A few weeks ago, like thousands of other scientists around the globe have done before, I stood up in front of a public audience and “defended” my PhD thesis to a jury of senior scientists.
The PhD defense is probably the single-most significant milestone in a career in science. It’s part examination and part ritual – PhD defenses in the Netherlands, for instance, feature a robed jury and a master of ceremonies with a ceremonial mace. In my university in Switzerland, tradition dictates that PhD students get whimsical “hats” made by fellow researchers which are donned just as the results (hopefully a pass) are announced. My hat featured (among several digs at my Twitter fixation) references to CRISPR technology and the several genetically-modified plants I worked on for my PhD.
You see, for the last four years I’ve been embedded in a Swiss research group that specializes in creating genetically modified organisms, or GMOs (scientists prefer to use the terms genetic engineered organisms or transgenics rather than GMO). And no, we are not funded by Monsanto, and our GMOs are largely patent-free.
Nevertheless, my time in GMO research creating virus-resistant plants has meant dealing with the overwhelming negative responses the topic evokes in so many people. These range from daily conversations halting into awkward silence when the subject of my work crops up, to hateful Twitter trolls, and even the occasional fear that public protesters might destroy our research. Little wonder then, that having finished my PhD, I’m part-excited and part-relieved to move to a new lab and work on more fundamental questions in plant biology...