When I was in kindergarten, I wanted to be a paleontologist. I’d find old chicken bones in the playground dirt and bring them gleefully home to my mother. My love for science only grew stronger as I got my hands on more science books, and as my father started me on a steady diet of science fiction. I was a freshman in high school when I read Copernick’s Rebellion by Leo Frankowski. It’s a fanciful story of how one version of utopia could be brought about with genetic engineering. At the same time, I was reading articles about real world genetic engineering and enthusiastically telling anyone who would listen. I was hooked.
Years later, during my doctoral research at Iowa State University, I helped develop corn with highly bioavailable iron. Corn has little iron, but is a staple for many people in Africa, Central America, and South America. I was excited that I might be able to help people who suffer from iron deficiency anemia. Our project likely would have succeeded if we had continued development. Instead, the seeds are sitting on a shelf in cold storage. This potentially life-saving invention would never get beyond our small field trials, in large part due to an over-cautious regulatory system. Crop Life International (a trade association for large biotech companies) said it took over 13 years and $136 million to get a biotech product to market in 2012; as academics, we didn’t have that kind of money.
From learning to teaching
My next step was to learn all I could about biotechnology regulation and agriculture in the developing world. I reached beyond the agronomy department, eventually earning a sustainable agriculture minor in addition to my genetics degree. I visited farms, large and small and befriended farmers and agriculture policy experts. Everything I learned fit well with my US Army background in integrated pest management, safety and health inspection, and food and water borne illness, and rekindled a love of agriculture that began with the fragrant orange groves near my childhood home in Florida.
It seemed obvious that the next step was to start writing about what I had learned. In addition to blogging, I was commenting on agriculture-related articles, and kept bumping into fellow plant geneticist Karl Haro von Mogel. Karl and I had similar ideas about science and science communication, so we joined forces in 2008 to co-found Biofortified.org, named after seeds with improved nutritional value. We were one of the first (perhaps the first!) blogs to present the science behind biotechnology. Our writing has ebbed and flowed as we both moved from grad school into the complexities of the real world, but we have kept our passion as science communicators.
After earning my doctorate, I was selected for the Presidential Management Fellowship, a program that aims to get young people with graduate degrees into government service. I started at the National Institutes of Health, working in communication, grants management, and legislative analysis. I organized NIH’s first exhibit at the USA Science and Engineering Festival, and the first annual NIH Veterans’ Celebration. I helped NIH institutes and centers get on board with common data elements (health-related terms that have the same definition no matter who uses them) and wrote a policy for storing genomic information in health records for the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology. It was glorious! But as a plant geneticist, it didn’t make much sense to stay there.
Then, my dream job opened up. I became a Biotechnologist in the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) at the US Department of Agriculture. I regulated field trials and interstate shipments of biotech seeds and plants. I worked my way into biotech policy, then into ensuring that APHIS’s invasive species control programs comply with environmental laws and regulations. All my experience and training has led to skills in spotting, analyzing, and mitigating all sorts of risks. In November 2017, I moved back to Iowa to be a stay-at-home mom and to regain my voice as a science communicator, which is another story.
Science for parents
So where does all this leave me? I keep going back to my original problem. Academics and small companies use biotechnology to create amazing traits like virus resistance and improved nutrition, but the seeds are still not getting to farmers and consumers who need them. For the regulatory system to allow access to small companies and academics, we need more people speaking in favor of biotechnology, purchasing products made with biotechnology, and voting against GMO bans. We can’t let anti-GMO activists control this conversation. I’ve noticed how much unscientific information is pushed onto parents, especially about food. That is why I am so excited to join forces with fellow scientists and science communicators in the Science Moms documentary and finally here, with SciMoms.