An Insider's View of Corporate Plant Biotechnology


How can we increase crop yields to feed the world's growing population? How can we reduce the amount of pesticides and herbicides applied to crops and increase the sustainability of our resources? How can we make crops more tolerant to the extremes and unpredictability of weather? My colleagues and I continually ask these types of questions while working in the field of agricultural biotechnology, and we are using the tools of modern biology to find the solutions.

As a graduate student working on the mechanisms of photosynthetic enzymes, my Ph.D. advisor and I pondered how to increase plant productivity through genetic engineering. At that time, techniques such as plant transformation and protein engineering using recombinant DNA techniques were established but less common place than they are today. Today, I'm a senior research scientist at Monsanto Co., a large multinational organization committed to improving agriculture through biotechnology. Ten years after earning my Ph.D., I find myself pursuing many of the same ideals within the company, at a time when many of the goals are well within technological reach.

I'm sometimes amazed that my career path has taken me to the type of job I had hoped for as a graduate student. Think positively, because it is possible for you to wind up doing exactly what you want! As an undergraduate majoring in biochemistry, I always felt that plant biology was underrepresented in my courses despite the fact that plants were able to carry out many interesting and unique biochemical processes. Perhaps this stimulated me to specialize in the structure and function of plant proteins in graduate school and again as a postdoc.

Early on, I realized that specializing in plant systems might narrow my chances for future employment because of the relatively smaller number of academic positions and biotechnology companies devoted to plant research. Keeping this in mind, I tried to learn the fundamentals of biochemistry and stay flexible, something that has paid off significantly in my current position. An eye-opening opportunity presented itself in 1992 when, toward the end of my graduate training, I spent a summer internship at Genentech Inc. as part of an NIH-sponsored, institutional biotechnology training program administered by Washington State University, Pullman. (For more information on this program, which is still ongoing, see the NIH Biotechnology Institutional Award Program Web site and the Washington State University-NIH Protein Biotechnology Program Web site.) Although I had been considering a career in industrial biotechnology, I had no direct experience to know if the career choice was right for me.

My experiences at Genentech were extremely enlightening. Here was a company full of bright, motivated researchers applying first-rate science to directly and positively impact human lives. Without a doubt, industry was for me. But how was I to find my way to a job, especially in plant biotechnology? Although the right technical skills are crucially important, the answer to this question might actually have more to do with personal skills and relationships than you might think.

As a postdoc at the University of Arizona, Tucson, I continued in the field of plant biochemistry with rewarding work on plant molecular chaperones. Aside from learning diverse technical skills, much of how I got to my current position at Monsanto I owe to the first-rate mentoring of my postdoc advisor. She allowed me to develop the skills necessary to function as a scientist within a community. What I learned is that it's never enough to simply be a researcher in one's own corner of the world. Whether you are a researcher in a university lab or a researcher in a company, you exist in some kind of community, which requires that you make crucial ties to your colleagues and co-workers. My advisor gave me the precious opportunity to start and maintain collaborations with labs around the world that shared common ground and could exchange expertise. That experience made all the difference.

Helpful Hint

Industry research and development requires significant resources and many people with different expertise and viewpoints. Within such an organization, communication is an absolute necessity. You can develop good communication skills while in a university setting simply by interacting with lab mates and learning about and being supportive of their projects. In essence, that's the team mentality that companies value so highly.

I won't say that landing a job was easy--it took a whole year. So although the 5 years I spent as a postdoc were enjoyable and rewarding, they were also necessary in light of the tight job market in plant biotech. Part of the reason for that tight market is that industrial careers in plant biology are more limited in scope than those in, say, biopharmaceuticals, where the industry is filled with many companies and opportunities. Back then I also didn't realize two important truths: First, companies often go through periods of hiring activity followed by periods of hiring inactivity. And second, contrary to popular belief, the research budgets of biotech companies are finite. My break came when my postdoc advisor invited a former colleague--now a program director at Monsanto--to be a speaker at Biology Career Day at the University of Arizona. We met and talked about my interests and the positions that were opening up within his group at Monsanto. Within a span of 2 months, my resume was personally forwarded by him to the hiring manager. I went on an interview at the company and I was offered the job I had dreamed about as a grad student. My experience illustrates the age-old saying that networking and timing are everything.

Formulating a Sound Research Plan in Industry

Corporate science presents some interesting paradoxes. How does a company ensure predictability to satisfy the commercial component when biological systems and research can often be unpredictable? One answer is to practice sound, high-quality science to reduce ambiguity so that good decisions can be made without dragging research out longer than is necessary. Another answer is to construct a rich product pipeline that can efficiently identify high-value projects and discard lower priority ones.

As a leader of a cross-company team, I coordinate the activities within a product pipeline focused on crop yield improvement--lab and field work that blends plant physiology, biochemistry, molecular biology, and bioinformatics. Much of my team's work focuses on transgene technology from early-stage experiments in model plants all the way to field trials with crop plants such as corn. Although a good portion of my time is now devoted to administrative duties such as project management, meeting with colleagues, and communicating results in written and oral form, I do make time for laboratory and fieldwork, which still gives me the excitement it did when I was a student. Work in this setting places a premium on flexibility, a diverse skill set, continuous learning, and good communication, because cutting-edge plant biotechnology is extremely dynamic. People who embrace and can adapt to change are more likely to succeed in this fast-paced environment.

The intriguing thing to me about working in agricultural biotechnology at this moment is watching how a multitude of subdisciplines such as plant physiology, biochemistry, genetics, molecular biology, bioinformatics, and molecular and conventional breeding are blending into one big continuum where the lines begin to blur. The fruits of this technology will profoundly impact our lives, with benefits that are little more than a glimmer at present. What I enjoy most about working in this field is the strong sense that I will have a part in creating this future.

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