Mary-Dell Chilton


Thanks to Steven Goldsmith, who submitted this post about his colleague Mary-Dell Chilton.

Mary-Dell Chilton got STEM.

Mary-Dell Chilton has been called “the Queen of Agrobacterium” for her discovery of the process by which genes can be inserted into plants, leading to the field of modern agricultural biotechnology.

In her 2008 profile in Scientific American, author Laura Vanderkam shares the now humorous story of how Dr. Chilton was not encouraged to go into a science career as a woman in the 1950s.  The story, subtitled “A 1956 Westinghouse finalist moves from optics and telescopes to revolutionizing agriculture,” describes how Chilton wanted to go into astronomy as a freshman at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.  Chilton “tried to enroll in an astronomy course but was told to wait for her sophomore year. ‘As a young female student, I had a hard time being taken seriously in those days,’ she says. Rebuffed by astronomy, she said, ‘The hell with that,’ and ‘never went back.’

“It wasn’t until graduate school that she discovered her life’s work—the new (and hence less rule-bound) field, emerging in the wake of James Watson and Francis Crick’s discovery of DNA, called molecular biology.”

Now in her seventies, Dr. Chilton continues to work in her research lab at Syngenta in Research Triangle Park, N.C., in the building named in her honor.  She loves being a grandmother to children on the east and west coasts of the United States and enjoys singing in her church choir.

Mary-Dell Chilton was named a World Food Prize laureate a few weeks ago.

There’s a new interview with her on YouTube and some additional information about her background at

The World Food Prize website is

UPDATE!  Jack Mitchell brought it to my attention that Mary-Dell Chilton was just named Tar Heel of the Year (2013) by the (Raleigh, NC) News and Observer.

Here’s the article:


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2 Responses to Mary-Dell Chilton

  1. Taylor says:

    That is pretty fascinating!

  2. Here’s another article that gives a lot of ink to her personality and her personal history:

    Items include:
    (1) the importance of being sent off to live with grandparents when she was young
    (2) her lack of interest/ability in things “political” (which include not remembering name of her employer’s CEO)
    (3) the early history of industrial partnerships with academic research.

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