Jane Silverthorne, a giant of plant science

by | Oct 31, 2022

Jane Silverthorne and BTI employees standing outside of BTI listening to a speech.

Jane Silverthorne’s support of BTI was immense, such as when she traveled to Ithaca to attend a celebration for Greg Martin’s election into the National Academy of Sciences in May. Image credit: Boyce Thompson Institute.

Dr. Jane Silverthorne, Chair of BTI’s Scientific Advisory Board and member of its Board of Directors, died unexpectedly on August 15, 2022. Jane’s rich biography and programmatic contributions have been remembered by UC Santa Cruz, where she held her first faculty position, as well as by colleagues and friends who knew her through federal service. While these remembrances are important and appropriate, it is also worthwhile to reflect on how and why Jane had such an outsized impact on so many of us: why one should think of her as a “giant.”

Perhaps one reason Jane was willing to commit so much time and energy to BTI is because she and the Institute shared the belief that the intersection of science and people is where impact arises. Science, with its wondrous discoveries, ever-changing technologies, and life-changing practical outcomes. People, with their curiosity for the unknown, the drive to make a difference, and the conviction that distant horizons are worth the pursuit. Jane looked to create and support programs that would unleash the power of people and science, especially partnerships between NSF and other entities such as the Gates Foundation or BBSRC, which benefited BTI and many others.

My own interactions with Jane, over more than two decades, revealed a person who was an optimist, hard-working, honest and never averse to a bit of fun. In her very busy “retirement” she visited places with the joy of someone who would embrace the world in every way. And it was a retirement very well earned. Jane did not seek the spotlight but she did seek excellence, and she tirelessly promoted those who she thought had something important to offer, who might have been overlooked because of gender or pedigree, who could embody the scientific excitement than Jane herself felt, constrained as it was by her being part of a federal agency.

It was Jane who counseled me to consider being President of BTI, and who counseled many others to broaden or deepen their goals. I was thrilled when Jane agreed to join BTI’s board, knowing that she would gently, but honestly, help us to find the best in ourselves and each other, to build enduring structures, and to always point BTI to the future. Perhaps the best example of her influence is BTI’s unique “cluster hire,” where we redefined how faculty could be recruited in a research institution. In her role on the Scientific Advisory Board, all the questions were asked that made this process both possible and better. Jane was always “for the people” at BTI, whether they were early career scientists, support staff, or leaders. She unfailingly brought warmth and humanity where it was most needed.

What Jane did for BTI, and for me, is but a microcosm of the collective impacts of her service. “Giants” are not just those that make a key discovery or a magical new tool. They are also those that inspire us, many of us, so that some of us may one day grow into giants. Like Jane.

David Stern

President, Boyce Thompson Institute

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