Danforth Center Celebrates Toni Kutchan with Danforth Award for Plant Science
On Tuesday, November 28, Toni Kutchan, PhD, Vice President for Research and the Oliver Langenberg Distinguished Investigator was presented the Danforth Award for Plant Science. The award recognizes outstanding scientists who have made exceptional contributions to plant biology, agriculture, or fields relevant to the Danforth Center.
More than 160 friends and colleagues gathered in the AT&T Auditorium on Tuesday evening to celebrate Toni’s remarkable career and legacy to science, impactful leadership at the Danforth Center, dedication to the St. Louis community, and advocacy for women and girls in STEM. President and CEO Jim Carrington, PhD, and Principal Investigator Becky Bart, PhD, shared remarks at the award presentation ceremony, and the audience enjoyed a video featuring friends and colleagues who shared their admiration, fun stories, and reflections on the impact of their interactions with Toni.
Jim described his early impression of Toni’s work, which began 12 years before they met in person. As a new assistant professor at Texas A&M University, Jim had a colleague who studied alkaloids and saw himself in a bit of a healthy competition with Toni because her work to understand the biochemical pathways of alkaloids was so widely renowned. Jim described him as “constantly in fear that she would make the key discoveries first.”
At the time, she was at the University of Munich and on the leading edge of a transformation in the field of plant biochemistry. “Every four or five months,” Jim said, “he would come by and say: ‘Well, it happened again. Toni Kutchan scooped me!’”
Toni’s seminal research resulted in over 145 published works that reveal the biochemical and molecular underpinnings of plant natural products, including medicinally relevant alkaloids ranging from morphine to cyclopamine. Her work is foundational to the understanding of thousands of plant chemicals with direct impact on improving the human condition.
Equally as impressive as Toni’s scientific triumphs are her achievements as a leader and as an advocate for others. Toni has been instrumental in such successes as the founding of Taylor Geospatial Institute, launching the Women on the Rise program, and establishing STEM programs for girls in St. Louis like the Girl Scouts’ robotics program.
Toni also played central roles in building and supporting a more diverse, inclusive Danforth Center community; broadening our scientific impact through growth; elevating scientific integrity; and creating a safer, more compliant workplace.
Toni was admired for her ability to balance confidence and directness with humility, warmth, and compassion.
“To watch a strong leader like Toni is really impactful, and I know it will stick with me for years to come,” said Principal Investigator Allison Miller, PhD, “I really have a lot of gratitude for that.”
When she took the podium, Becky Bart shared a conversation with Toni where she “picked her brain” about Toni’s exceptional grace and confidence as a leader.
“She told me three things,” Becky said. “First, very few people in the world have actual power; they have influence, and they know how to use it. Second, when things get tough, keep your chin up and keep going—don’t give up. And third, don’t fidget!”
As Toni accepted her award, the audience got the chance to hear from her directly. “When I was young, I was so shy that I couldn’t even talk,” she shared. “So, yes, you can do this!
We’re all passed knowledge, we take it over, and we add our piece to the puzzle. What matters is the path you take to get there and how you treat those around you along the way.
Toni Kutchan, PhD,Oliver M. Langenberg Distinguished Investigator, VP for Research
She expressed appreciation for all the supporting teams at the Danforth Center, with a special nod to the facilities team for making the Danforth Center the uniquely supportive place that it is. “Work hard, be kind to one another, and the Center will continue to be a success going forward,” she said to the Danforth Center community members in attendance.
Toni closed with a slightly altered version of the 1904 poem “Success,” by Bessie Anderson Stanley:
She has achieved success
who has lived well,
laughed often, and loved much;
who has enjoyed the trust of
the respect of men and
the love of children;
who has filled her niche and accomplished her task;
who has never lacked appreciation of Earth's beauty
or failed to express it;
who has left the world better than she found it
whether by an improved poppy or
a perfect poem, or a rescued soul
who has always looked for the best in others and
given them the best she had.
Toni, who is set to retire at the end of 2023, joins the ranks of Mary Dell Chilton, PhD, Norman Borlaug, PhD, Joanne Chory, PhD, and Segenet Kelemu, PhD, with the honor of the Danforth Award for Plant Science.