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Plant Biologist Jane Silverthorne Dies at 69

Silverthorne shaped the development of many NSF programs driving innovation in plant biology and agriculture. 

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Katherine Irving

Katherine Irving is an intern at The Scientist. She studied creative writing, biology, and geology at Macalester College, where she honed her skills in journalism and podcast production and conducted research on dinosaur bones in Montana. Her work has previously been featured in Science.

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     Jane Silverthorne wears all black and holds a drink glass while standing to the left of Greg Martin, with others in the background
Jane Silverthorne attending a celebration for BTI professor Greg Martin’s (right) election into the National Academy of Sciences in May 2022.
Boyce Thompson Institute

Prominent plant biologist Jane Silverthorne died on August 15 at the age of 69. She is best known for her work on plant genomics projects at the National Science Foundation (NSF) and for her impact on the career development of young academics.

“Dr. Silverthorne was a respected scientist and a leader and champion for the development of the plant genomics field and community,” Grant Hartzog, Silverthorne’s former colleague at the University of California (UC), Santa Cruz, writes in a university statement.

According to an obituary posted on Legacy.com, Silverthorne split her childhood between England, Scotland, and Malta before arriving at the University of Sussex in the UK to study biology. After completing a PhD at the University of Warwick and a postdoc at the University of California, Los Angeles, Silverthorne joined the department of molecular, cellular, and developmental biology at UCSC in 1987, where she studied plant photoreceptors called phytochromes.

In 2004, after several years working as program director for the Plant Genome Research Center at NSF while on leave from the university, she formally left UCSC to join the agency permanently. During her time at NSF, Silverthorne took on several leadership positions on boards and advisory groups that made recommendations around international policy on biotechnology, the obituary continues, and also became a grants officer. In addition, she pushed the agency to support young researchers and fund plant science in low-income countries, according to a testimonial published by the American Association for Plant Biologists.

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“Jane contributed enormously to the development of a strong, vibrant and inclusive plant genomics community that embraced international collaboration, emphasized the development of shared community resources, and championed scientific inquiry on a wide diversity of plant species,” Cornell University plant geneticist Susan McCouch writes in the testimonial.

“Jane did not seek the spotlight but she did seek excellence,” David Stern, president of the Boyce Thompson Institute (BTI), a plant science research center, writes in a tribute posted on the BTI website. “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 [that] Jane herself felt.”

Silverthorne also served as a senior advisor to the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy from 2006 to 2008, according to her obituary. She retired from her role at NSF in 2017, but continued to serve on several boards, including the Scientific Advisory Board at BTI.

Silverthorne is survived by her sister and nephew.

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