Messages for David Stern

Greg Galvin, BTI Board Chair

David accomplished many things across various areas as president of BTI. Certainly, most recently navigating the Institute through the pandemic while keeping research going, plants alive and morale up was a great accomplishment. Some of his most innovative, and I expect long lasting, contributions are in steering BTI in new ways of doing science. Most notably the team-hire of three previously unrelated people to come to BTI as a working team. Even the interview process was novel and very successful in attracting people to apply who would likely never have considered BTI. On the less glamorous side, but critical to BTI, David managed through a number of major fiscal challenges: the 2008/2009 financial crisis, termination of the Institute’s defined benefit plan, and multiple transitions of our outside financial advisors.

Leadership in an academic setting is much more challenging than in the corporate world. David leads mostly be example. He is an internationally recognized researcher. He’s a farmer who sells at the local farmer’s market (a big deal in Ithaca, NY). He’s humble, knows his strengths and weaknesses, and is a visionary who is not afraid to take the organization into uncharted territory — but always low-key and gently.

David will be stepping down from the presidency leaving BTI very well positioned for the future. He has nudged the organization onto a path that aligns BTI with how science will be done in the future: collaborative, team-based and with greater breadth of research funding. Under David’s leadership, the Institute has taken on a greater role in plant science nationally, particularly with his contributions to two Decadal Vision reports. He has invested in the future, in both people and research facilities – most notably the new phenotyping facility currently under construction.

David was reluctant to take on the role of president. His career had been that of a research scientist and he was good at it and happy with it. Yet he stepped up to the challenge and learned many skills and gained knowledge in many areas he had not had to deal with before becoming president. Yet, he also maintained an active research program while president. A great leader and a scientist, David showed that the two are not incompatible.

Paul Chomet, BTI Board Vice Chair

Leading BTI

David was one of the few Presidents that advanced through the BTI ranks from Postdoc to PI, VP to President. All along the way David has maintained his research program, teaching and mentoring students, a feat that has given him a strong scientific leadership perspective. Over his 17 years as president, he has gathered and developed a BTI community where great science can be accomplished, as well as a faculty investigating a broad spectrum of scientific questions into plant biology. This has helped to integrate projects and cultivate partnerships. Under David’s direction, a unique team hire approach in 2019 has jumpstarted such partnerships by bringing in multiple faculty already primed to work together. The team hire was a bold example of how David has looked “outside the box” to build BTI’s strong, integrated scientific program, as well as to foster personal and professional partnerships.


David has been fiscally responsible for BTI, working hand in hand with the board of directors and his staff to manage the draw on the Boyce Thompson endowment. The Institute was able to weather the storm of the financial crisis of 2008-2009 as well as the most recent pandemic experience. David’s leadership, experience with scenario-based strategic planning and making it a part of the BTI culture prior to 2019, I believe allowed for a more flexible workforce that had a superb ability to respond to the pandemic.

Being fiscally responsible did not mean David shied away from innovative use of funds. Under his watch, David utilized monies to foster innovation through in-house seed money grants. This challenged the PI’s and postdocs to be adventurous with new concepts and scientific endeavors.

In 2015, David amplified BTI’s national and international voice through the founding and development of the NSF-funded Plant Science Research Network. This network is made up of professional scientific societies that are aligned on the future goals of plant science research, education and training. This vision of the future, disseminated as a publication, has no doubt influenced funding agencies, has helped define new training opportunities and assisted scientific career development.

Along his 17-year Presidential path, Stern has continued to run a first-rate plant science lab focused on photosynthesis. He has trained dozens of postdocs and graduate students while he was tackling so many operational aspects of being a scientist and being BTI’s president. What is most amazing about this is his ability to still be excited, appreciative, and wowed by high quality science whether in his lab, in the Institute or across the world.

Preparing BTI for the future:

David is always looking to the future and preparing BTI for the ability to change with the times. He continues to think outside the confines of an academic structure. The concepts on how to remain flexible as an organization resulted from David’s leadership in the PSRN scenario planning workshops. Preparing for the future, David has implemented these ideas at BTI, and I believe BTI will be a better institute thanks to these efforts.

Jane Silverthorne, Chair, BTI Scientific Advisory Board

David Stern’s research program, which focuses on nuclear-plastid interactions and post-transcriptional regulation, was a highly visible addition to BTI’s research portfolio when he initially joined the faculty. Since then, his work has expanded to encompass applications of these discoveries that could have impacts in the field, for example, through development of new corn varieties that are cold-tolerant. Throughout his tenure as President, David has continued to sustain an active, externally funded research program, which has enabled him to remain closely connected to BTI’s research direction and mission. David has continued to stay abreast of evolving technologies, enabling him to take advantage of new opportunities and to identify emerging areas in his own research and within BTI.

David’s willingness to adopt bold new approaches to recruitment led to the successful cluster faculty hire in 2019. Using a strategy based on the NSF Ideas Lab approach, he was able to attract a team of faculty members who are already working as a multidisciplinary team. The faculty fit well with BTI’s existing expertise and mission, and also form a bridge to future ways of working as BTI’s mission evolves.

A hallmark of David’s leadership style is a curiosity for new ideas coupled with an openness to taking risks. He continues to be deeply connected with the staff across the Institute, serving as a mentor to students, faculty and administrators. His connection to the people and the research has enabled BTI to be resilient during the challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic and come through stronger. His willingness to see some of the dramatic changes that have come about as potential opportunities rather than negatives has contributed to BTI’s ability to continue to adapt and thrive in these challenging times.

David has been an exceptional citizen for the plant research community, serving as a panelist and reviewer for multiple funding agencies throughout his career, as well as leading community efforts to develop a coherent research vision. He spearheaded the formation of the NSF-funded Plant Science Research Network (PSRN) in 2015, and led the development of a new cross-disciplinary Decadal Vision for the plant sciences for 2015-2025, and again for 2020-2030. These efforts are noteworthy for their inclusion of a broad range of the plant sciences beyond genomics and for its engagement of diverse scientists at all career stages. The Decadal Vision is an inclusive vision for the plant sciences that is open to all, and its goals are consistent with the values and ideas that David has fostered at BTI throughout his tenure.

David’s many accomplishments as BTI President are the result of his deep commitment to the organization, its people, and its mission. He has excelled as a leader precisely because he understands that “people do science,” and the job of the President is to enable their success. He steps down as president leaving BTI positioned to continue its well-earned track record in research and innovation – and with the potential to strike out in new directions as the world changes.

Judy Bishop

All the best to you David. It was my pleasure to know you.

Levi Blue

Best of luck David with your future endeavors! I had the awesome opportunity to participate in the BTI summer internship for college students back in 2015 (….I think its been awhile ago lol!) , but I definitely do remember you all in the leadership of the institute. Thank you for your contributions for helping engage young students like my previous self with hands-on science! That one opportunity many years ago has opened so many other doors for my career. I wish you the best and much prosperity with your continued research.

Xuemei Chen

Thank you for your devotion to BTI.

Best, Xuemei

Karen Dalecki

Hello David, Having replaced Bea Cato under Bob Granados in 1977 as Electron Microscopist, I want to wish you congratulations and continued success in your research! BTI will always be near and dear to my heart as well. My Best Regards, Karen Dalecki

Lynn Leopold

Dear David, It’s amazing to think of you stepping away from your stellar leadership of BTI after all these years, but there does come a time when one thinks of what else one might do to make a difference in the world. With the helm of BTI safely in the hands of someone new, you will be free to work in your lab, play on your farm and explore the rich possibilities that await you. Congratulations on a job extremely well done. You have done much to increase and secure BTI’s stature and influence in the local community as well as the science world at large. All the best wishes for your next step. See you at the Market!

Jim Reynolds

David … Best wishes in whatever the next chapter of your life holds. Thank you for your leadership at BTI. I very much appreciated your ideas, challenging questions and helpful insights during your service as a Board member at Boyce Thompson Arboretum in Superior, AZ.

Randy Strauss

David: Best of luck with your future endeavors. You have accomplished a lot at BTI, and I am proud to have worked with you and your team along the way. I am certain that this is not an ending, but another beginning of something special.

All my best, Randy Strauss

Rick Vierstra

Congratulations on a job well done!!

Marissa Zuckerman

Though I was only at BTI for a short time, I’m thankful to have worked under your leadership. Thank you for all that you’ve done for the Institute and scientific community as a whole!

Richard Skinner

You have led a remarkable organization for an extended tenure and enjoy a rich perspective on the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead for independent research institutes. In the near term, what human resource/talent challenges do you see as inhibiting the capacity of organizations such as BTI? Thank you for your leadership.

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