Lisa Phelps: Dedicated Chemist and Passionate Farmer

When she’s not working on the latest chemical breakthrough for Syngenta, Phelps tends to chores on the family farm.
Lisa Phelps
Lisa Phelps
As product chemistry group leader for Syngenta Crop Protection in Greensboro, North Carolina, Lisa Phelps has dedicated her career to bringing groundbreaking ingredients and products to market. Working within the technology and engineering department, Phelps and her team guide innovative crop protection chemistries through the product chemistry regulatory and review processes. Their work includes coordinating studies and analyzing and gathering data on new pesticides for submission to the Environmental Protection Agency and other global regulatory agencies.

A recent example is the integral role Phelps and her team are playing in the regulatory review process for Adepidyn® fungicide. Upon registration, this new fungicidal active ingredient will be used on row and specialty crops. In trials, Adepidyn has shown exceptional activity against a number of fungal adversaries, including Fusarium, leaf spots and powdery mildew.

Given how active the Syngenta Crop Protection pipeline is, Phelps’ days are filled with precise, regimented work. It is a job she loves.

“We touch every single active ingredient and end-use product that is registered in the U.S.,” says Phelps, who started her college career in computer science before gravitating toward chemistry. “If we don’t get these products registered, the grower doesn’t have anything new to implement.”

It can be demanding. To succeed in the lab, she says, “You have to meet deadlines. You have to be extremely detail-oriented.”

In other words, it’s not so different from farming. And that is precisely where she got her start.

Around the World and Back to Greensboro

Phelps grew up on the family farm in Guilford County, North Carolina. It’s only about a 15-minute drive from the high-tech laboratory where she works today. That’s not to say she’s always stayed put.

With her late husband in the military and, then later, working for the federal government, Phelps has lived in New Jersey as well as Japan. “It was hard for this farm girl to leave and go to another country,” she says. But she did, along with her children, who were both under 10 at the time.

“A lot of people don’t realize what a huge, dynamic world we live in,” she says. “The kids learned so much that can never be taken away.”

Throughout her travels, Phelps worked as a chemist. She continued on that path when the tug of home brought her back to North Carolina in the late 90s. Upon her return, she took a position with a Syngenta legacy company.

“I’ve always come back home,” she says. “The farm is in my blood.”

“We touch every single active ingredient and end-use product that is registered in the U.S. If we don’t get these products registered, the grower doesn’t have anything new to implement.”

Lisa Phelps
And while Phelps can very eloquently explain how her family farm lives within her, she’s also not afraid to share the story of the time it nearly swallowed her.

Dirty Work

Growing up, her father worked as an extension agent during the day and on the farm at night and on the weekends. With their mother, Phelps and her two brothers pitched in to maintain the corn, wheat, soybeans and tobacco farm.

“I could drive a tractor before I could drive a car,” Phelps says.

But there was a least one day when the tractor essentially drove her. While in high school, during a busy harvest season, Phelps got the tractor stuck in a muddy field. No matter what she tried, it only seemed to make the situation worse.

“I buried it,” she says, laughing.

It just so happened that some of her high school classmates were working that day, helping out on the farm. They weren’t about to let her forget it, christening her “Mud Mama” from that day forward. She didn’t seem to mind.

Chemist for @SyngentaUS spends her days in the lab and nights on the farm. #RootedinAg

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“I love the land,” she says. “I love being outside, working in the soil.”

Today, she and her brothers each have homes on the family land, near their parents. The oldest house on the farm can trace its roots to the 1860s, when it was constructed as a one-room log cabin. The 450 acres are in an area of prime development near ever-expanding Greensboro, hence her short commute.

The farm continues to be a labor of love for the family, as each of the siblings have day jobs. They all pitch in on the farm. And despite constant entreaties from developers, they don’t have any plans to change that arrangement.

“My brothers and I are determined that in our lifetimes, we won’t sell.”