By Sonja Begemann and Alison Rice A pioneer of agricultural technology is putting away her lab goggles for the last time. Mary-Dell Chilton is retiring from Syngenta, where she founded its biotechnology lab and researched plant genetics and biotechnology. In 1983 she produced the first transgenic plant. While the first biotech product wouldn’t be commercialized until the mid-90s, she paved the path for the biotechnology of today. Among her long list of honors, Chilton is a World Food Prize Laureate, National Inventors Hall of Fame inductee and a member of USDA’s Hall of Heroes.
“My career in biotechnology has been an exciting journey, and I am amazed to see the progress we have made over the years,” Chilton said in a previous interview. “My hope is that through continued scientific discoveries, we will be able to provide a brighter and better future for the generations that follow us.” Chilton’s influence in biotech and the direction it’s moving is well-documented and respected. “Dr. Chilton’s research has forever changed the way we conduct plant research and her groundbreaking accomplishments have shaped the way genetic plant research is conducted today,” says former Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, when Chilton was inducted into USDA’s Hall of Heroes. Her “personal scientific discoveries stand out on their own, but also weave together with vast commercial and academic innovative research that allows the world to benefit from productive farming and even greater positive environmental conditions,” said Jay Croom, CEO of CropLife America, a national trade association representing manufacturers, formulators and distributors of pesticides, in a recent letter to Chilton. “Her work continues to influence progress in agriculture and humanity for generations to come.” She recognizes farmers and scientist have a challenging road ahead. While she might not be on the front lines anymore, Chilton wants to see science become more widely accepted. “I hope to see the technology [transgenic plants] accepted by the public—embraced even—in my lifetime,” Chilton explained in an earlier interview. “How do we do that? That’s a tough one, but life is full of surprises. One key event—like getting golden rice out to the people who need it—could be [the catalyst]. Otherwise, it may be a long, long time.” As young scientists move to the front lines, many will benefit from Chilton’s past research and discoveries. “I just have one piece of advice for young people: Do what you love. That’s what I did, and it came out OK.”