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McHenry County College honors Nienhuis with 2018 Distinguished Alumni Award

Plant breeding, genetics work known worldwide

James Nienhuis
James Nienhuis

McHenry County College and the Friends of McHenry County College Foundation have named James Nienhuis the winner of the 2018 Distinguished Alumni Award.

A professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Nienhuis is known across the globe for his contributions in the field of plant breeding and genetics. 

Nienhuis learned about plants at an early age, as he grew up on the vegetable farm in rural Woodstock that eventually became Oney’s Tree Farm. He remembers attending MCC when it was housed in the Pure Oil Building, and he said he discovered “a world that a shy, confused farm boy had no idea existed. I honestly thought that going to college was only for rich kids from the city – it simply did not occur to me that I, too, could go to college.”

Nienhuis later joined the Peace Corps, and he learned Spanish in Puerto Rico before being sent as an agriculture extension agent to rural Guanacaste, Costa Rica. His job quickly evolved into an attempt to control abuse of pesticides by rural farm families.

After leaving the Peace Corps, Nienhuis attended the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he majored in agriculture science.

He went on to graduate school to study statistics and genetics at North Carolina State University, and later completed his Ph.D. at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Nienhuis returned to international work and spent several years in Cali, Colombia, as a bean breeder. He also worked as a tomato breeder in collaboration with Heinz in California.

In 1988, Nienhuis joined the University of Wisconsin-Madison faculty as an assistant professor of plant breeding and genetics, then advanced to an associate professor before becoming a full professor. He soon will celebrate 30 years as a professor at the school.

The lab Nienhuis oversees works on genetics with a focus on molecular markers. His team also works internationally in Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala and Costa Rica. In Central America, Nienhuis’ lab works on tomato grafting as an applied technology for rural women’s cooperatives.

Nienhuis is among a growing list of community college alumni throughout the U.S. who include renowned doctors, business leaders, artists, government leaders, athletes and scientists. MCC’s distinguished alumni are evidence that community colleges serve as educational stepping stones toward students’ successful careers. He was honored at the MCC President’s Dinner in November.

“This MCC distinguished alum has made a difference in his field,” Friends of MCC Foundation Executive Director Brian DiBona said. “We are proud of his notable accomplishments and commitment to the community, and it’s our privilege to honor him for his successes.”

For information about the Distinguished Alumni Awards program, contact the foundation office at 815-455-7529 or visit www.mchenry.edu/alumni/awards.

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