An Interview with Jennifer Kimball: Wild Rice Breeding and Beyond

Burcu Alptekin: Please tell us a little bit about yourself. What is your current position, and what are your research interests?

Jenny Kimball: I am an assistant professor in the Department of Agronomy and Plant Genetics at the University of Minnesota, and work as the Department’s cultivated wild rice breeder. Wild rice, Zizania palustris, is native to the Upper-Great Lakes region of North America and is the only North American grain consumed by humans. Wild rice is closely related to white rice (Oryza sativa). I do a lot of work on comparative genomics of these two species to study their domestication trajectory.


Burcu: I am curious about how you started working on wild rice. You are one of the few people in the field.

Jenny: Before working on wild rice, I worked with white rice. After I received my bachelor’s degree from Ithaca College, I worked with Dr. Susan McCouch, a well-known white rice breeder, at Cornell University. Dr. McCouch was the one who got me into plant breeding and agriculture. My work there focused on characterizing the diversity of progenitor species of white rice.

I always wanted to go into academia. During my Ph.D. and postdoc, I worked on turfgrass and sorghum in North Carolina for around nine years. Although I loved working on these crop systems, I am from New York, and the weather in the south was not great for me. When the position opened in Minnesota, I was very excited because, being from New York, I am used to lake life, and the possibility of being close to the lakes was exciting for me. Finding the right position in the right place got me into wild rice breeding.


Burcu: Do you work with other native plants than wild rice?

Jenny: I exclusively work with wild rice. Apart from working with it as a crop, I participate in wild rice conservation of the species’ natural stands. Wild rice is declining in Minnesota and other regions due to a variety of human activities and there is no good way of storing wild rice seeds in ex-situ seed banks. Therefore, I work a lot on seed physiology and conservation. We collaborate with Indigenous folks from both the United States and Canada around these efforts.


Burcu: What is the use of wild rice in a culinary context?

Jenny: I have cookbooks on wild rice! The most classic recipe is chicken wild rice soup. There are sweet and savory wild rice pilafs that are incredible. You can eat it with eggs in the morning. You can even pop it like popcorn. It is highly nutritious. It has five times more protein than white rice as well as a lot of fiber and antioxidants.


Burcu: How do you establish relationships with native communities?

Jenny: It is hard to summarize because it is challenging. Building relationships with native communities is very important, and it is not always easy. It takes time to build trust. I build these relationships with honesty, accountability, transparency, openness, and inclusivity. Working with native communities, you might hear things that are hard to hear. You need to have understanding and humility to listen in order to build these relationships. I have been trying to establish an extension and outreach portion of my program; I know that there is a public interest in this work.


Burcu: Who is Jenny Kimball outside of the job? What do you like to do in your free time?

Jenny: Work life balance is so important; I often think about it. I have a 6-year-old little boy and a year and a half-year old little girl; and that is a lot of non-work activities. They are a wonderful, beautiful chaos in my life. We lose a lot of female scientists from Ph.D. to higher positions like postdocs or faculty, which overlap with the time that they want a family. It is a hard thing for a lot of female scientists. My husband and I were in graduate school in our twenties, and we needed to do a lot of pushback to create a family together. We now have a full house, and it is just fantastic. Our family is our priority now. I try to soak up and relish all those little moments of joy.


Burcu: I really appreciate your honest comment about family and academia. It is exactly the point of our interviews to find examples like you to encourage other scientists who want to have a family while pursuing their dreams of working in academia.

How did you become interested in plant science? What does your career path look like?

Jenny: A lot of people in plant sciences and plant breeding seem to have grown up on a farm or graduated from big R1 universities. I did not fall on that path at all. I did not have much interest in plants at the beginning. I knew I wanted to study biology and was interested in conservation. During my undergrad, I had a wonderful advisor, Bruce Smith, who was an invertebrate zoologist. I was working with newts and their preference of foods in terms of color. I really liked the research, but my newts started dying. And I could not stand the fact that I got these animals from their natural environment, and they died when I was researching them. I realized that I could not handle working with animals and decided to work on plants. Around that time, when I was graduating from college, Dr. Susan McCouch was looking for a research technician, and she was working on cutting-edge genetics and genomics of white rice. She transformed and helped me become who I become today because she was my window into plant genetics, breeding, and that whole world that I didn’t even know existed.


Burcu: What do you think are the most challenging aspects of your job?

Jenny: There are still barriers for women in plant science and gender bias. If you go and google the word ‘professor’ right now, it will be all pictures of men. And that is really disappointing in 2024. Things are getting better, but there is still a lot of work to do. I like seeing more women scientists feel comfortable vocalizing about their needs.


Burcu: You mentioned on your lab website that you have a son and daughter. How do you find a balance between being a researcher and a parent? What are the challenges of being a mother in academia?

Jenny: I try to set really clear boundaries for work. I make sure that I drop my kids to school and pick them up every day. I try to push my meetings between 9 am to 2 pm for this reason. I often do not work on the weekends. I sometimes do work at night, but it is usually because I am really interested in a piece of data. For better or worse, my career has suffered. If I did not have children, I would not feel guilty about working on the weekends and could put more time into my job, but I am okay with that. I know that things will get a little easier when the kids get older. Also, I need to thank my husband for my success as a mom of two in a tenure-track position. He easily does 50% of the child rearing and household chores. That has been tremendous. I feel very fortunate.


Burcu: What message would you like to share with future plant scientists?
Jenny: Be open to new opportunities. You might think you have one career trajectory figured out but be open to those new opportunities. At least for me, that is where it got me to where I am.


To learn more about Dr. Jennifer Kimball`s program, please visit


About the Author

Burcu Alptekin is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  Her research aims to improve the abiotic stress tolerance of modern-day crops through omics, molecular genetics, and beneficial plant-microbe interactions. As a first-generation, international woman scientist, Burcu is committed to increasing the representation of women in plant science. She is an early career representative at the Women in Plant Science Committee of ASPB. You can find her on X: @burcuplants.