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2018 Distinguished Alumni Jim Nienhuis' Work Known Across the Globe

[Wednesday, January 9, 2019]



Jim Nienhuis

McHenry County College and the Friends of McHenry County College Foundation have named James Nienhuis, Ph.D., as 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 a vegetable farm in rural Woodstock, that eventually became Oney’s Christmas Tree farm. He remembers attending MCC back when it was housed in the Pure Oil Building, and discovering “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.”

He later joined the Peace Corps and he learned Spanish in Puerto Rico prior to 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 in Urbana 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.

He 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, Jim joined the faculty of the University of Wisconsin-Madison as an assistant professor of Plant Breeding and Genetics, then advanced to an associate professor, then a full professor. He’ll soon complete 30 years as a professor there.

The lab Jim oversees works on genetics with a focus on molecular markers. They also work internationally in Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala, and Costa Rica. In Central America, his team currently 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 of community colleges serving as educational stepping stones for students toward successful careers. He was honored at the MCC President’s Dinner in November.

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

For more information about the Distinguished Alumni Awards program, contact the Foundation Office at (815) 455-7529 or by visiting,

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