At Home in a Lab

Seventy-four-years-old and retired? No way.

I’ve interviewed a lot of important people in 30 years of television news. Yep, I look at the number as I’m typing and double check to make sure it’s not a typo. It isn’t.

The list includes former Presidents, Governors, astronauts and athletes. But in all those interviews, I’ve never talked with someone who had a building named in their honor. 

Until now.

Mary-Dell Chilton is a scientist at Syngenta in Research Triangle Park (RTP). She showed how bacteria can transfer DNA to plants and change them. She is credited with helping to create the technology that has led to the development of genetically modified foods. Syngenta has used her work to create genetically modified seeds that contain DNA that has been modified to express a specific trait, such as a resistance to a pest or a fungus.

Whatever your position in the debate over GMOs, or genetically modified organisms, you have to admit Dr. Chilton’s work is groundbreaking. So it is probably no surprise that my photographer and I met her in the Mary-Dell Chilton building. There is a painting of her that hangs prominently in the lobby. The lab she works in has her name on the door.

Inside that lab, I found a short woman, with glasses and a lab coat. She is 74, but a blur of constant motion and boundless energy. Although our lights and camera were set up, she asked for our patience while she checked the results of what was happening in several petri dishes that were connected to her current experiment.

She is a scientist. And while fellow researchers she worked with through the years are relaxing, she is still searching for the answers to questions she began looking into three decades ago.

“What would I do?” she asked me, as if surprised when I asked why she still puts in a full day at the lab. Her children are grown and her husband Scott, who was also a scientist, passed away nine years ago. 

“Besides,” she adds, “I love science. I love setting up projects and experiments and this work has the potential to feed the world. It’s important. If we can figure out how to send selected genetic traits to places on the DNA chain where we want them to go, bingo!  That’s the key.”

Her eyes lit up. Clearly, in the building and inside the lab that bears her name, Dr. Mary-Dell Chilton is at home. 

“I wouldn’t retire either,” I replied. 

- Frank Graff

Frank Graff is a producer/reporter with UNC-TV, focusing on North Carolina Science Now, a weekly science series that airs Wednesdays, beginning in August 2013, as part of North Carolina Now on UNC-TV. In addition to producing these special segments, Frank will provide additional information related to his stories through this North Carolina Science Now Reporter's Blog!


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