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Q&A: Sherri Brown, Monsanto Scientist

This Monsanto scientist encourages young women to pursue careers in STEM fields.

SF: How did you become interested in a science career? 

SB: I had an aptitude for math and an interest in science at a very early age. I was fortunate because the elementary school in Michigan that I attended invested in science, so I had the benefit of access. I also grew up in a family that was involved in the science of medicine. I was planning a career in that area for a long time until I started doing research at Hope College. I really enjoyed the inquiry of research, which led me to Indiana University, where I earned a Ph.D. in genetics and molecular biology. I went straight to Monsanto after that and was one of the early researchers working on the methods behind biotechnology in corn.

SF: As a member of the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) Food & Ag Council, explain why STEM is important. 

SB: We must produce food sustainably in a way that preserves our environment to feed a growing world. At the same time, we’re faced with the challenge of climate change. We need science and technology to ace it all. Over the next 10 years, there will be close to a million jobs that will need to be filled in the STEM fields. If we continue on the current path, we are only going to have about half as many people as we need to fill those jobs and to meet those challenges. We have to inspire more students to come into the pipeline. We have to make sure these careers are available to everyone, including women. We also have to pull them from a different part of the pipeline. We love land-grant ag schools and will continue to get lots of people for our workforce from that path. I’d love to have an engineer from MIT who has no background in ag say, “The challenges of food and ag are really important to our world. I want to bring my talents to that area.”

SF: How are you connecting with young women to get them interested in a STEM career?  

SB: When I was in graduate school, I would judge science fairs. It gave me the opportunity to talk to students who had an interest in the STEM fields, but I noticed there were very few young women competing. Being involved in these events allowed me to show them that a woman can pursue a career in science. I could talk to them about what it is like to be in this field. In my current role at Monsanto, part of my job is outreach and bringing science to these young people who are so important to our future.

SF: How soon should we be talking to young women about a STEM career? 

SB: Monsanto had an event where we hosted 120 ninth-grade girls at our Chesterfield, Missouri, site. This grade level is so critical because, while it may not be the time young women select a career, they can unselect a career. By bringing them into our company at such a fork-in-the-road age, those girls may be bitten by the bug. They’ll then go back and sign up for that math, biology, or chemistry class. If they don’t do it then and decide later they want to, it’s much harder, because they need to build that foundation early.

SF: How long before we see a definitive impact from the STEM initiative?  

SB: It’s getting better all the time, but there is still work to be done. I definitely question how well citizens understand science and technology in food and agriculture, because many people are misinformed. The old idea of what it means to work in this industry – an old guy in overalls – is not what modern agriculture is. We have to dispel those stereotypes that say it isn’t high tech, that it isn’t for girls, that it isn’t for urban kids. I also wake up every morning thinking about how we bring enough knowledge to citizens so they are able to make an informed decision. That has never been more critical than now.


Name: Sherri Brown

Title: Vice president, science strategy, Monsanto

Home: St. Louis, Missouri

Family: She and her husband, David, have two children

Background: Since joining Monsanto in 1988, Brown has held a variety of leadership roles within the company including V.P., global technology development; V.P., global corn technology; V.P., global oilseeds technology; and V.P., chemistry and animal agriculture.

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