The Ohio State University Alumni Association

2021 Alumni Awards

Sally Rockey ’80, ’82, ’85 PhD — Alumni Medalist

This is the single highest honor bestowed by The Ohio State University Alumni Association, Inc. It is presented to alumni who have gained national or international distinction as outstanding representatives of their chosen fields or professions, bringing extraordinary credit to the university and significant benefit to humankind.

headshot of Sally Rockey

Accelerating science for the public good

Sally Rockey ’80, ’82, ’85 PhD has made it her life’s work to create an environment where the best science can flourish and make a positive difference in people’s lives.

It’s a commitment that has led to a remarkable 30-year career as a world-renowned research administrator at the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the National Institutes of Health. At those agencies, she created programs and grants that enabled the most capable scientists to pursue their dreams and make the biggest possible impact on science.

And when she could have retired, Rockey took on a new challenge: as inaugural director of the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research (FFAR) in Washington, D.C. The foundation supports public/private partnerships to tackle tough issues such as world hunger, the pandemic and climate change.

What is an example of a scientific program you created that has made a positive difference in people’s lives?

When I was at the USDA, I helped establish the plant genome program. This work has led to an explosion of new technologies and new ways to breed plants for increased yield, allowing us to produce more food on less land. It’s also led to producing crops with fewer pesticides and to developing plants with higher nutritional properties to help people across the world have access to healthier diets.

Of all your accomplishments, what are you proudest of?

My work as executive director of the FFAR. We’ve created an ecosystem of innovation that didn’t exist previously in the agriculture research enterprise, that of public/private partnerships. We’ve engaged with more than 500 funding partners and hundreds of grants. It’s really accelerated the pace of science for the public good.

How did Ohio State prepare you for the work you do?

I owe so much to Ohio State. I was planning to go to vet school, but I took an entomology course my senior year and was so intrigued that I decided to go to graduate school in entomology. My training was fantastic, and my advisor Dave Denlinger was a stellar scientist who was always supportive. Ohio State helped me hone my scientific skills and connected me with the best in the field. I also worked as a field scout with OSU Extension, where I had my first in-depth experience in agriculture. And finally, I met my husband in graduate school, so I owe my entire personal life to this university.

What are your hobbies and passion projects?

My passion is rock music, specifically the Rolling Stones and Bruce Springsteen. I’ve seen the Stones probably 20 times, but Bruce is my real passion. The first album I ever bought was his back in 1973. I fell in love with his music and have been following him ever since. I’ve been to over 50 Springsteen concerts, including twice to his Broadway show. I can’t wait until he tours with the E Street Band again.

See all 2021 Alumni Award honorees