Kerri Burson’s 500 Words | I am a research scientist

Kerri Burson’s 500 Words | I am a research scientist

We often hear about Monsanto scientists in some abstract, distant characters. Through media and political sensationalism, through the memes and bullhorns, our perspectives skew unless we have direct personal interaction. Kerri Burson offers her 500 words, plus some, to challenge one of the major misconceptions people have about biotechnology researchers.

When I was in my 30’s, my husband and I decided to go back to college. At the same time. With four kids. He planned to be an English teacher and I was going to be a science teacher. We knew it wouldn’t be easy, but we were committed. My husband got his English teaching certification and I, well, I had the opportunity to do some hands-on lab research, fell in love, and promptly changed my major to Biology.

In the midst of getting my degree, my mom was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and died one week into the second semester of my junior year. It was devastating, but I forced myself to keep going. I was accepted as a PhD candidate at Washington University in St. Louis and was thrilled to attend there. Then, in my second year, my dad was diagnosed with lung cancer. I knew I couldn’t go through dealing with another major illness while being a student again. I didn’t have the energy. So, I quit the program.

Since I couldn’t afford to not bring in any income, I went looking for a job. Someone told me that Monsanto always needed contract workers. I applied and was offered a temp position in Insect Control Discovery. After three months, I interviewed for and was offered a full-time position in that group. That was my intro into the world of GMOs. Honestly, I hadn’t spent one iota of time considering them before that. I left Monsanto in 2010, but my love of the technology, the dedication of the scientists there, and the promise of sustainable agriculture stayed with me.

With the advent of the push for labeling laws, I rededicated myself to helping to educate and explain the science and the industry behind GMOs. I went looking for pages on Facebook and found GMOLOL and, eventually, GMO Skepti-Forum. I also investigated anti-GMO pages and sites and I was continually shocked by the sentiments that I saw expressed there, and sometimes even on GMO SF. I could understand critics questioning business practices, patent law, and even safety. What I was not prepared for was the questioning of the ethics of the scientists doing the work. That was personal.

I used GMO Skepti-Forum as a platform for venting my frustration and this was my post:

A member said, “This is a great parallel to much of what I see on this site. The echo chamber here utilizes their tool bag of peer reviewed studies that we’re performed by the biotech industry and then peer reviewed by members of the biotech industry and then they copy and paste and sit back with smiles as though they performed the study themselves. “

And, what exactly is wrong with people in biotech writing papers based on their research to be reviewed by other experts in the field before being published in peer-reviewed journals? Would you want an electrician to give you a second opinion on a medical diagnosis? Why do those who are anti-GMO seem to think that all scientists are willing and dishonest enough, to falsify data and/or vouch for the results presented in all of those papers that prove GMOs are safe? Do they truly believe that researchers are immoral, unethical, and/or scared that Monsanto will eat their babies if they don’t comply?

I am a research scientist and I want everyone to understand what that means. I went to school for a long time and I owe a lot of money to do something that I am passionate about because I believe that I can make a difference in this world. I have done research at Monsanto and I am currently doing research at Medimmune. I studied microorganisms collected from hot springs in Yellowstone and I had an intimate couple of years with a plant pathogenic fungus as an undergrad. It doesn’t matter what I am working on or who I am working for, I do not have an agenda. I love it all and I don’t give a thought to where my paycheck comes from when I generate the data, do the analysis, and present the results. The experiments turn out however they turn out, for better or for worse. If they aren’t what was expected, then I optimize and repeat and optimize and repeat again and all while making sure to observe lab superstitions (use that special pipette, hold my breath while walking to the PCR machine, stand on my head…whatever) in order to cover all of my bases. At the end of the day, though, if the results don’t change, I shrug my shoulders and deliver the bad news. That is what happens at least 90% of the time…negative results. It’s not easy work and the breakthroughs are few and far between. IF something that I am working on now makes it to market, I will most likely be working somewhere else or retired by that time. My pay comes from successes that came a long time before I got here.

So, when I read over and over how researchers can’t be trusted and are too biased to be considered expert sources IN THEIR OWN FIELD, frankly, it pisses me off. It is insulting to be judged and dismissed because someone doesn’t want to believe the science and, instead of learning about what we do and how we do it, chooses to remain ignorant of the process. Ask questions. Learn about how research is done. Don’t automatically assume that all scientists think they are superior. Accept that they know more about a subject that they have studied for years than someone who uses Google to find out what ‘PCR’ stands for.

If you would like us at Skepti-Forum to share your story, please see our previous post: Callout for Your Stories! In 500 Words, What is Your Stance on GMOs in Society?
Photo credit: ILRI | CC