June 16, 2016
A comedian’s take on a data scientist from Monsanto

“I would buy out Dow Chemical and Monsanto and shut them down,” said a visiting professor during a breakfast session at Washington University in St. Louis, US, last month. This was one of the professor’s personal solutions when asked how he could make everyone healthy. On 15 June, practicing scientist, author and stand-up comedian Adam Ruben published an opinion story in Science magazine (published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science) on his observations from this event and his encounter with a data scientist at Monsanto.

Image of Louis Pasteur. Thanks to his work we know that certain bacteria are responsible for sickness. But he was denounced by the medical establishment and ridiculed by the public.

Thanks to Louis Pasteur’s work we know that certain bacteria are responsible for sickness. But he was denounced by the medical establishment and ridiculed by the public.

Nathan VanderKraats, a computer scientist by training, was one of the next speakers who told the audience how much he now enjoys his work as a data scientist and technical lead at Monsanto. This involves developing algorithms to analyse data about phenotypes and genetics.

Also in Europe we are currently testing a digital-agriculture approach to farming at 23 technology centre sites. We hope to be able to roll out data-based services to customers soon — such as a farming app to update a farmer on whether they have enough nitrogen on their fields to hit their harvesting targets.

But Ruben discovered that sometimes it takes a while before VanderKraats can describe what he does in his day job around data science because, as you may have guessed it, Monsanto’s infamy usually precedes him when he mentions his employer in social occasions.

“I think we contribute positively to the world,” VanderKraats said to Ruben after the presentation, “but sometimes I still hesitate a little to reveal that in a conversation, because you’re not really sure if the person on the other end is an opponent.”

While this Science magazine story is not as funny as some may have expected considering that it was written by a comedian, it does give insights into the common ground of venom that many employees of large science-based companies or institutions face today.

For example, Ruben describes that if you’re in the chemical industry, people may respond that you’re poisoning the world; if you’re developing medicines, you’re a shill for Big Pharma. He continues that if you’re an engineer at an energy company, you hate pelicans; NASA wastes taxpayer money; every form of energy production sucks and the military scientists love war, etc.

Ruben then reflects on how he himself was once at the receiving end of some vitriol during a dinner where his friend’s brother screamed “What did the mice ever do to you?” when he mentioned that he used mice in some experiments.

“I was so caught off guard that I never figured out how to communicate that my lab’s motivation for studying mice was not vengeance-based,” said Ruben.

You can read the full opinion piece in the careers section of AAAS’ Science magazine here.


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