Innovation, Leadership, and Excellence: CAHNRS scientists earn WSU Showcase honors

McCluskey, Chen, Holden Award
From left, CAHNRS 2022 WSU Showcase Award Winners Jill McCluskey, Shulin Chen, Zach Holden.

A trio of researchers in the College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences was honored with university awards during the 2022 WSU Showcase.

Each year, WSU recognizes the outstanding achievements of its faculty and staff. Awardees stand among the university’s top scholars, most effective and beloved instructors, and most dedicated and visionary professionals.

The 2022 CAHNRS awardees include:

Sahlin Faculty Excellence Award for Leadership: Jill McCluskey, Regents Professor and Director, School of Economic Sciences

Sahlin Awards honor faculty members who epitomize the highest level of excellence in the pursuit of the University’s goals.

A world-class scholar and a gifted mentor, McCluskey is the first woman to direct WSU’s School of Economic Sciences, named to that post in 2019. She has worked as an economist at WSU since 1998.

She is a past president and Fellow of the Agricultural & Applied Economic Association, which serves professionals in agricultural and related fields of applied economics. She is also the American Journal of Agricultural Economics’ first editor from WSU. She serves on the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine’s Board on Agriculture and Natural Resources. Focusing on product quality and reputation, sustainable labeling, consumer preferences for new technology, and representation of women in STEM, her research has garnered international acclaim and won numerous awards, including AAAS Fellow.

For the Leadership category, McCluskey was honored for her efforts to build a vibrant, collaborative environment in the school, as well as for her continuing professional involvement and commitment. Improving teaching, research, and scholarship, she added talented team members, and forged connections with alumni to support fundraising and create job placement opportunities for students. McCluskey works diligently, acts compassionately, and cares deeply for the greater good.

“I am so grateful for my School of Economic Sciences colleagues, staff, and students who work together synergistically and collaboratively, celebrate in each other’s successes, and always strive to be better,” McCluskey stated. “In CAHNRS, I have been supported by my colleagues in the Chairs and Directors Group and the CAHNRS staff.

“This award means so much because I was nominated by my peers,” she added. “It is validation that we are doing something special in the School of Economic Sciences at Washington State University.”

WSU Innovation and Entrepreneurship Award: Shulin Chen, Professor, Department of Biological Systems Engineering

This award honors faculty members with exemplary collaboration with the private sector, who have significantly improved lives through engagement with industry.

Working in Biological Systems Engineering, Chen’s technological innovations have made industrial processes more sustainable.

He develops bioconversion processes and systems for production of biofuel, bioenergy, and bioproducts. Using anaerobic digestion systems, his research team invented a process to convert manure and other dairy-industry waste to bioenergy. The systems reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and recover nutrients from wastewater, alleviating concerns about surface and groundwater pollution. Six anaerobic digestion systems are now functioning throughout Washington. His work has the potential to further enhance the environmental and climate benefits of anaerobic digestion technology.

In another initiative, Chen produced biochemicals from organic waste using microbial “cell factories,” yeasts that synthesize target biochemicals using metabolic pathways. His team also developed a method for extracting high-value products from potato peels, a waste by-product of potato processing. His method turns phytochemical and nutrient-rich waste into a revenue stream. He holds ten U.S. patents for his innovations, and is widely recognized as a leader in his field

“Because of my research’s applied and engineering nature, solving real-world problems through collaboration with industry is not only the ultimate validation of the value of my work to the public, but also truly rewarding personally,” Chen said.

“This is definitely a team award,” he added. “It is a recognition of the collective accomplishments of the members of my research team, and the various offices and programs within WSU that support our efforts. I want to thank the department and CANHRS for providing an encouraging environment, and the university for offering a great platform to innovate and make an impact.”

President’s Employee Excellence Award: Zach Holden, Research Assistant, Department of Horticulture

Holden is one of five 2022 recipients of this award, which recognize outstanding contributions to the university by employees statewide.

His research and Extension work is pivotal to the vitality of Washington’s potato industry. He conducts field operations across 20 acres at WSU’s Othello research station, and oversees personnel, often working 12-hour days and enduring extreme field conditions.

Holden’s contributions to studies have been so substantive that principal investigators have named him a co-author on scores of publications and presentations. He also organizes annual industry events, such as WSU’s Potato Field Day. He plays a key role in maintaining the WSU Potato Research Group’s strong reputation with industry and funding agencies. His mentorship has also prepared graduate students for successful careers.

“What inspires me to succeed in my role as a research assistant is knowing that the research that we do helps the potato industry for years to come,” Holden said, “whether it’s better management practices, or releasing new varieties that are better suited to the changing environment. We listen to growers’ problems and try to find solutions.”

The WSU potato research program that Holden serves helped release the Clearwater Russet potato variety, now used for French fries at McDonald’s and other major food and restaurant chains.

“So, if you’ve eaten fries at McDonalds lately, you might be eating a potato that we did research on and helped release,” he said.

While he’s not one to seek recognition, the Excellence award means a lot to Holden.

“I enjoy my work and the people that I work with, so to me it’s an award for my whole crew,” he said. “It’s a team effort to get everything done year after year. It’s been great to be part of the CAHNRS family for the past 15 years, and I look forward to the future.”

Learn more about the 2022 Showcase Awards here.