Vice President, Global Technology Development
Monsanto, St. Louis, Mo.
Ask John Purcell what his favorite part of working for a major global company like Monsanto is, and you get a surprising answer. It’s not the access to top-notch scientific resources like the company’s discovery labs and sequencing capabilities, or the incredible pool of talented scientists at the company, though he notes those are great.
For Purcell, currently the vice president of global technology development in Monsanto’s vegetable seeds division, his favorite moments are the ones literally in the field, walking with farmers to see how Monsanto’s crops are performing.
“I’ve met with farmers and walked in plots ranging from small vegetable gardens to giant corn fields on every continent except Antarctica.” says Purcell, who’s loved the outdoors since his childhood days. “And I’ve learned that farmers everywhere share the same fundamental desires; they want to produce a high quality product and use their resources as efficiently as possible.”
It’s a desire Purcell has been trying to help materialize for more than 20 years at Monsanto, during which time he has been involved in almost every stage of the agricultural biotechnology process, from discovery and development to marketing and monitoring.
And, it’s a desire shared by his employer; Purcell recalls his first visit to Monsanto’s headquarters in St. Louis back in 1989 when he was looking for a position and toured the company’s then-new life sciences research center.
“From a biologist’s perspective, it certainly looked like nirvana,” Purcell notes, “but, at the same time, it showed me that this company had made a major investment to change the way we think about agriculture, namely how we can use biological tools to solve problems typically managed by chemical means.”
Purcell began his work to find such tools in Monsanto’s insect control division, which built on his existing research strengths; as a graduate student at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, he had studied insect biochemistry in Jack Nordin’s lab, and later he did a postdoc at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, where he studied nematode biology and potential control mechanisms.
Over the next decade, he helped in the development of many breakthroughs, perhaps most notably the engineering of Bt crops, which are fortified with Bacillus thuringiensis toxins, designed to kill specific insect pests while remaining safe for humans and other beneficial species. Purcell then proceeded with stints in both the corn and cotton divisions, before settling in last year to his position in the vegetable seeds division.
His current efforts follow the same overall mission statement of helping farmers achieve the most efficient yields, but advances in technology have enabled him to expand his scope. Monsanto’s approaches to crop biotechnology are from an agronomics perspective, primarily focusing on helping farmers control problems like weeds, pests, nutrients and water (Purcell notes the latter will be an especially significant concern in the coming years), but now they have begun to explore quality in addition to yield.
“In the vegetable division, we’ve started to use advanced breeding techniques and our increased knowledge of molecular markers to try to improve the appealing characteristics of our products, such as taste,” he says. He cites the recent advancement of developing a sweet onion with a milder flavor, for use in salads and sandwiches, which can be grown in season in the U.S. and stored and sold all winter long.
Purcell notes that it is important to broaden the research effort because global institutes like Monsanto face challenges that smaller companies don’t. “One issue with being well known is that people expect a lot out of you, and you have to continually earn their trust.”
Fortunately, in that regard, Monsanto has one more advantage: Although taste may be varied, food is a constant. “There always will be strong demand for our products, because people always will need to eat.”