Thursday, May 20, 2021

What's the Actual Story of the 39-Page Complaint?

Yesterday a story was published about me that was largely silly, defamatory and the continued rant of a mad activist that has special hate for me. When you see "Monstanto" in the title you know it is someone stretching for clicks. No big deal. 

But he bases his rant on a 39-page complaint that was prepared by a former colleague who decided to spend years targeting me personally and professionally.  The complaint went to my university, who just ignored it because I first learned about it yesterday. 

Clearly this malicious postdoc knows about FOIA, and knew that his complaint would make its way into the hands of enemies of science and innovation that have targeted me forever.  Who's side is he on? 

The funny part is, a colleague that has also worked with him on several projects said, "Thirty-nine page complaint!  That's the first writing project he's ever actually completed!" 

For the most part I ignore it.  I'm not going to broadcast that this blog entry even exists, I'll just leave it here.  My only point is to add my perspective to the mix, now that they have decided to make a personal situation public.  

I'm always glad to answer your questions, so send me an email at kevinfolta at gmail dot com and we'll schedule a phone call.   

*****

This is a tough one for me.   Someone I genuinely appreciated threw red meat to the people that seek my personal and professional demise. It caused immeasurable harm, mostly because I feel it was pivotal in removing me from public service and university service. 

Karl Haro von Mogel was someone I first met as Karl Mogel.  He applied to our graduate program in the early 2000's and when I met him we bonded instantly. I appreciated his interest in science communication and the fact that he did a podcast interviewing folks like Michael Pollan, long before podcasts were a thing. 

I was one of few that supported his admission.  Most felt he was flighty and unprofessional. The fact that he overslept meeting times and needed special rides didn't help either, as we weigh the opinions of our staff heavily, and they were not impressed. We did not offer him admission, and I was sort of disappointed. 

He went on to pursue a Ph.D. degree at Wisconsin, and I remained an ardent supporter of Karl. In the subsequent years we connected via common interests in producing media for discussing biotechnology, and had some very nice times. 

He always had critics, but I stood by him firmly. He was a good guy at his core, and I still believe that even after he has dedicated endless energy to harm me personally and professionally.  He's one of the folks that someday probably will apologize. 

Where Did the Problem Happen?

Together with Anastasia Bodnar, Karl and I set up a project on Experiment.com.  It was needed, simple and meritorious work, a project to be conducted in the spirit of Citizen Science. The goal was do debunk the tired claim that squirrels and other wildlife would not consume GMO corn.

Karl grabbed the reigns.  He contacted a Monsanto (who you'd have to use for such things to have impact) seed contact and arranged for corn to be grown and treated in Hawaii that would comprise the best test of the hypothesis that "Squirrels won't eat GMO corn".  The foundational lines were grown next to the GMO equivalent- and airtight experiment. All of those docs have been paraded in social media from FOIA requests, so I won't bore you with them here. 

We crowdsourced the project via Experiment.com, and within a very short time we had exceeded our funding requirement two fold, for postage, testing and packaging within 24 hours. 

Early on, Karl did a great job. He was the point person. he sent out the kits and did the majority of the leg work.  It was really great, and I appreciated his leadership in this important, simple campaign.  Kids were getting kits, running experiments in school, doing tons of work.  It was an exciting time.

The experiment was supposed to run for two weeks.  

After two weeks, I told him that we should shut it down and analyze the data.  He said no.  He still had some kits to send out and more data would be nice.  I fundamentally disagreed, end points are end points, but he was the boss. 

Days turned to weeks, weeks turned to months, and I drafted the Introduction and Discussion, with a pretty good idea what the results would be. 

But this is where Karl checked out.

We accepted crowdfunding to do the work, he did the hard part, but it languished without completion. This was 2015 into 2016.

Light at the End of the Tunnel? 

As the crowdsourced experiment bled from late 2015 into to 2016, and the calendar turned to 2017 I became increasingly sour about accepting money to do a simple experiment and not delivering. The kids that put out the corn and diligently took pictures in 7th grade were now off to high school.  It was a major problem for me.

Now, part of the problem was my slow progess on the analysis.  I was going to develop a machine vision program to analyze the % consumed, but it didn't work well when compared to manual counts. I can't solely blame someone else for the lack of progress, as it was easy to put it away and not think about it. Nonetheless, we all sat and hoped someone else would drive the completion. 

In spring of 2017 I assembled a team of about 30 volunteers. I made standards and we showed images, and the team rated the percent consumed against a standard. It took a good 3-4 hours on a Sunday, but I eventually tallied and assembled all of the data and it was analyzed by an expert statistician. I moved toward writing, but he insisted that he had it under control. 

Karl presented the work at Plant Biology 2017 in the education session.  I was glad to see it. I had a talk in the same session and it was good to see the project move forward.  I had  feeling that it was on the way to completion, and we were making good on our commitment to the students and citizen scientists that did the work. 

But interest died there. 


Violation of Conference Code of Conduct? 

A year later I was attending Plant Biology 2018 in Montreal, mostly to showcase my postdoc's work and a new project we wanted to roll out on an international stage.  

I saw Karl at a distance in the poster session.  He'd dart around here and there, I was excited to talk to him about the corn project and how we'd make good on our commitment. 

I could understand why he was being evasive.  We were now a year past his presentation at Plant Biology 2017, the kids that did the study in junior high were well in to high school. Online criticism abounded about the lack of follow through, and I was not happy about progress.  I never could seem to get in the same place as him, and in the 39-page complaint he sent to my university about me (below), he explains that he was trying hard to avoid me.  I get it. The crowdsourced project was a total disaster, he collected $13k in funds and there was no accountability. 

I was standing in the lobby of the convention center in Montreal talking to an old friend when I saw Karl walking in my general direction.  I got his attention and quickly asked him if we could get together sometime and discuss the corn experiment.  I explained how I understood that both were busy, but we really needed to finish the crowdfunded work.  We didn't set a time, but I advised that we'd follow up by email. 

The next day I got an email from the leadership of ASPB, the American Society of Plant Biologists, the group holding the conference.  They told me that I was under investigation for violation of the Conference Code of Conduct.  I could not figure it out!  What did I possibly do?

I agreed to speak with the CoC enforcement panel from the conference. These are people I know from the discipline, some for over 20 years. We didn't meet in person because I was leaving that day and I wanted to figure out what the heck was going on, so I requested a phone call and we all got together shortly thereafter. I was excited to get to the bottom of this. 

What could this possibly be? 

They said that there was a complaint levied against me for harassment at the conference. I still was clueless. If I harassed someone I surely would know about it, and I'm very careful in what I say. In fact, harassment is not my way of dealing with anything. I'm a good diplomat that values good ol' persuasion.  

They were reluctant to say who the complaint was from, but after several minutes of discussion they told me "Karl Haro Von Mogel." 

"Oh, that guy!" I exclaimed.  

I was blown away.  I told them that I simply asked him to kindly schedule a professional discussion about completing work we said we'd do, to make good on our commitment to a crowdfunded project. 

"That's not harassment, that's me simply requesting a meeting," I said. 

And I'll never forget the words that came through the phone and into my ear.

"If he says he felt harassed, then he was harassed," one of the people on the committee said.

Ho-Lee-Sh*t. 

The call concluded with them saying that they'd consider the evidence and make a decision about the consequences of harassment. 

I told them that they, and the conference CoC was being used intentionally as a harassment tool, that I was not the harasser, I was the harass-ee!  I suggested a lifetime ban, that Karl was the one that needed a firm retribution for using a conference committee to inflict harm on someone else. 

I was told not to discuss it, but that is not their decision. I was the one being harassed by someone reporting me to a professional organization I've belonged to my entire professional career.  I was not taking this lightly. 


My Confidential Outside Work

In 2017 I was asked to serve as a Subject Matter Expert for a law firm.  They had some old data that they felt told a story in a case they were working on and wanted a professional, contemporary analysis using modern tools.  Time would show that I was well suited for the role, and spent a lot of time sorting it out. I was compensated well for my time.

Before I could work with the law firm I had to complete the archaic university disclosure forms.  The job didn't start yet, I didn't know much about what it would entail, but it was a lot of fun thinking about it.  I had to keep all of the information strictly confidential by contract.  I was not to talk about the work, the parties involved, where the data came from, etc. I still have not to this day.

The university forms are boiler plate forms, low on detail and options. The form gave me several options of what to pick as a Subject Matter Expert.  What box would you pick?  I probably should have picked "employee" as it would have been just as accurate. 


And since I chose "consultant" and it was not consulting, I sent a note accompanying the document stating that it was not consulting (below), as I really was not giving any advice or direction on reseracn, business or scientific practices. I was analyzing old data using modern tools so a law firm could make some decisions. 

I have done consulting.  This was not consulting. 



I had to walk a very fine line between transparency, disclosure and confidentiality.  Letting out too much information could jeopardize the issue the law firm was working on, and it was critical to keep it confidential (even today I don't talk about it and removed certain details that Karl was happy to divulge). 

I spoke to the Associate Dean that handled disclosures and outside activities.  She helped me assemble a sufficient disclosure for my website that spoke of the nature of the work without divulging the specifics that could harm the case. We consulted with ethics folks and distilled a reasonable disclosure.  It stated that I was involved in non-university work as a subject matter expert for a law firm. That's 100% correct and does not jeopardize the sanctity of the case.

Long story short, it was fun and intriguing work, and one of the highlights of my scientific career. It was truly satisfying to definitively solve a very challenging question that nobody else could unravel. I figured it out. 

Now keep in mind that this "conflict" is why Karl is so angry-- He sat on the corn project for over a year and my life kept going.  His sloth created the environment for the perception of a conflict of interest. I guess he felt that I could not accept new opportunities because old business was not finished. 


Re-interpreting Partial Information

In the 39-page document Karl makes reference to a trip I made to Germany, to Bayer.  It was freely discussed in social media, etc. 

In December of 2017 I spoke at a conference in St. Louis.  It was a weed biology conference, and I spoke about the need for clarity and accountability around the dicamba situation. 

One of the people in the audience was from Bayer, the company poised at the center of that discussion. I was approached by a scientist that indicated there was a conference in March 2018 that they'd like me to speak at-- not so much a conference, as much as a meeting of scientists and weed experts, and that I'd speak on strategic communication around the dicamba situation. 

My talk was not favorable to the companies, but that's what she found attractive.  

"Our managers need to hear this," she said. 

So I flew to Germany, did  my talk, had a great time visiting.  I think I raised a few eyebrows and was quite critical of how the situation was handled and how it should go forward. 

In his complaint he brings up this event as part of "working for Bayer" when I was actually there as a university professor teaching communication strategy.

I was reimbursed exact costs of travel, with no honorarium or other compensation. 


Grant from Bayer

In March of 2017 I applied to the Grants 4 Targets program at Bayer. They fund pilot projects less than 50,000 euro, and I had a very good one for them.  I submitted it. 

They called me a month later. Whereas normally the process moved into June, my project fit so well that they were willing to fund it at about $57,000 USD, enough to hire a postdoc for a year. Awesome. I got that news in March 2017, months before I began speaking about Subject Matter Expert work with the law firm.

The work started in September, I hired Dr. Lilliana Martinez and she worked on it for a year.  In 2018 the Grants 4 Targets program was dissolved so that was the end of funding, even though the scientists we were working with there felt the project had great promise. 

The grant had nothing to do with the law firm, the law firm had nothing to do with me speaking at a Bayer meeting, and the Bayer meeting had nothing to do with the grants. However, Karl finds it impossible that this is true.  It is true. 


Confidential Information Travels Fast

Personal and confidential information was being leaked from my home to people interested . People would ask me about it, I would tell them to check my website. I was not allowed to talk about it. 

Now at this time the "GMO Corn" experiment was getting stale. We were two years out and no sign of completion, or interest in completion.  Karl starts to grill me on, "Are you consulting for Bayer?"

I told him that I was not (because I wasn't) and that I was involved in confidential work for a law firm (which is true). 

He needled me and needled me, and eventually dismissed me from the failed GMO Corn Project.  It was bittersweet because I had invested substantial time and energy, as well as the time and energy of people I sourced to analyze the data.  It was not reasonable to be eliminated from the project, but at the same time I felt like the captain of the Titanic was offering me the last life boat. 

I understand. Karl does not publish, he doesn't understand the rules of authorship, and that you can't really just cut loose people from projects because of a personal problem.  We separate business from unprofessional and unproductive personal squabbles. 


Leaked Documents and Personal Information

While professional life was going great, I was going through some tough times personally.  I was not living at home, but all of my personal property and information was-- and it was slowly being leaked to hostile entities such as GM Watch and Kavin Senapathy, who made it their business to decorate the web with it in the interest of defamation. 

Check stubs for travel reimbursement were portrayed as payments and satirical comedy 'zine I wrote in college to sell at bars was being paraded as my endorsement of drunk driving.  It was horrible, but the folks doing it had dense histories of targeted defamation, so it was all largely disregarded.  

That material  that was distributed existed in one place-- my old office at in my former home, and I did not have access to it. Long story. 

So someone was leaking it to someone else, and I suspected it was Karl and/or Kavin.  In an email conversation, I told him that I could figure out how my personal info was being leaked because I had access to a router and could see where info was leaving my old home electronically. 

Frankly, I have no idea how to do that or even if it can be done. My hope was to flush out the people that were distributing my personal information and misrepresenting it. 


Allegations of Spying

I told him that my wife and I had free access to each other's emails, texts etc, and that it would be easy to figure out where the leaks of my personal documents was coming from. 

He described this as "spying". 

During a divorce, he and Anastasia sent a letter to my ex-wife's attorney stating that I was spying on her electronically. 

Of course, my ex took this seriously and paid experts to comb the house looking for bugs and evidence of electronic surveillance, which there was none.  

At that time she told me about the letter and even sent me a copy. She was very kind, and told me that she needed to protect me from Karl and Anastasia, as they truly were out to cause me problems. 

I was amazed when I read the letter to the attorney. Karl and Anastasia now were not just targeting me professionally, they were going after me personally. 

I'm glad to supply the letter to anyone that wants to see it, but I won't post it here due to confidentiality with other parties involved that don't want to be involved. 


Karl's Note to my Dean About a Tiny Grant

Karl was going through the boxes of documents he received from the University of Florida at significant taxpayer expense. One of the docs was a small internal grant proposal to make short videos about biotechnology through the Public Interest Education Center at the University of Florida. 

The total was something like $3500, just enough to buy a few cameras and time on the equipment and do the editing, along with some professional distribution and other costs. Nothing to me personally.  

I had forgotten all about it.  It was not funded, and was only a vague recollection. 

Karl demanded that I be held accountable because I mentioned that he'd be reviewing the scripts for scientific accuracy. Back in 2013 when the proposal was written, Karl and I were on great terms. I respected his opinion and asked him if he could review the work. Of course, he agreed and I listed him in the proposal as a script reviewer. 

He now said that it was "fraud" and demanded action. 

When I was questioned about it I simply told my Dean, appropriately, that Karl was just causing trouble and that he was combing through documents, harassing me at conferences and causing me other grief.  

Quibbling over being mentioned as an authority in a tiny internal grant proposal was hardly misconduct as claimed.

The issue went away without incident. 

He'd later send a 39-page complaint (below) to my Dean, complaining about me, citing threats and harassment, none of which happened. In the complaint he also accuses me of  an "unacceptable breach of research ethics" which is a lofty allegation I don't take lightly.  He's trying to harm careers here. 


Falsely Described as an Industry Consultant

Sometime in early 2018 the University of Florida, my employer, received an anonymous request for documents pertaining to my outside employment. 

I'm no stranger to public records requests, as I get them constantly. Many are trying to figure out what would compel a life-long scientist to want to discuss science, do science podcasts, and post scientific media. 

This particular request was strange in that it was anonymous, but it was filled and went away.

Until it appeared on the front page of Biofortified, Karl and Anastasia's blog.  Without warning, or requests clarifications or questions, they posted and then misrepresented documents in a malicious and deliberate effort to harm me and my reputation. They strategically left out the documents that did not support their attack.

The documents were relevant to my approval to do outside work for the law firm, mentioned above.   

However, Karl and Anastasia billed it all as "consulting for Bayer" when the documents clearly stated that it was NOT consulting for a company and that it was simply analysis of old data for a law firm.  I never saw, met with, anyone from Bayer or any other company. Nothing relevant to modern business or science was ever discussed. 

They knew that packaging my work with a law firm as a high-paying consulting gig would give the reddest of the red meat to the anti-biotech activists.  They would then go on to try to destroy me personally and professionally using social media.  

Karl lights the fuse, walks away, and then watches the mushroom cloud and smiles.  Great strategy if you are unable to professionally engage someone in your field, and you want them gone. 

It worked to some degree, as I endured months of doxing, hassle, online defamation, etc. from anti-biotech activist groups that have wanted my teaching and outreach efforts silenced for a long time. 

Worse, I was almost fired from the gig with the law firm.  They told me that if it was not so late in the process that I'd be let go. 

I stayed on, did a great job, and solved an important question for them.  

There were other scientists involved in this issue, people I know from our discipline. They were impressed with my work and conclusions. They would refer me to other law firms for professional witness jobs because I was so effective.  

However, knowing that Karl will anonymously harvest my documents and disclose confidential information, they can't hire me because it is too risky. Karl cannot respect that some confidential information must remain confidential sometimes, and he is the arbiter of what needs to be public information. 


Karl Calls the Police

I was sitting in my office in 2018, working.  The phone rings. It is the university police. They are downstairs and "want to have a word" with me. 

They asked me about who I was harassing online, and that they got a complaint that I was hassling someone.  I had no idea what they were talking about.

I figured they were talking about Michael Balter, the guy that freely distributed my retirement account, bank account and other personal info, as well as advertised me as a spouse abuser. 

But they said the complaint was from California.  Still no idea. 

The police guy breathed a heavy sigh and reluctantly called his dispatcher to get more information. 

"Karl Haro von Mogel," the speaker blurted. 

My response with great relief, "Oh, that f^*@&ing guy."

He had called the police telling them that I was harassing him online, and at the time I can't even recall the last time I interacted with him. I've had him blocked, muted and shut out for months. 

There was no police report, no notes, nothing. Just using the police to harass me at work.  They just told me to "Ignore that guy" which is what I was doing. 


The 39-Page Complaint

I first learned of Karl's complaint to the university on 5/19/2021 in Paul Thacker's article.  I was amazed.  Karl assembled a thirty-nine page complaint, sent to my dean, accusing me of endless impropriety. I never heard or saw anything about it prior to it being posted by Thacker. 

You can read it here

The most disturbing part of this tome is that it mentions that I threatened him, over and over again. Read it.  There are no threats. 

I did clearly state that we needed to complete the work.  I did clearly state that I needed to understand how my personal property and confidential information was being posted online, and that we'd have that discussion privately or very publicly.

That's not a threat.  That is a statement of how a situation will be played out, and the choice was his.

I won't go into the details of his claims.  But after all of the other harassment of my university, harassing me through conferences, my wife's attorney, etc....  a 39 page letter to my university's administration?

Conclusion.  I always liked Karl.  Whereas others categorized him as a clownish man-child that doesn't deliver, I saw a spark of creativity and excitement in teaching science.  I wrote letters of support for him for jobs, and gave him the speaking opportunities I could not take. I wrote for his website and was happy to support his efforts. 

But now I have become his sick obsession.  To send a 39-page package of allegations to my university administration is insane.  I hope after reading this you look hard at what he considers to be "threats".  I simply suggested that there were consequences for his defamation attempts, which is true. 

Clearly those chickens came home to roost.  His endless harassment of my university may have been part of why I was dismissed from my position as Chair of a leading department in plant biology.  Universities just don't want to deal with the noise. 

I went back to my real life, I got to focus on my teaching, research, home, my wife and enjoying sunsets rather than driving/flying/working 16 hour days, 7 days a week. All is well. 

I still host a leading podcast in the life sciences, I still get lots of speaking invites, and things are just right for me. I'm in a personal, peaceful Goldilocks zone. 

It is important to get this story out for one reason.  Anyone considering hiring Karl (or Anastasia for that matter) needs to understand that these are fundamentally good people that feel that the way to solve problems is to throw people under the bus, publicly. 
Instead of calling in those they disagree with and enjoy a personal discussion to sort things out, they resort to anonymous FOIA, then public shaming of their targets. The secret letters to my superiors is a real problem too, as if he's making allegations he should at least carbon-copy me on the correspondence. That's just professional courtesy. 

Self appointing themselves as judge, jury and executioner without knowing the facts, trashing reputations at national conferences, and inflicting their venom on others through reputation assassination is not a good addition to any team. 

You may say that I'm doing the same to him here, but I'm not.  I'm being fair and impartial, and simply describing the angst he has caused me from his unprofessional, stalker-like actions. 

This is the first time I even thought about him in a long time.

I just need him to leave me alone. 

I do wish him well.  He needs to take the focus off of me, publish his damn research, grow up, and move on. 

Thursday, April 15, 2021

Consumer Advocates or Anti-Biotech in Disguise?

 Wolves in sheep's clothing?  It is an interesting question because I've never seen a sheep wearing clothes.  I guess what it really means is that if  a wolf could skin a sheep and wear the wool to basically be a trojan horse. Something like Silence of the Lambs.

I've always suspected that a number of apparent "good guys" of consumer advocacy are really just anti-biotechnology interests. Their recent activities have confirmed my suspicions. 

Over the years I have watch the Organic Consumers Association and the Center for Food Safety rail against biotechnology as it applied to crops. They falsify evidence, bend the truth, and vilify scientists. You can go to their pages and read that I'm a booze-swillin', wife-beatin', child harassin', drunk-drivin' a-hole that is paid by Monsanto to lie about science.

Because I teach science. 

Now that their nemesis Monsanto is no longer a thing, these groups must be falling on hard times.  Their most recent targets?  Biotech mosquitoes. 

The genetically engineered mosquitoes by Oxitec are a modern version of sterile insect technique, a method to rapidly suppress mosquito numbers that has been used for over half a century.  Its modern form is much more precise. Briefly, male mosquitoes contain a larvae-lethal gene. The gene is turned off in the lab, but then it is activated upon release. The males mate with local female pests, and the next generation of larvae are inviable. Mosquito populations crash. The target is a non-native invasive mosquito so it poses no threat to natural ecosystems. 

These disease-transmitting mosquitoes are clearly the most lethal animal on the planet. With Zika, Dengue, chikungunya, malaria and other mosquito-borne diseases on the rise, these tools could have great human health implications.  They are to be released in the Florida Keys shortly. 

Now technically birds eat mosquitoes, so the Center for (Bird) Food Safety might have a point.  But the Organic Consumers Association?  I haven't been to Whole Foods in a long time, but maybe they are selling mosquito larvae for $40 a pound. 


Cool if you are an organic consumer, but does OCA really represent your interests when it promotes fighting a proven technology that can aid public health?

Not to be outdone, the Center for Food Safety also is in the anti-biotech mosquito game. Recently they were bragging about their new billboard on Twitter. Yes, the Center for Food Safety spends their budget on expensive billboards that oppose human health initiatives.


The Center for Food Safety is "SO excited" about their first-ever billboard in the Florida Keys, an effort to manufacture risk against all evidence, impact tourism, and essentially harm a local economy to push their agenda. 

In social media, OCA has bots that spam the interwebs, blasting a common, repeated message over and over again.  The goal?  To make it look like there is widespread concern about a safe and effective strategy to limit numbers of disease-causing mosquitoes. 



The wolves in sheep clothing use façade accounts and bots to swamp Twitter with identical messages to make it look like mass rejection of a good technology.  

Here we have organizations that present as food advocacy groups that really are anti-biotechnology groups.  I can't wait for the day that these insect-limiting strategies are widely lauded for their success in curbing transmissible disease.  Maybe they will finally be held accountable.

Probably not. They have been lying about technology for three decades and the dollars keep rolling in.  

Maybe if we all share these kids of stories we can clue people in to their deception. 




Tuesday, March 23, 2021

COVID19 Vaccine: A Very Deep, Personal Meaning

A safe and effective vaccine has been developed to meet a public health threat, in months instead of a decade.  It is the amazing confluence of molecular biology, medicine, and and influx of money, all colliding to install community immunity to a highly transmissible and potentially harmful virus. 

I receive my first shot today, the Moderna mRNA vaccine. I'll get it today at 5:40 pm at the Publix grocery store on 91st Street.  

For most this event marks the end of a threat to health, the potential to maybe rejoin others and life returning to normal. 

But to me it means something more. It is another gorgeous application of a technology I have studied for almost a lifetime. 

I first learned of recombinant DNA technology in 1977.  I was 10.  The concept was always intriguing. It was amazing that we could potentially fix medical problems, correct genetic errors, enhance traits in plants.... simply my adjusting the basic instructions in the molecular blueprint.  


I get the shot in an hour and my sleeve has been rolled up all day. I have been waiting for this opportunity to protect my community, colleagues and family. 


For the next 44 years I'd study the molecular basis of life, and today teach these concepts to students in class and in the lab.  For six years I have hosted a popular weekly podcast on biotechnology.  I have taught these concepts in the public square, in front of angry protesting audiences, and in online forums, sometimes leading to responses of defamation, threats, and situations requiring police protection. 

If you don't believe I have paid a price for teaching science, just do a Google Images search of my name. 

Today I get to receive the gift of this amazing technology.  It is technology that I have fought and suffered for, and paid great prices personally and professionally to advance. 

My guess is that I'll drop a few tears when I get the jab, and not because it hurts, but because it heals. 

And I'll drop a few more when it can reach the most desperate and needy in the world in other forms, with medical care and food security.  We live in amazing times with beautiful technology, and maybe the silver lining of the pandemic is that new technology will gain acceptance into its proper place in improving the human condition. 


 

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Ten Years Ago- A Strawberry Genome

 One of the joys of publishing a scientific manuscript is the correspondence from the journal that the paper has finally been accepted.  Peer review and high journal standards are a slow and deliberate maze to navigate that stand in the way of sharing your prized work.

There is one monumental publication in the hundred plus I’ve authored where the research, writing and review processes became a delicate managerial dance between negotiation, combat, finesse, psychology, and arm twisting. This week we celebrate its 10 year birthday, with two sturdy gin and tonics for every piece of birthday cake.  




The publication of the woodland strawberry genome in February of 2011 was the culmination of efforts from at least 77 scientists.  It was a battle from the beginning, and story that few people know and the rest tried to forget. Somehow I became the manager of the project, so the successes and frustrations are still a little fresh even after a decade.

The genome sequenced was not that belonging to the big red commercial strawberry.  It was its relative, a tiny yellow-fruited cousin that shared similar genetic makeup.  It was a great choice to sequence.  In 2007 at the Plant-Animal Genome Meeting in San Diego, CA there were only several key species sequenced—things like rice, and the model plant Arabidopsis thaliana. Strawberry was a good choice to add to that rarified group. It was the red-fruited weirdo of the rose family, a group of plants containing apples, pears, peaches, blackberries and, well, roses. We knew the woodland strawberry’s simple genome was tiny, and likely didn’t contain much repetitive DNA, a problem that still confounds genome assembly efforts.

But as usual, politics wrecks everything. While there were many merits in obtaining strawberry sequence, there were vocal supporters of sequencing peaches and apples, tree crops with larger genomes that didn’t have the same lab value as the readily transformable and diminutive diploid strawberry. Other crops obtained funding and support from federal agencies and international bodies. We had a dumb little plant.

Six strawberry scientists huddled in the best privacy we could find at a conference, sitting on folding chairs behind a faux wall room divider in the lobby.  How would we do it?  How would we pay for it?  The best we could do is pass the hat, get the ball rolling, and see if we could recruit additional experts to make it happen.

The effort took off like cold molasses.  A few bucks here and there, some support from institutions like Virginia Tech and the University of Florida.  National strawberry organizations wanted nothing to do with it, despite a genomes immense value to breeding. Nor did the companies that would one day mine the data for every last nugget of value. It was frustrating. The deepest pockets that could make this a drop-in-the-bucket effort saw no value. Eventually they would contribute.

The beginning-beginning was gorgeous. I purified genomic DNA using an old-school technique, a cesium chloride gradient. The snotty threads of life were as white as unviolated snow, and that few micrograms of perfect starting material would seed the effort.

 To make a long story less long, that virgin DNA blob would be squeezed, interrogated and processed for information, trickling in a little at a time, all being assembled into longer threads as best could be done at the time. Eventually Roche/454 would join the effort, providing significant sequence at low cost, simply to prove they could do more than bacterial genomes. Additional experts joined the party, each lending their skills to unraveling part of the mystery. Soon, little stretches of information piled up, it became obvious that we were a few obligatory Venn diagrams away from submitting a draft genome sequence for publication.

The activities in that paragraph spanned 2008 and 2009, with bi-weekly phone calls that grew less and less enthusiastic with time. I can only thank my lucky stars that Zoom calls were still lost somewhere in the future.

As time went on the calls grew shorter and had fewer participants. Other genomes were being sequenced, had funding support, and were executed by teams of scientists whose full-time job was working on a genome. The diploid strawberry effort had no central funding source, so everything done was on donated time and materials.

It was really the efforts of Dr. Daniel J. Sargent that pushed this effort over the top. He undertook a massive campaign to understand the spatial relationships between DNA ‘markers’, little signatures that were present on the different stretches of DNA that were sequenced. That information allowed the pieces to be put together in the right order and orientation. That was the key, as Dan’s data allowed the piñata to be built so that other scientists could beat it and pick up some candy.

Other prominent figures on the author team vanished. No contact, no participation. Gone.  Others played major roles and I felt were not appropriately credited.  Authorship order can be a delicate issue. Dr. Daniel J. Sargent should have been first author, as his efforts and ingenuity provided the data to elevate a skeletal work to near-publication form.

The original manuscript was written by a team, and it read like a string of personal spins on the data each felt was most important. The manuscript was probably 400% too long, and the few standing as an author team were divided on where to send it. While I wanted it anywhere and done fast, others demanded it be shopped to one of the prominent weekly science journals.

We sent it to Science, we sent it to Nature. Reject, reject. Another few months burned from revision and submission. At the time there were probably six or seven genomes published, including apple, so strawberry was looking like the really cool guy that got to the party right when everyone else was leaving.

Rejection, burnout, and being sick of a project that was becoming less and less significant scientifically led most of the team to disconnect.  The bi-weekly conference calls consisted of me and maybe another person talking about a chili recipe, if they were not cancelled altogether.

It needed one last push.  I started with an almost blank sheet and smashed the author team’s clunky manuscript into the tight template for Nature Genetics. It was the middle of 2010, three years after a tiny team of strawberry scientists decided to start the ball rolling.

The next months were a cycle of review and revise, review and revise. Tweak, crunch, edit, chop.  I remember those nights thinking that I should also punt this project as so many others clearly did. But there was maybe a light at the end of the tunnel, and after round after round of revision we were close.

I remember fielding at least a dozen calls with the Associate Editor, as she kept finding problems and generating requests from reviewers and other editors. I dreaded the conversations, as each request for more data, reformatting, additional experiments were going to sink the project. 

Somehow I navigated that maze with a skillful persuasion and dumb luck.  The work would eventually find acceptance at Nature Genetics, a decent journal where it fit quite nicely. The Editor relayed the good news that the work would be published in February of 2011.  It was November of 2010, so it seemed a million years away.

There were a few things that made this accomplishment unique, aspects that were largely unappreciated.

It was published in the same issue as the cacao genome, the 12th and 13th plant genomes sequenced.  Here in 2021 there are literally tens of thousands of plant genome sequences known. What took $350,000 and three years then can now almost be accomplished in a few days for a few thousand dollars.

It was assembled without a physical map. Knowing where genes or DNA sequences are located relative to one another helps put the little smudges of DNA sequence data in the right order and orientation. The strawberry genome did not have this guiding luxury as other crops did, and Dan Sargent’s efforts made it possible to assemble strictly from short reads. Later the panda genome would also be assembled from short reads with quite a bit more fanfare. Pandas are cute.  

There were no relevant reference maps.  Today genome assembly is less taxing because of the wealth of information that already exists.  It is easy to draw a map of the USA because everyone from settlers to satellites has already defined where the parts belong. The strawberry genome sequence was a pioneer.

It was done without a centralized funding source.  The work was done on a shoestring, digging in science’s couch cushions to capture enough scratch to push out more data.

Overall, it was a great experience to work with experts and learn a lot about how the tools of genome sequence assembly and analysis work.  Soon after I would move into university administration and forgot everything I knew. 

But I didn’t forget that phone call, the news that the work was finally accepted.

And I won’t forget the efforts of the scientists that really made it possible, as there were a few key players that carried the vast majority of the weight. You know who you are. Pat yourself on the back and celebrate, as your efforts allowed this seminal discovery to be translated to the commercial crop, and eventually influence genetic improvement efforts.  And that was our ultimately mission all along.

 

 

Tuesday, February 9, 2021

The Soul-Less Anti-Vaccination Movement

 I read the tweet and immediately was overcome with a vacant, empty feeling.  It was a cold and heartless castigation, aimed at hurting someone that was already down, someone experiencing monumental anguish.

Now, they were piling on. Cold, cold hearts. 

A radiation oncology resident named Dr. Sara Bertran Ponce was expecting a child.  She was 14 weeks into the pregnancy and all was well.  She received the COVID19 vaccine and proudly shared the experience in an interest to encourage others to do the same. The following quotation appeared on a Vox.com story about the safety of the vaccines during pregnancy. 

Inspiring, courageous words of Dr. Ponce, guiding others to follow her expertise to protect others. 


Her twitter stream showed the words of a public advocate, someone dedicated to public health. 


And the #vaccineswork hashtag was certainly raising the blood pressure of many that see the COVID19 vaccines as a threat to their bankrupt movement. 

At that point Dr. Ponce placed herself officially on the radar of a hateful movement that silently stewed. Qualified physicians, clearly strong women professionals, worked to sway public opinion with their visible compliance with vaccination in a public health crisis. 


Six days later, she miscarried.

And the brutal punishment began.

The dark slime of the internet oozed into social media space, adding insult to injury, and attacking a professional during a time when she needed love and compassion.  But that's what the internet does best, especially the horrible folks within corrupt movements. Your deep personal loss is their time to celebrate. 


Just a sample of the first few tweets around Dr. Ponce's account. The woman in scrubs is NOT her, but a doctored (ahem) photo of a pregnant physician that was added to the tweets. 


It is cold, ice-water-in-the-veins hate. No empathy, zero compassion.

This is the anti-vaccine movement. Self-appointed authorities, self-described experts, and cruel and heartless people. 

She has closed her account.  Good. She needs to heal. 

What can we do?  Share this story.  Show how awful this movement is.  Disgust is a very powerful motivator, and if we can get people to see what the anti-vaccine movement is about, perhaps we can garner their trust, then protect them, their children and their communities. 


 

Monday, February 1, 2021

Global News, Rachel Parent, and a Deliberate Hit Piece

 I remember going back to Chicago to visit my father just before Christmas in 2015.  The previous months had been brutal, and I was finally healing after activists deliberately misinterpreted my emails and the New York Times made false accusations that I traded grants for lobbying time. The personal and professional fallout was awful, but subsiding.

It was perfect timing for those seeking my demise to pile-on, to take another shot at a career academic researcher that has dedicated his time to research in indoor agriculture lighting and the genomics of small fruit flavor. His efforts to communicate the science behind biotechnology still were not appreciated by many.  

US Right to Know, a now irrelevant fossil of the anti-science crusade against biotechnology commissioned Allison Vuchnich of Global News Canada to drop the hammer in a carefully coordinated next phase of career assassination.  After all, I survived a their claims of malfeasance, quid-pro-quo payoffs, and colluding with companies to lie to the world about science.  They needed something totally toxic-- and a story from Vuchnich about my relentless attacks on a teenage girl would be just the ticket. 

I remember opening my laptop that snowy morning in Chicago and seeing the article. My heart almost stopped. Not again.  I was sick for three months after being hammered online, destroyed in my community, problems created at my university and home, threats and harassment, and almost quitting science altogether. 

Now the cycle would be re-ignited, skillfully. 

I never wrote about this or even explained it before, mostly because I was paralyzed by fear of more fallout at the time.  Today, Feb 1, 2021, five plus years after the article first presented its dirty smear, it was revived with full intent to harm.

Someone thanked me on Twitter.  She is a chef and would be working with high school students, and was kind enough to offer me thanks for my inspiration.  That's nice. 

Paul Thacker, a dirty player and gutter hitman journalist, responded. 


Tweet from 2/1/21


The awful defamatory article was still being wielded as a way to harm my ability to teach, communicate, and build public trust, now around issues like COVID19, climate, and genetic engineering.  


What did the article actually say, and how much of it was true?  Let's look at it in chunks.

1.  Catchy-Grabby Headline

No teenager was ever the target of a lobby.  A scientist (me) was concerned with the false information being provided by a website aimed at children and young adults. 


2.  Maliciously Taking Words Out of Context

During the Proposition 101 "GMO labeling" campaign in Oregon in 2014, a commercial ran that was a complete misrepresentation of science.  It was deceptive, it lied to the audience and was an anathema to science and reason. 

A friend of mine, who worked with extension in Colorado for the Monsanto company, asked me if I would be willing to write an Op-Ed or sign a petition with hundreds of other scientists, denouncing the disgraceful video.  

I said, "I'm glad to sign on to whatever you like, or write whatever you like... etc" a quote that is used out of contexts by scoundrels like Vuchnich to harm my reputation with a cherry picked sentence deliberately misinterpreted from my private email correspondence. 

Of course, Gary Ruskin, the guy that collected the emails and parsed out stories to reporters, was happy to celebrate Vuchnic's compliance with his mission. 

3. Allison, That's My Job. 

A big part of the role of scientists in the US Land Grant University system is to communicate science with the public.  I write articles, blog posts, blah blah blah. 

I never "defend GMO technology".  False. 

I teach about the strengths and limitations of technology as given by the peer-reviewed research.  To enemies of progress, I guess that could look like "defending" a technology, but it is simply sharing the science. 

And no, I did not "lobby" Congress.  It is illegal for me to lobby Congress.  I have been asked on multiple occasions to answer questions for Congressional Committees, and it is my obligation as a federally and state-funded scientist to do so. 


4.  Scientific Independence, Damn Right. 


I was objectively answering questions about technology and teaching communication skills to many groups, and I don't have a budget for travel costs.  So BIO picked up the tab on a couple of trips, maybe two. There was nothing hidden. 

I was not given an "unrestricted grant" for "research and outreach projects." The company made a donation to a science communication program I ran, and sadly provided the check with a boilerplate letter that would be gold for folks seeking to defame a scientist by misinterpreting what actually was happen vs. what they wanted to happen. 

I never had any research support from Monsanto. They don't care about my research. 

The threats called into the university and my office were real. We found ourselves communicating with the Domestic Terrorism Task Force and establishing police presence near my office. The online environment was filled with hate and promises of retaliation. 

For my safety, the university moved the funds from the science communication program to a campus food pantry.  The $25,000 was never used for teaching science. 

Science communication is so critical in mitigating problems like COVID19, climate change, vaccination, etc. I teach that. Companies like Monsanto (back when it existed) and others want farmers and scientists to be better communicators about the technologies they use. That's why they made the donation (along with many others). 


5. I Vehemently Deny False Claims. Still Do.

The ad was in the Global News story.  Sorry. 


I'm a scientist that teaches science. No, I don't care about companies and my first allegiance is to the evidence, my students, the public, and to sharing science. It has always been that way.


6. Distortion, Distortion, Distortion

In 2013 I was contacted by a woman named Mary Beth (something) from some communications/PR company I can't remember, asking me to write an article about the impacts of misplaced activism and I was glad to oblige.  That's my job as a scientist, to bust fake news and show its impacts. 

This was on the heels of the horrible paper by Seralini et al., the paper that was filled with problems and made claims about seed and cancer that have not been reproduced to this day, nine years later. 

That paper shut down seed technology in Kenya and had other wide impacts.  Damn right I was excited to teach the evidence and show the impacts of damaging disinformation. 

Again, Vuchnich frames this as a nefarious conspiracy.  It was actually a scientist stepping into a public discussion to educate others about science. 


7.  The Anatomy of their "Attack Video"



I remember this day.  I left Gainesville, FL at 5 AM and landed in a Washington DC snowstorm, getting in before flight cancellations hit.  I took the metro into the city center to the Biotechnology Industry Organization headquarters for a 9AM meeting (I can't remember what for), but it was cancelled because of the blizzard.  

With cancelled meetings, an evening flight, and a day to kill in front of me, I called the company coordinating GMO Answers and asked if I could swing by to maybe answer a few questions on video, something that we had discussed previously. 

I took a cab ride through the snow over to Ketchum Communications. They had a skeleton crew working that day due to the blizzard, but we put together an impromptu background of someone's cubicle and jammed it with fake plants from around the office. This is the actual stupid anatomy of Vuchnich's implication of a sophisticated well-orchestrated attack on a teenage girl.  

I answered a few of the questions submitted to GMO Answers on video. One of the questions was about tactfully responding to Rachel Parent, at the time maybe 14.  She was framed as a vocal proponent of food labeling and a champion against biotech.  

Many were disturbed that she was so young, so wrong, and had such visibility. Clearly someone was giving her bad information, and they wanted someone with experience in nuanced communication to help address how we'd counter her claims with grace and class. That's what I do. 

I was happy to answer.  Here is the video that was described as "targeting" and "degrading".  What do you think?  A polished biotech stooge attacking a Canadian teenager would at least fix his tie.



8. Facts Don't Matter.


Looking back, it was kind of fun to see that truthiness was alive and well in 2014.  The information on her site was not scientifically sound, it still scientifically isn't.  Kids Right to Know is targeting kids and young adults with false information. I take that very seriously. As a university educator, I get to clean up that mess, and it is unfair to poison young minds with fake science.

It is particularly egregious because Rachel's family runs health food franchises around Canada, a relatively large company called Nutrition House.  The bad scientific information is actually not just lying about science, but it is a marketing campaign, a way to scare customers into purchasing from the family empire and related businesses.  

She considered my video "almost degrading", but apparently not degrading, because absolutely no degrading took place. I was pretty damn nice in recognizing her strengths and talents. But that message was twisted in Vuchnich's article, which makes sense, as I emphasized critical thinking and the importance of young women to be involved in STEM disciplines. That is quite offensive to those that fail to embrace science. 

And of course, with regard to experts like me, if you're Rachel, "... their opinion doesn't matter."  

9. More Distortion of a Non Event. 


I remember this morning.  It was a Sunday and I was at my home computer working.  I took a break and was perusing the web, and I discovered the website Kids (sic) Right to Know. I was deeply disturbed by what I found.  The information was wrong, and it targeted children and young adults. 

Just off the cuff I fired off an email to the folks that ran the GMO Answers website.  I told them that if they were to assemble a website to counter this blather, to provide real scientific information to that age group, I would help.  I deeply care about youth science education. 

This was not a nefarious cabal as portrayed. 

10. Extrapolation from Private Meaningless Private Correspondence.

After floating that original idea in the email, I quickly forgot about the whole thing. It was never mentioned again.  I guess I put it on their radar and was happy to help if it was of interest, but obviously it wasn't so nothing ever happened. 

Frankly, I forgot all about it.  I never even thought about it again until it surfaced in Vuchnic's hit piece a couple of years later. 

And Parent's family purchased the domain name last time I checked. As of today it seems to be available, and I have no interest in it. 


Rachel's family actually owned/owns the domain. 



11. I Have a Duty to Correct Disinformation.   

False claims that misinform children are extremely disturbing.  It is my job, it is all of the educated world's job, to correct that kind of disinformation. Parent should not be disappointed that a professor did that, she should be disappointed if he/she didn't. The false information on the website should be discredited as appropriate. The bogus claims have not aged well. 

12. Evidence, Schmemividence 



Parent disagrees with scientific research and Health Canada. She apparently argued at the time that there were health risks, a claim that is not reflected in over 30 years of research, 25 years of use in the animal/human food supply, and wider international adoption than ever. 

I said the technologies were "very safe and very effective".  Usually I avoid the imprecise weenie word "very" so that is a strange sentence for me. 

But five years after the article one of us is still right, and one of us is still horribly wrong. 

12.  Fallout from the Article.  Notice how much of it is coming from the people that provided my emails and inspired the article, and how Rachel retweets their filth.  It is their strategy. 










































































13.  Her Website is Still Wrong. 






Years later the website (accessed 2/1/21) still makes claims about bans in most countries, crops "doused" and "saturated' with herbicides, and other false claims. The lower image above is a field of wheat, which is not genetically engineered. 

Kids' Right to Know?   Or sadly, Disinformation for Kids? 


14. Conclusion.

Allison Vuchnich's article used quotations out of context, distortion of information, and disinformation in an attempt to harm my reputation and my career.  Today the attack piece on Global News stands as a forever-accessible defamation, guided by the hand of US Right to Know, and executed by another sucker journalist that saw a juicy story rather than the much more interesting actual truth.

The problem is that I have to ride this slander wave to the grave.  I teach in the classroom, and every semester have to point to articles like Vuchnich's, telling students about the dangers of speaking up for science-- then imploring them to do it.  I have to be preemptive in showing the disinformation to keep their trust as their teacher.

I have stepped into COVID19 discussions, eager to see a pandemic end, and stop the pain of families suffering from preventable loss of loved ones. 

And anti-vaxers will post Vuchnic's article adjacent to my presentations and posts, using her distortion to steal the trust I have earned as a scientist and scholar, showing that I cannot be trusted.  

And  a scientific voice is diminished in a pandemic. Congrats Allison.  

Her article was a gift to thugs like Ruskin and Thacker that will use it forever, especially when I'm educating kids. 

The good news is that this article has not aged well.  The claims I made back then are just as valid today as they were then.  Efforts to frame biotech as a dangerous technology have dissolved with the advent of biotech vaccines and slick cures for insidious human disease. 

And somewhere deep in my heart I somehow think that Parent and Vuchnich might be big enough to apologize. Even if they did, the problems they caused for me personally and professionally can never go away. 

But it is not about me. Their part in the war on science and reason will have long-lasting impacts on many, especially those that rely on biotechnology or wish to adopt it in their operations. Time should not be kind to them. 

This is what happens when you speak about science in a volatile climate where the internet affords easy assassination of those that present science that some find offensive. My hope is that this synopsis shows the anatomy of defamation.  

A Canadian teenager was not the target.  It was an American scientist.