As Chief Scientific Officer Catherine leads the science organisation at startup Inari Agriculture, which comprises about 60 scientists from various backgrounds (genetics, genomics, data science, physics, physiology, medical research, and so forth).
What does Inari do?
We conduct research projects that build on the convergence of revolutions in genomics, genome editing, and data analytics to completely transform plant breeding. Using a “what if” approach, our projects aim at enabling our breeders to develop a new variety in soybean, corn, or wheat in shorter time spans (two years compared to 10-15 years today), with a significantly lower cost, and with seeds that perform optimally in their local environment. We want to feed the world without starving our planet using science.
Why do you love your job?
I love my job because it enables me to completely fulfil my purpose in life which is to “explore new frontiers and create novel opportunities for transforming lives together”. Leading a science organisation with passionate people in a purpose driven start-up that wants to transform agriculture, is an ideal job to achieve that purpose.
How did you get here?
I started at Inari nine months ago after having spent 20 years in academic research. I led projects and teams at universities and governmental research institutes in Switzerland (University of Zurich, 1994-2004) and France (National Research Institute of Agronomy, 2004-2013) on wheat genetics and genomics. I also spent five years as the Head of Trait Research at Bayer Crop Science (2013-2018). Having experienced both the academic and large agricultural industry worlds, I am now combining these experiences with Inari to build a completely novel breeding company.
What is your advice for young women wanting to contribute to sustainable food and farming?
Follow your passion, no matter what, believe in yourself and be open to opportunities. I have been interested in biology since a young age. I discovered my love for research after my master’s degree. I became passionate about working in wheat, because it feeds the world, and it is a daunting scientific challenge from a biological standpoint. I never planned my career, but I have always been open to opportunities to challenge myself and explore new frontiers with different people.
Wanting to contribute to sustainable food and farming is a wonderful purpose and you can only do that if you are passionate about it, because it requires persistence, hard work, and often working against those who believe your goals are impossible to achieve. It is important for young women to believe in themselves, especially as our education often doesn’t promote this belief. I was lucky to have great mentors throughout my professional life, and women role models that believed in me. I am now trying to do the same for the next generation of women in agriculture.
How does agriculture need to change to be fit for the future?
It needs to challenge itself about the way it is done. In the past decades since the green revolution, fantastic progress has been achieved to increase food production but this has been done too much at the expense of the environment. We need both healthy and well-fed people and a healthy planet. This is not incompatible at all, but it will require a science-based approach that radically changes the way we create new varieties. It has to be faster, more affordable to farmers, and with seeds that can grow and produce enough food in their local environment, with a minimal amount of input and natural resources, i.e., seeds optimized for their growing environment. Contributing to resolving this fundamental challenge is the focus of Inari.
What’s one challenge you face as a woman in agriculture and what do you think needs to be done to overcome this?
I have never felt discriminated as a woman, or not given equal opportunities. My biggest challenge was believing in myself and knowing I was qualified enough to take on the next challenge. Mentoring and role models have been key to overcoming these doubts, and they have enabled me to grow and now be in a position where I can do the same for young women in agriculture. I believe there is a need for more mentoring programs for women in agriculture.
A second challenge I faced at the beginning of my career, was diversity. I was often the only woman participating in breeding conferences. This has changed a bit, but it is time to recognize that gender diversity in agricultural science is an asset and that the majority of farmers around the world are women. Even in places like the United States, the percentage of farms being managed and operated by women is increasing. Therefore, it makes imminent sense that many more women are engaged in agricultural science.
I am part of a group called “Women in Genomics” which was initiated by Kellye Eversole at the Plant and Animal Genome meeting, 21 years ago to support networking between women working in animal, plant, and microbial genomics. It is a very diverse group of women from all over the world, in all phases of their academic or industry careers. We range from graduate students to high-ranking administrators of governmental funding programs, to chief scientific officers of companies, like me.
Through this group, I have had unique opportunities such as meeting with the former head of NSF International (an American public health and safety organisation), meeting colleagues working on chicken genomics and discussing common problems. This has helped me to expand my network in a way I never could have through my regular working environment. Men are extremely good at networking, and groups such as these enable women to expand their networks more efficiently and have fun together!
Catherine is just one of many inspirational women working in agriculture. Visit our Female #FoodHeroes page to hear from other women working to improve plant science and nutrition.