Yfke Hager takes a look at careers in agricultural chemistry and the scientists who are working to feed the world

Yfke Hager takes a look at careers in agricultural chemistry and the scientists who are working to feed the world


Thomas Sparks

’Innovative concepts developed by agricultural chemists really can change the face of agriculture,’ says Thomas Sparks, research fellow at Dow AgroSciences, in Indianapolis, US. And he should know. Sparks will receive the 2012 International award for research in agrochemicals at the American Chemical Society’s annual meeting later this year for important breakthroughs in the recently discovered spinosyn class of insecticides.

Agricultural scientists outsmart mother nature by finding ways to enhance crop yields and to control pests and weeds. ’With over 7 billion people on the planet, protecting our food from pests is more important than ever,’ says Sparks. Steven Lehotay, lead scientist at the Agricultural Research Service of the US Department of Agriculture and winner of the 2012 AGRO Award for innovation in chemistry of agriculture, concurs. Agricultural scientists should be ’motivated by a sense of positive contribution toward the greater good of society and our planet’s ecosystem’, he says. 

Attributes that characterise a good agricultural scientist include optimism, curiosity and tenacity. According to Sparks, your favourite question should be ’What if?’. Lehotay suggests that, while technical issues can be challenging, ’the more difficult challenges have to do with people and persuading them how they can do things better’. Sparks agrees that being a good team player is essential, as breakthroughs can only be achieved through collaboration. New concepts may not always work out, but if you believe you’re on to a winner you’ll need strong communication skills to rally others to your cause. Seeing the fruits of your labour in real-world applications makes it all worthwhile, says Sparks. ’There’s a real joy when your ideas become marketed products.’

Sparks stresses the importance of adaptability. ’You have to keep learning and developing throughout your career.’ When scientists at Dow AgroSciences were struggling with the complexity of spinosyn molecules, Sparks drew inspiration from a friend who had designed a robotic vacuum cleaner with the ability to learn. Using artificial neural network software, Sparks forged a new path in the development of synthetic insecticides, leading to the synthesis of spinetoram. ’It’s these "Aha!" moments that drive our work in discovery research,’ he says.

Growth industry 

The number of companies specialising in agricultural science has stabilised in recent years, but existing companies are investing heavily in R&D, and many companies worldwide are hiring steadily. Check job listings on employers’ websites to get an idea of the range of jobs available, advises Sparks. ’Chemists have a wide array of jobs to choose from: product development, research or processing, or commercial jobs such as sales,’ he says. 



Food security is a major challenge for future generations

Many companies will recruit candidates at all academic levels and from a range of backgrounds. ’What your degree is in often doesn’t matter all that much,’ says Sparks. ’What matters is what you’re able to do with your training.’ However, a PhD in a relevant subject area is usually needed for research positions, says Lehotay. Most employers offer internal training courses for continued professional development, and some may also help fund further academic training. 

So what do employers look for? ’A strong science background is a given,’ says Sparks, ’but at Dow AgroSciences we would expect applicants to also demonstrate an aptitude for problem solving and leadership skills, so consider ways to convey these abilities in your CV.’ Behavioural interviewing techniques - where the applicant is asked to describe situations in which they demonstrated particular qualities - are common. ’You’ll interview well if you are upbeat and show interest and enthusiasm in your work,’ says Sparks. Some initiative can also help you stand out from the crowd. Pinpoint local research facilities, suggests Lehotay, and contact the lead scientist on a project that interests you to inquire about summer student, part-time or volunteer opportunities. 

Agricultural sciences offer excellent job prospects. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment of agricultural and food scientists is expected to grow by 16% between 2008 and 2018, faster than the average for all occupations. And those motivated by intellectual stimulation won’t be disappointed. ’Just as federal scientists made huge contributions during and after the second world war, I believe that there will be opportunities for new directions in federal research to make a similar impact on society,’ says Lehotay, ’but with the critical understanding that we have to be more energy and resource efficient.’ 

Yfke Hager is a science writer based in Manchester, UK