Monsanto is a strange land and I was strange in it…

Highlights:

  • Transitioning from the public sector researcher into a new position in the private sector is challenging – both professionally and personally.
  • Learnings:
    • being different is an asset,
    • being vulnerable can lift you up,
    • asking for help is OK, and
    • maintaining a sense of self in the face of adversity can come with great rewards.

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leafFour years ago today, I started my job as Social Sciences Lead with Monsanto.

The decision to transition from public sector researcher into a new position in the private sector was part strategy and part leap of faith for me. It wasn’t a decision I took lightly. I considered my options (along with other offers that came my way) and I decided to join Monsanto. My role was the first of its kind in the company; the first of its kind in the industry. The career challenges associated with that alone attracted me. But I was also keenly aware that social science and humanities disciplines serve an important role in understanding and informing society during difficult times. The agricultural industry – and food production more broadly – was struggling with a public image problem. While my publicly funded research activities had been largely devoted to understanding this complex environment and in communicating through it, I also believed that my new role would present greater opportunity to be part of meaningful solutions. The move to Monsanto was a risk – but it was a calculated one. I viewed this opportunity as a social science case study of a lifetime.

But I underestimated just how tough that transition would be.

After more than a year working for the company remotely from my home in Alberta, I jumped at the chance to move down to headquarters in St. Louis to work face-to-face with my Monsanto colleagues. I made the move in December of 2015 and my husband, Blair, joined me a couple of months later. We settled on a lovely little farm outside of Eureka, Missouri; one with a charming old farmhouse (in need of an update), a barn, and space that could accommodate our collection of critters (horses, dogs). It was all very idyllic and I was optimistic about the future.

Then everything changed.

leafBy mid-March of 2016, I found myself firmly wedged in a soul-sucking depression. In hindsight, I can identify several triggers for this. I left grown kids, friends, and family behind in Canada. I really misjudged how difficult that would be for me; how lonely I would find life so far from the people I loved. And don’t get me started on the daily commute. Saskatoon, Saskatchewan (current population ~300K) was largest city I’ve ever lived in my life prior to this move. So, a 40-minute commute on major artery (formerly known as Route 66) intimidated the hell out of me. Let’s just say it wasn’t a great way to start and end each day in a job that I was already struggling to wrap my head around. I was in a new country, experiencing a new (corporate) culture. To say that the colour had faded from my life was an understatement. My days were grey and interspersed with a series of drab, monochromatic moments. I also noticed the subtle (and sometimes, not so subtle) way relationships changed with my old academic friends and colleagues. Where once doors were held open wide, things had now been reduced to awkward exchanges through peepholes. While I anticipated I would be met with these kinds of challenges when I made the leap to the private sector, I was not prepared for how I would feel about it when I faced them. It was like I’d been voted off the island.

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To be clear, this bout of depression wasn’t my ‘first rodeo’. And while I was disappointed to find my feet firmly planted in another one, I was also grateful when I finally recognized it. What I’d learned from past experiences was that being open and honest about my depression didn’t make me weak, it made me human. I recognized a pattern, too. Depression seems to find me at times of mind-numbing upheaval in my life (loss of loved ones) or major life shifts (physical moves or career changes). With this latest bout, I discovered that I lacked the emotional bandwidth to manage a life change of this magnitude. I needed help. And I got it.

Let’s face it, you can’t find your way around depression, you must find your way through it. A turning point came for me later in 2016 when the farmhouse renovation was finally done. We settled into a home life that was free of disruptive construction noises; one with a fully functioning kitchen (for us, the heart of the home). I could finally ‘nest’ and establish our ‘sanctuary’. While my connection to friends and family in the home country had indeed changed, by this point we had come up with fun, new ways to connect in creative ways through daily texts and Snapchat groups. Something that also really helped me through the dark days was guidance I received from my new boss. She provided me with a compass (a map, if you will) so that I could navigate through this very puzzling space we call ‘corporate culture’.

Companies like Monsanto traditionally hire people with know-how in finance, law, communications, agronomy, plant genetics, and engineering. I was different. I was firmly entrenched in my identity and experience as a social science academic and – for a while -I didn’t feel like I was a “fit”. You know, the proverbial ‘square peg’ in a ’round hole’. I often think that the  transition would have been so much easier if there were more people like me at the company. I recognized long ago the value that people with expertise like mine can bring to a company like this; to an industry like agriculture. But it took a while for me to convey that value in a way that my Monsanto colleagues could connect with and understand.

There are huge opportunities for all manner of social science and humanities disciplines in the agricultural industry. While corporations need to better recognize these opportunities, academia also needs to get past its antipathy towards corporations. There is room for and real opportunity in corporations for people with all kinds of expertise in the social sciences and humanities: people like cultural anthropologists, behavioral scientists, social psychologists, etc.

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Mbullet-Leafonsanto is a strange land and I was strange in it. The transition from public sector research to the private sector represented a move away from my academic ‘clan’. I was wholly unprepared for how this would affect me personally and professionally. The good news is that I found my way through it. I learned the language. Yes, there’s a ‘language’ here in the corporate space.  I learned how to communicate my ideas in ways that my colleagues could understand so that I could mobilize those ideas and get things done. I realized that I could navigate and find a place in this corporate space while still maintaining my values and my identity.

We often underestimate how even the subtlest of shifts in life can impact our capacity to manage them. What I’ve discovered through all of this is that being different is an asset, being vulnerable can lift you up, asking for help is OK, and – most importantly – maintaining a sense of self in the face of adversity can come with great rewards. You just need the courage to persevere.

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I do love colour! 🙂

 

Resources:

The Do More Ag Foundation “helping champion the mental well being of all Canadian producers”

Free the PhD! Find the Job. Get the job. Love your life outside the lab.

Schrage, Michael (2015). “Why the future of social science is with private companies.” Harvard Business Review. Available online at: https://hbr.org/2015/09/why-the-future-of-social-science-is-with-private-companies

Paech, Gemma. “Ten Lucrative Career Options for Social Science PhDs.” The Cheeky Scientist. Available online at: https://cheekyscientist.com/lucrative-social-science-career-options/

Ryan, Cami. (2016). Why is a social scientist working at Monsanto? Blog: Cami Ryan. Available online at: https://camiryan.com/2016/10/27/why-is-a-social-scientist-working-at-monsanto/

 

 

4 Steps to Good Storytelling

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Last year, I was invited to share my science communication story at CropLife Canada’s Spring Dialogue Days. It was great to be standing in front of a crowd of 150+ of my peers, friends, and colleagues in the capitol of my homeland. I was home and all was right with the world.

In the days leading up to the event, however, I struggled to find the right blend of life events and lessons-learned to share with this crowd. What would be most meaningful?

The past 20+ years has been a rich tapestry of experiences for me from a science communication perspective (starting here…up until now). I ended up sharing a personal story of milestones and anecdotes from the past 10 years. Most significantly, though, I shared some observations about the evolving role that storytelling plays in building public trust in modern agriculture.

As Jonathan Haidt, author of The Righteous Mind, states: “The human mind is a story processor, not a logic processor.” We humans love stories. Stories are woven into the social fabric of our lives. Words matched with imaginative expression bring stories to life. A good story – when it’s told well – releases chemicals in the listener’s brain. These chemical reactions build trust between the storyteller and the listener.

As an industry, we have come to recognize this power that storytelling has. Stories are channels for sharing information, learning, and for building and sustaining relationships. We find common ground by sharing the human experience. Yes, farmers and scientists are stepping out from fields and labs to share their stories. But the art and science of storytelling is evolving. And storytelling today requires a whole new level of agility and ingenuity than it ever has before. It is one part engagement and two parts personal branding. It also requires an aptitude for self-reflection. Here are some tips:

1) Know your audience. That’s a given, right? Well, not exactly. Knowing your audience today means something entirely different than it did 10 years ago. It requires social networking savvy and a nuanced understanding of human behavior (your own included). Ideologies and perceptions are reinforced by our close personal networks (and those networks have expanded since the onset of the Internet). We humans depend upon our personal networks for social survival. If stories don’t reflect our personal and network identities, we are less likely to connect with them and the storytellers because – let’s face it – our social survival depends on it. The last thing that we want is to be voted off the island.

2) Be clever; be creative. We live in a ‘fast information nation.’ People want to be entertained first, informed second. Our ‘social living room space’ has expanded and new tools and platforms pop up everyday. Take advantage of them. Use your words wisely and economically. Paint pictures with your words. Don’t be afraid to use humour. Think outside your own bubble (community, tribe, sector, discipline, vocation…).

3) Stories not only have to be compelling, they must be useful. The Oxford English dictionary defines useful as: “Able to be used for a practical purpose or in several ways.” As I see it, stories need to be:

  • Accessible: Is it readily available in spaces where your audience can find it? Think: social media platforms. Be where people are.
  • Relatable: Can a listener understand the content or the plotline? Lose the jargon! How does your story matter to the listener? Example: Does your science or farm story resonate with a suburban mom? Anticipate how she might share that story with her friends and family members. Equip her with the best metaphors.
  • Transferable: How can someone use your story to enhance their own? Your story needs to tap into and cut across cultures and belief systems in this world of mass information and diminishing attention spans.

4) Avoid the pitfalls of drive-by storytelling. This is when we shape a compelling story, drop it into a conversation, and then quickly move on. Be present. Track your story. When appropriate, update and engage around that narrative to reflect current events or new social realities.

Today, people have a very narrow view of science and its role in modern agriculture. Our job as science communicators is to expand knowledge in meaningful ways. Stories can be a vehicle for that. They are a mirror for social organization and community-based values and reflections of personal identities. We must keep in mind, however, that while communicating the value of science is very important, how we carry it out in this network-driven world matters even more. We must seek avenues to communicate the good news about science and modern agriculture in ways that won’t alienate people from their personal networks – and their identities.

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This blog post a slightly re-imagined version of guest postI wrote for SAIFood.ca in May 2017. That original post is here.

Self, society, and the science of skinny jeans

bullet-LeafThis past weekend, for the umpteenth time, I cracked open Matthew Lieberman’s book Social: why our brains are wired to connect (2013). I skimmed through it like I normally do with non-fiction books. I picked out bits and pieces – like an uncle foraging through a Sunday smorgasbord – finding things that I find intellectually appetizing (AKA things that confirm my bias).

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Credit: author

Among the many gems outlined in this marvelous book, one passage in particular stood out to me. The author refers to Neitzsche, who argued that:

“…our sense of self is typically something constructed, primarily by the people in our lives, and that the self is actually a secret agent working for them more than for us.”

We humans are herd animals. We respond to signals from those around us; the world around us. We see this behavior play out, for example, in how we respond to cultural trends. Here’s an example.

SKINNY JEANS

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Source: Pixabay

Remember when skinny jeans first emerged on the fashion scene? 

I said, “Yuck. No damn way.” A few months later, I was… “Well, maybe…” 

Now I have three pair. For some reason, skinny jeans became a palatable fashion choice for me.

So, what’s that all about? 

We are influenced by those in our close personal networks. Our nature is to elevate and preserve the status we have (or aspire to have) within our social ‘herd’. This means that we need to abide by the collective rules of that social network.  If necessary, we will go to great lengths to protect a position. This is reflected in our “conforming” behaviors  (see Christakis and Fowler 2009). We pick up on social cues (behaviors) of others to know if and when we have “fallen out of favor” or crossed the boundaries of social norms. When it appears that we have broken away from “what is acceptable”, we risk being penalized by our network. Whether we care to admit it or not, we are highly influenced by the people around us, our environment (work, etc). This influence frames our behaviors, thoughts, perceptions, and opinions. And even what we choose to wear.

When it comes to fashion, I have always been “fashionably late”; slow to respond to changing trends. I eventually get there (well, somewhere in the vicinity anyway). As for skinny jeans, I’m not going to die on that fashion sword. But knowing me, it will take a while to move onto the next trend. And the ‘nudge’ will inevitably come from the people around me.

Suggested things to read, see, and listen to:

*This blog post is an updated excerpt from a post Ready, Set, Shame! (April 2016). 

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Monitoring the ‘information diet’: learning from the Registered Dietitians

bullet-LeafIf you listen to only one podcast episode this year, let it be this one. My friend, Robyn Flipse – Registered Dietitian and Cultural Anthropologist – chats with Registered Dietitian and podcaster Melissa Joy Dobbins (on her program, Soundbites) about how we are influenced by food cultism.

A summary of Robyn’s ‘nuggets’ of ‘food’ wisdom…

  1. We are the only animals that use symbolism in our lives. We apply that symbolism in many ways (for example, think currency). We also apply symbolism to food. We give food certain status and meaning in our societies and cultures.
  2. Our human nature leaves us vulnerable to influence by “food gurus”; people that step in and play on our fears and anxieties that we naturally have as humans. We are susceptible to the dogmatic traps and ideologies that these gurus use and perpetuate. They use language with claims about food that can “detoxify” or “purify” us.
  3. This, combined with our need to “belong” to tribes and social groups along with the influence of social media has left us vulnerable to food cultism and influencers. We are often willfully blind to the fact that there are usually a profit-based motives driving these food-related ideologies.

The one statement that Robyn made that really stuck out for me was this one:

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What and how to eat: we humans need to be taught and shown.

I hadn’t really thought about it like that before. And it makes sense. It also reminded me of a blog post that I wrote a couple of years ago: Fast Information Nation: the social costs of our highly connected world. As is the case with food, we need to be taught and shown how to consume information:

Excerpt: “We have an information banquet at our finger tips.  It’s a feast for the eyes and the ears; a smorgasbord of colour, content and a constant (sometimes annoying) presence in our lives.  Information has become the new flavourful, colourful commodity that dominates our lives and it’s shared on a fast-moving and highly-connected supply chain…But we have only so much space in our grey matter and we are presented with a ‘bountiful diet’ of mass information every day.  Ensuring that we access and share high quality, accurate information is important. Not only for our personal (mental) health and the health of our families, but for the health and wellness of our communities as well.”

In short, not only do we need to monitor our information diet (“calories” in, “calories” out), we need help in understanding how best to consume information in a balanced way. Especially in this fast-paced, socially-media driven world that we live in. This requires some work – discernment and critical thinking. Some good guiding principles can be found through these sources:

 

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