By Nick Weber
Monsanto Corporate Engagement
I hated science classes in grade school and high school. In grade school, I was more concerned about perfecting spitball techniques than learning the Periodic Table. When our science fair projects were discontinued, I might have been the happiest kid in the school. In high school, dissecting the fetal pig was gross. When it came time as a senior to choose between Anatomy and Physiology or Physics, I chose the former because it seemed easier (I still hated it; had to dissect another pig and the teacher threw in a cow’s eyeball for fun). And as math transitioned from Algebra to Trig and Calculus, I found more joy in using my TI-82 to play “Drug Cartel” than learning about parabolic equations.
When I went to college, I realized if I majored in the Liberal Arts, I wouldn’t have to take any science or math classes. Seriously, I took this into consideration. So, Communications was the play. I enjoyed my major, where I could focus on a possible newspaper career as a sports reporter. Newspapers didn’t work out so I turned to corporate communications, where I could apply my ability to find and tell stories in a corporate setting.
Now I’m at Monsanto, where science is a key driver of our business in agriculture. So now, I learn and talk about science—sometimes directly, other times indirectly—every day. At first, this was frustrating—“Earworm, rootworm, bollworm, budworm? How many worms can there possibly be in a field?” I wasn’t comfortable getting into the weeds, so to speak, on explaining the science of agriculture.
After a couple years, it’s been easier, mainly because I’ve had great teachers—farmers and Monsanto scientists. I’m digging science now.
Farm Progress Show: Where It All Changed
My first lesson in agricultural science came at my first trip to the Farm Progress Show, a large outdoor farm show that alternates between Illinois and Iowa. Two farmers, Ron and Ken, walked with me through a tractor manufacturer’s space. Ron explained to me how a combine head cut soybeans from the plant and the pod. Then he turned his attention to the tires. He started talking about soil compaction from tires and the force of these several-ton machines on the dirt and how that can make the ground clump together. Ron said clumping is bad when it comes time to plant next spring. You want loose dirt when placing a seed in the ground (think of how you may aerate your lawn in the fall and then overseed it).
Then, Ron walked me over to another tractor that had tracks like a tank, instead of tires. He explained tractors with tracks compact the soil less than tractors with tires. This can help seeds sprout from the ground better and quicker compared with compacted soil.
While we didn’t talk about worms, genes, biotechnology, microorganisms or anything that seemed science-y, the gist of Ron’s explanations are based in science. During a 10-minute conversation, I had received science lessons in soil structure, pressure, and even the engineering feat of a tractor’s combine head grabbing a plant, shattering a pod and separating soybeans (all in about 0.3 seconds, no less).
Science Communication at Monsanto
When I return from farm trips and farm shows, I ask our Monsanto scientists more specific questions. When a farmer like Ron talks about soil compaction and seed emergence, I can pick someone’s brain here on how Monsanto researches seed emergence and how various soil conditions can impact this. It can get science-y, but my interest in telling stories drives me to learn more and simplify the science for Monsanto employees and consumers.
Thankfully, we have really good, smart scientists who are patient with Liberal Arts majors like myself, not well-versed in science, to find ways to explain the science and shape it into understandable terms and stories. (They say cross-breeding, I say plant sex; they call it plant residue, I call it mulch).
In the past, telling the science story was left to the PR folks like me. We did okay. But, there was something missing from the conversation—scientists, the people who can actually explain what they’re working. Many in science feel that science communication has waned in recent years, so it’s also exciting to see Monsanto scientists reach out directly to consumers to talk about agricultural sciences. Robb Fraley, Monsanto’s chief technology officer, regularly hops around the country to deliver presentations to talk about science in agriculture and the amazing strides it has taken over the past 25 years. He has energized the science organization at Monsanto to communicate more about the good work they perform and how it can impact agriculture and food production. It’s a great next step for us as we work to share more about what we do in agriculture.
From Sports to Ag
In first grade at St. Anthony’s, Mrs. Maddox had us plant lima beans in a Styrofoam cup as a class project. I think most of us tightly packed our cups with soil and pushed the beans deep into the cup. We set our cups by the window, watered then every day and waited for them to grow. Some plants popped up quickly, while others, like mine, popped up a bit later. Twenty years later, thanks to Ron and a trip to an ag show, I know why my seed was delayed: soil compaction by thumb.
I wish I would have studied science a little more closely back in the day. As I’ve discovered, some knowledge of science usually comes in handy regardless of the field you choose. But here I am now: a former sports reporter and Communications major writing about agriculture and agricultural science. I completely stumbled into it—and I love every minute of it.