Professor earns Lifetime Achievement Award

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Dr. Karen Moldenhauer of Garnavillo, University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture professor and rice breeder emeritus, was recently recognized with the Lifetime Achievement Award for her work in rice breeding. (Photo submitted)

By Caroline Rosacker

Dr. Karen Moldenhauer, University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture professor and rice breeder emeritus, has been recognized with the Lifetime Achievement Award for her work in rice breeding. She accepted the award at the USA Rice Outlook Conference on Dec. 8 in Austin, Texas. 

Professor Moldenhauer grew up in Garnavillo and is the daughter of the late Norris and Zella Kuenzel. She and her husband, Paul, have recently retired and returned to the area.

"I grew up in Garnavillo and spent many hours working side-by-side with my late grandmother, Mrs. Weber Kuenzel, who had a huge vegetable garden, loved to pick berries, and grew beautiful flowers and roses," Moldenhauer commented. "That shared experience influenced and inspired me to pursue a degree in plant breeding and cytogenetics." 

Dr. Moldenhauer appreciated growing up in Garnavillo. "Growing up in a small town in Iowa was really quite idyllic," she recalled. "I was never concerned about my safety and neither were my parents. I also admired the great respect Iowans had for education." 

Zella Kuenzel encouraged her daughter to pursue an advanced degree at a very young age. "My mother chose to study dietetics, and earned her undergraduate degree from Clarke College, Dubuque," she explained. "Toward the end of World War II she received a fellowship from the University of Iowa to work on her master’s degree in community nutrition. She was very eager to learn more. In 1947, the war ended and my father returned home. The university realized she was married and rescinded the fellowship."

The missed opportunity reinforced Zella's desire to push her daughter to earn an advanced degree that no one could take away from her. "I also encouraged my own children, Jonathan, who teaches chemistry at Tennessee Tech, and Henry, who is working on his doctorate at Iowa State in engineering mechanics," she shared. "I recall rocking them to sleep and telling them they would go to college and beyond." Dr. Moldenhauer's educational background and lifetime achievements include: 

• Bachelor of Science degree in Biology from Iowa State University

• Masters Degree in Plant Breeding from North Carolina State University

• Ph.D. in Plant Breeding from Iowa State University

• Retired Interim Director Rice Research and Extension Center Professor and Rice Industry Chair for Variety Development

• Served in many professional societies, including American Association for the Advancement of Science (Fellow), American Society of Agronomy (Fellow), Crop Science Society of America (Fellow), and the Rice Technical Working Group

• Engaged in activities of the Arkansas Rice Research and Promotion Board, Arkansas Seed Dealers, Arkansas Seed Growers, and the Arkansas Seed Council

• Member of the National Genetic Resources Advisory Council, 2011-2017

• Served as Technical Advisor to the United States Rice Federation Rice Marketability and Competitiveness Task Force and the U.S. Rice Federation Technical Task Force.

• Served on the Board of Trustees for the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), 2016-2018

• Recipient of the John White Outstanding Research Award, 2021 and  RTWG Distinguished Service Award, 2020

• Earned the John White Outstanding Research Team Award, 2004

• First recipient of the Rice Industry Chair for Variety Development, 2002

After earning her doctorate in plant breeding at Iowa State University, Dr. Moldenhauer accepted a position as a rice breeder at the University of Arkansas. "I had an opportunity to be a soybean or corn breeder, but decided to become a rice breeder because there were not many rice breeders," she noted.
The following comments from fellow colleagues are a small sample of the high praise Dr. Moldenhauer received.

Nathan McKinney, director of the Arkansas Agricultural Experiment Station, pointed out, "Almost all the acreage planted in Arkansas originated in Moldenhauer’s program."

Dr. Moldenhauer's teamwork approach was very beneficial to rice producers. "Karen’s releases have become parent material for many second and third-generation varieties, making an impact on multiple breeding programs, which extended her programs influence in the Mid-South," noted McKinney. "It was accomplished mostly by collaborative effort and a teamwork approach. Karen has included geneticists, pathologists, agronomists and physiologists in the breeding process."

He went on to say, "She has sought the advice and input of farmers, rice millers and end users throughout her career. She has worked closely with our Extension specialists to ensure that every variety has a full complement of production recommendations prior to release. Karen is recognized by her peers in academia and industry as a tireless and innovative scientist. She has cultivated industry relationships that help the breeding program remain relevant." 

Although Dr. Moldenhauer has been recognized for her work in the Arkansas rice industry, her impact has extended well beyond the state. She was also responsible for more than $10 million in additional funding from a number of sources and generated numerous publications.

Dr. Kent McKenzie, retired director and plant breeder at the California Cooperative Rice Research Foundation - Rice Experiment Station, noted, “It has been said that ‘plant breeding is about time, talent and numbers,’ and it is overwhelmingly clear from her resume that Dr. Karen Moldenhauer has covered those bases very well. She arrived without a rice background and under her leadership built the University of Arkansas rice breeding program to what it is today.”

Riceland’s Dan Kennedy said, “Dr. Karen Moldenhauer has been a cornerstone for rice research in Arkansas since 1982. Her peers and the rice industry have recognized her success in rice breeding, and in 2001, Riceland presented her with its Friend of the Farmer Award.”

Professor Moldenhauer will continue to be a consultant for the Division of Agriculture Rice Research and Extension Center at the University of Arkansas.

“I was absolutely amazed that I was even nominated,” she said. “It took me by surprise. It came out of nowhere and it’s an honor to have that kind of recognition from this group.” 

The Moldenhauers are looking forward to retirement and living in Garnavillo. “As a rice breeder I traveled to all the continents except Antarctica,” she told The Press. “I was able to experience many different things and I appreciated the opportunity, but my husband and I are glad to be living in northeast Iowa. We missed the snow and small town atmosphere.”

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