My summer with Monsanto

If you’ve ever talked to anyone passionately opposed to GMOs or modern agriculture, they’ve probably name-dropped Monsanto. A company smaller than Whole Foods would go bankrupt if their payroll included all the members of the USDA, EPA, FDA, AAAS, WHO, European Commission, and many more. Still, scientists echoing the conclusions of these organizations on the safety of certain agricultural practices sometimes get accused of acting as paid “shills”.

As such. I want to be very transparent about my own ties with the agricultural biotech industry. Over the next four and a half months, I will be interning part-time at Monsanto. An internship with a biotech company is both a requirement of the Designated Emphasis in Biotechnology Program at UC Davis and an excellent opportunity for me to explore future career options.

I will be working on Monsanto’s “BioDirect(TM)” project. In a nutshell, the goal is to figure out a way to use molecules of RNA to shut off genes in very specific insect or weed targets resulting in death of the pest. This technology would allow farmers to drastically reduce pesticide use and protect beneficial insects like ladybugs. It’s adaptable, so the recipe can be adjusted if resistance develops. And it’s compatible with no-till practices that protect soils from erosion.

My salary covers three days of work per week on this project exclusively. I spend the remaining two days a week on my dissertation research with the support of funding generously provided by the American Dissertation Fellowship from the American Association of University Women. Any outreach or science communication that I engage in occurs on a voluntary basis on top of my research.

When I asked a trusted faculty member at UC Berkeley if I should take a hiatus from any science outreach while on Monsanto’s payroll, she expressed frustration that I even had to ask this question. After speaking favorably about agricultural technologies on NPR, she got angry emails accusing her of being a “Monsanto shill”. When she asked where this was coming from, one accuser pointed at a $1000 award from the American Society of Plant Biology she received back in 1992. The award was sponsored by Monsanto. The company had no say in who was given the award or what was done with it. They simply provided the donation.

I’ve received two similar awards. One was the Monsanto Endowed Student Fund in Agricultural Biotechnology Award for $3000, granted to me by the Dean’s Office of the College of Biological Sciences at UC Davis in 2015. This award is given out every year and “is available to outstanding UC Davis, College of Biological Sciences, graduate students who are preparing for a career in agricultural biotechnology”. You can read my application for this award here.

I also received the Ginny Patin Memorial Scholarship for $2500 from the California Seed Association in 2016. You can read my application for this award here. In both cases, the funds were deposited into my account directly with no strings attached. These awards are displayed proudly on my CV/Resume as they are a badge of scholastic achievement.

The content of this post and every blog post or tweet I ever compose strictly reflect my own personal views and experiences and not the views of any of my employers past, present, or future, be they academic or corporate in nature.

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