’m nearing the end of my career. It’s going to be people that are coming to OSU Marion that are going to be some of the leaders in how to solve those problems.
The Land Grant Mission and Marion’s Future
Dr. Shafer: OSU Marion is part of Ohio State which is one of the land grant universities which were established by president Lincoln in 1862 about six or eight weeks after the Department of Agriculture was created itself. Lincoln was a real visionary, in that he established these institutions at the depths of the Civil War. He knew that the war would end eventually and that agriculture was going to be key in rebuilding the country. And, hence, he worked with members of congress to create first the Department of Agriculture and then the land grant college system.
OSU Marion is part of that. And so it has this history going back over 150 years of being connected to solving society’s problems—finding ways to meet society’s needs and solve them.
I think in the last 30, 40 years, Marion has seen its share of economic ups and downs. Some industries that were here when I was a kid, you know, my friends’ parents worked for them. They’ve gone or they’ve turned into something else. I know the first job that I had out of high school was at a place called the Marion Bronze Company.
There’s been a lot of transition. And so, the role of the land grant universities is leadership—and moving society through science, technology, engineering, education, economics—understanding how all of this fits together. I think having a campus of Ohio State—one of the biggest and leading universities of that class—the land grant universities—having that here in Marion, is quite advantageous. Maybe some of those students that go there won’t stay in Marion, but the influence that they have will, I think, reflect back on this community and have real positives for it.
DE: What were your impressions after seeing sort of what’s happened to date, here in Marion, from your time here.
SS—Well, I have to say, when we were driving around, I was kind of disoriented at times. You took me into parts of town, especially around the edges of town, that I have not visited in many years and when I was a kid living on the west side of Marion, I didn’t have occasion to go to those parts of town. So, you could have dumped me out of the car blindfolded and I wouldn’t have had any idea, other than knowing that I was somewhere in the Midwest, I wouldn’t have known where I was. I was a little concerned to see some of the neighborhoods that I didn’t expect to see like that in Marion. But in other places, you showed us new industry, new efforts going on. Places that, I think, had been subject to decline in recent years were now being invested in by people and companies and were showing some real progress.
Some of the things you showed us—I don’t know how many jobs are there—but I look at the size of the operation and I think there are going to be dozens, if not hundreds, of jobs in a place like that. So, the extent to which the university can interact with people and development and try to attract interest and stimulate the community here, I think it’s a real plus. I can’t see anything other than benefits from having OSUM and a new science and technology building on campus.