Smithsonian Honors Syngenta Scientist

A new Smithsonian exhibition recognizes Syngenta scientist Mary-Dell Chilton and other women pioneering in business.
Smithsonian Honors Syngenta Scientist
Mary-Dell Chilton, Ph.D., retired distinguished science fellow, Syngenta
Mary-Dell Chilton, Ph.D., has long been recognized in the plant science community for her pioneering work in genetic engineering. But starting this year, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., plans to introduce her to a much broader audience through an exhibit featuring eight women, including Chilton, who broke barriers in business. “The Only One in the Room” will offer the public an opportunity to explore the trials and triumphs experienced by these women along their journeys to success.

“For the few women who do obtain the highest levels of success, they often find themselves alone — the only one in the room,” says Peter Liebhold, curator for the museum’s division of work and industry. “We hope that sharing these women’s stories can help our visitors feel like they, too, can succeed and make a difference.”

Chilton’s story is particularly impressive. Currently a retired distinguished science fellow at Syngenta, she spearheaded research that led to the commercial development of the first genetically modified trait in corn. Her groundbreaking molecular research showed scientists how they could insert genes from another organism into plant cells to produce crop varieties with innovative traits — traits that could protect plants from environmental stresses, enhance yield, improve nutritional content and complement traditional plant breeding in very precise ways.

A new @amhistorymuseum exhibition recognizes @SyngentaUS scientist Mary-Dell Chilton and other women pioneering in business.

click to tweet

As a result of this innovative work, Chilton was honored in 2013 as a World Food Prize Laureate, a prestigious award given to individuals who have contributed to the improvement of the world’s food security. And in 2015, she was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame, which honors U.S. patent holders whose technological advancements have changed the world through human, social and/or economic progress.

“Her work in agricultural biotechnology opened a whole new industry and changed how we produce food,” explains Qiudeng Que, a senior group leader in the Syngenta Seeds Research Unit in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina. “By genetically engineering crops to tolerate insects and produce greater yields, she’s helped make farmers’ lives easier and agriculture more sustainable.”

Mary-Dell Chilton’s work in agricultural biotechnology opened a whole new industry and changed how we produce food.

Qiudeng Que
Senior Group Leader
Syngenta Seeds Research
As important as this breakthrough proved to be, Chilton says the first time she felt the sense of “breaking the glass ceiling” was in 1983, when she was hired to launch the CIBA-Geigy Agricultural Biotechnology Research Unit. CIBA-Geigy is a Syngenta legacy company.

“I was hired based on my scientific abilities and became CIBA-Geigy’s executive director of agricultural biotechnology,” she says.

She oversaw construction of the laboratory facility, the recruitment of 50 scientists and the development of a portfolio of projects that would address the needs of CIBA-Geigy’s agricultural businesses.

“As a scientist and pioneer in agricultural biotechnology, she’s in a small group of brilliant academics,” Liebhold says. “She also proved her abilities as an outstanding administrator. Succeeding in both areas as a woman makes her even more amazing.”

Because Smithsonian museums closed this springto help contain the spread of COVID-19, the opening of new exhibits may be delayed. For more information on when “The Only One in the Room” exhibit is available to the public, go to the museum’s Events page.