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August 2019 Lead

Wednesday, August 21, 2019   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Needa Virani
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August 2019
GWIS LEAD is a GWIS periodical profiling women leaders in science.  Subscribe
GWIS Honorary Member, Dr. Elizabeth Hood
Dr. Elizabeth Hood graduated from Oklahoma State University with a Master of Science in botany and continued her education at Washington University in St. Louis obtaining a PhD in plant biology. Dr. Hood has studied plant biology for over 35 years focusing on the production of enzymes in the ‘biomass to bioproducts’ industry. She has over 80 publications and patents to her name and is a highly sought-after speaker globally.
Dr. Hood’s career has spanned both academia and industry; during her time with Pioneer Hi-Bred International, she directed a cell biology group focused on plant production of therapeutic proteins. Her team developed the first commercialized product from a plant production system. She later joined ProdiGene, where she formed and led an internationally recognized transgenic plant group. Dr. Hood joined the Arkansas State University faculty in 2004 as Associate Vice Chancellor for Research and Technology Transfer. In 2008, she became the Lipscomb Distinguished Professor of Agriculture. She is also currently the CEO of Infinite Enzymes and Infinite Eversole Strategic Crop Services in addition to recently being awarded the Florence R. Sabin award for Research Excellence by GWIS.

How did you choose your field of research?
I started out as a sociology major in college. When I met my husband, he got me interested in biology. I didn’t realize that you could do plant biology until I took a botany class that was not related to animal health. Before that, I was never exposed to it. So, when I took my first botany class as a senior in college, I just fell in love and thought, “I want to do this!” Then I got married, and we moved out to the desert where I got interested in organic gardening. At some point, I got really interested in potentially using my knowledge to be able to create crops that didn't need to be sprayed with chemicals. When I interviewed for my Ph.D. program at Washington University in St. Louis, I met Mary-Dell Chilton, one of the founders of modern plant biotechnology. I realized that genetic engineering would be the answer to crops that didn’t need so many chemicals. It was a revelation, and that was the most exciting thing I had ever heard of. So that’s what got me started doing what I’m doing.
However, in my first faculty position, I was denied tenure, so I was looking for another job, and one job at Pioneer Seed company came open; the description mentioned this new group producing proteins in plants. That was when I met John Howard who led that new group, and I was the first employee in the program. There I led the transformation team and managed some of the products as well.

In your career you had so many different roles: professor in academia, scientist in a big company, director at NSF, CEO of startup companies… How did you adjust and keep contributing in different environments? Were there any instances of adversity that you experienced and how did you overcome those obstacles?
The many different environments I’ve been in and why I tried so many different things also answers the question of overcoming obstacles. Like I said, I was denied tenure at my first job, so I had to go to do something else. I decided I didn't like teaching very much, and I wanted to stay in research. So that’s why I went to industry. When we were at Pioneer, the leadership changed and didn’t give our product group support, so John Howard licensed out the technology we were working on and started a company. I went with him, and that was my favorite job. It was a great experience. From there, I decided to go to the National Science Foundation for a year in order to step back and take stock of where we were and what I wanted to do. NSF is a great place to go to be able to do that because you're still involved with the science but not bound to any particular institution. After that, I ended up coming here to Arkansas State as the Vice Chancellor of Research. I really liked that job. But again, I really like being in industry too. Then my husband and I started one company to work with protein products in plants. A friend of mine who is a consultant in the regulatory industry created a second startup; she and I run workshops on plant genetic engineering regulations and help people figure out how to deregulate their transgenic plants.
So I have kind of had the same job all these years—I’ve just done it in different places. Always try new things and never stop just because there’s an obstacle.

It seems like knowing what you want to do is the key. What’s your advice on how to identify career interest?
Sometimes it’s trial and error. For example, I assumed I’d like a faculty position, but at my first position, I was quite surprised about the things I did enjoy and didn’t enjoy. One of my struggles back then was I never really learned how to write grant proposals when I was graduate student. I learned it in the meantime, but that was a real struggle. I love doing research, either bench research or helping other people with their projects. I like being part of and managing the big picture. Often when you get a faculty position, you have to hunker down and focus on a small piece of a field, and I just didn’t like that kind of approach. That’s how I figured out I prefer industry positions, and it gave me a lot of fun opportunities.

What is some training that you would recommend grad students focus on in order to prepare for future careers?
Being able to generate a hypothesis or a research question and write a series of experiments that will answer that question is really critical for surviving in academia. On the other hand, for industry positions, being really good at your particular technical skills and being very up to date is more important. Although once you get into industry, there are all kinds of opportunities to move to other groups or even move up to management, they really hire towards certain set of skills more so than academia jobs. Some skills and perspectives required in industry may not be what they need in academia, and vice versa.

Have you experienced any challenges as a female scientist and female leader?
It’s interesting we are still talking about this. When I was a postdoc, I was once told by a male scientist that I would never make it in my career because I was a woman. Also, I was shocked by an assumption that a lot of people make: if you are a woman in science with your career and a PhD, you are most likely married to a man with a PhD; the reverse is rarely true.
What I see as challenges for female scientists are fighting for respect and having people make assumptions about your competence just because you are a woman. Also, women are not given enough opportunities for leadership roles. I wonder if it’s because men make the decisions for the most part.
Now as the CEO of two companies, one thing that is really interesting is we are in the process of raising money to build a pilot plant. Almost every person that I’ve spoken to who has money to invest or is interested in running companies is a man. I’ve talked to about 50 people, and there was only one woman, which is frustrating. I asked my business consultant “are there any women out there?” even when I was looking for attorneys, most of the options were male. They kind of look at a female like, “wow she is cute,” or “how did she get so smart?” You just have to prove yourself over and over again.
To improve the situation, I think we need to hire more women and seek out women leaders as well.

Among all the excellent achievements in your career so far, what are you most proud of?
The thing that makes me happiest now is that avidin was the first protein product that was ever sold that was made from plants, and I was the manager for that product. So that makes me very proud. Of course, there’s also the EHA101, which was a fluke. EHA101 was one of the first and most widely used Agrobacterium helper plasmids for plant gene transfer. (It was named after Elizabeth Hood who constructed it.)
Have there been any mentors or role models that played an important role in your career development?
Mary-Dell Chilton; she was very driven as a scientist, and she was also a great mother. I enjoy knowing her very much. John Howard was the person who made me believe in myself, and he was also a great mentor. Barbara McClintock is my hero, because she’s so smart and ahead of her time. There was also a postdoc when I was a graduate student who I considered a role model, and I respected her a lot.
It’s a combination of influences. One advice I would like to share is actually be good to yourself, stop beating yourself up. You have to be resilient and persistent, and don’t have all those doubts of your accomplishments.

What advice would you give 20-year-old you? If you got a second chance would you still be a scientist?
Do something important and try to make a difference. And yes, I would still be a scientist—I love it. My friends here at Arkansas State and I worry about the state of the world every day but so few people seem to be worried about it. Global climate change, population growth and plastics in the world—an average person has no concept about all these things. If those of us who know what to do don’t do something, then there is going to be a huge price we or at least our grandchildren will have to pay.

Contributed by Shu Li and copy edited by Rozzy Finn.

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