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Mari Chinn grew up in urban Oakland, California, and began working at OSU in January 2021. (Photo by Ariel Scholten)

Uniquely Situated

Thursday, May 26, 2022

Media Contact: Jami Mattox | Agricultural Communications Services | 405-744-8061 |

Growing up in urban Oakland, California, Mari Chinn never imagined a future intertwined with agriculture.

Before receiving her Master of Science and Doctor of Philosophy degrees in biosystems engineering, her perspectives of farming primarily included highway views, Chinn said.

Now, Chinn heads the OSU Department of Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering within the  Ferguson College of Agriculture and the College of Engineering, Architecture and Technology. She also serves as the interim director of the Biobased Products and Energy Center.

Since starting in January 2021, Chinn has used her specialized research knowledge along with her personal background to lead a complex department, she said.

“I would be on golf courses with nut trees, smell the cow pastures and see the flooded areas going from Oakland to Tahoe as part of my unwitting knowledge of agriculture,” Chinn said. “I liked biology and math, so I did undergraduate research in the Department of Biological and Agricultural Engineering at the University of California-Davis.

“I received a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship. It allowed me to branch out into different spaces.”

As a master’s student and later a doctoral student at the University of Kentucky, she gained a deeper understanding for agriculture through her microbial research pursuits and the sheer proximity of farms, she said.

After completing her degrees, she pursued a professorship at North Carolina State University, where she stayed for 18 years.

“Then, someone from Oklahoma State called,” Chinn said. “I saw the potential to have a leadership role outside of my own research and teaching.”

Chinn has a widespread impact across BAE by assisting faculty and graduate students with research and grant applications, said Randy Raper, OSU Ag Research assistant director.

“The students and faculty alike respect her,” Raper said. “She is engaging and has been creating a common vision for people to work toward.”

He said Chinn’s vision includes building up the agricultural systems technology program, a new major housed within BAE. Although the program was in development before her arrival, Chinn spent time asking questions to solve problems before they arose, Raper said.

“What is really engaging about Dr. Chinn is she didn’t come from a rural background, but she recognized the part of agriculture she could identify with,” Raper said. “She’s been able to make an impact and be a role model for other people who are similar.”

With academic experience in California, Kentucky and North Carolina, Chinn brings a rich background to her position at OSU, said Ron Elliott, BAE department head emeritus. As the first woman and first person of color to lead the department, she serves as an outstanding role model, he added.

Danielle Bellmer, BAE professor, said 20 years ago she was the first female faculty member in BAE.

“When I started, there were only four female faculty members in the whole College of Engineering, Architecture and Technology,” Bellmer said. “Today in BAE, it is close to 50% female in both faculty and students.”

A lot of people in leadership put up walls or lose their personality, but Chinn does not, Bellmer said. Chinn’s leadership style is marked by transparency, honesty and community-building, she said.

“It takes time to break through stereotypes and allow time for people to see role models,” Bellmer said. “Dr. Chinn is certainly one for a lot of people these days.”

Another hallmark of Chinn is being a good listener, Bellmer said. Making sure to get input from everyone, especially those who typically might not speak up, allows for different perspectives to be heard, Bellmer added.

“I do recognize that even though it’s never my intent to be a model for anybody, it does help for many young women and young women minorities to see if I’m in this position, they can be, too,” Chinn said.

As someone who has worked in the department through multiple department heads, Jana Moore, BAE undergraduate academic program coordinator, remarked Chinn has a unique ability to connect with others.

“Dr. Chinn just has an energy that makes you excited to work for and alongside her,” Moore said. “When you feel seen and are working toward a common goal, it is a very comfortable environment.”

Chinn’s ability to put an emphasis on camaraderie for faculty and staff has been well received, Moore said.

“Watching her interact with longtime donors her first year was almost baffling because Chinn did it so well,” Moore said. “She shows you do not need to be an alumnus yourself to connect with the Ferguson family, and she showed the department’s deep appreciation with excellence.”

As someone not from a rural background herself, Moore said Chinn represents an accurate swath of students who are not rural either.

“When I meet with prospective students, they sometimes ask if they will fit in without a commercial agriculture background,” Moore said. “It is great to be able to let them know the department head grew up in the city and represents agriculture and engineering so well.”

Growing up a golfer, basketball player and involved community member, Chinn said she loved where and how she grew up.

“I don’t deny any one aspect of my identity and neither does the department,” Chinn said. “What I can offer with my cultural experiences and living as a mixed-race person is being open to everyone and anyone.”

The department is an integration of agriculture, life sciences and engineering, Chinn said.

The faculty, staff and students in BAE work together to make a difference in people’s lives, she added.

“Dr. Chinn really has brought a new life to the department,” Moore said. “She is the kind of person you want to work for your entire life.”

Chinn’s care for people, work-life balance, strong focus, impressive intellect, and passion for biosystems and agricultural engineering are just a few of her characteristics that inspire those around her, Elliott said.

“Why do I do what I do?” Chinn asked. “I always want to try to add value to people’s lives. That’s the one reason I do what I do.”

Story By: Ariel Scholten | Cowboy Journal

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