Supervisory Biological Scientist at USDA
Douglas Grant works as a Supervisory Biological Scientist for the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) in the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), Biotechnology Regulatory Services. APHIS BRS' main aim is to oversee the use of specific biotechnology in the agriculture industry. Dr. Grant supervises a team of inspectors and compliance specialists that travel throughout the US and ensure that the biotechnology is being used appropriately by research institutes, agriculture companies and academic centers.
According to APHIS' website, “in order to protect plant health, Biotechnology Regulatory Services (BRS) implements APHIS regulations for certain genetically engineered (GE) organisms that may pose a risk to plant health.” APHIS monitors people using biotechnology, such as the genetic engineering of plants that may pose a risk to the health of either humans or other plants. There are several potential risks that always surround any agriculture use of genetic engineering. Risks such as provoking allergic reactions, whether the genes can transfer into human cells or to other plants and animals. However, GE crops have repeatedly been shown to be safe for human consumption. Nonetheless, the USDA implements a strict oversight process of any new agriculture GE research conducted on a case-by-case basis.
Based in Fort Collins, Colorado Dr. Grant works in the Western Compliance Assurance branch of APHIS and oversees a team of 10 people that help him regulate experimental research in the western half of the US. His team focuses on compliance oversight of regulatory crops. The research may involve anything from staple food crops like corn, to microorganisms. Dr. Grant's team carries out about 600-700 inspections a year within its jurisdiction. His team thoroughly examines each researcher's lab and methodology to ensure that no harm is done to human health or the environment. The team also deals with people wanting to bring a product or idea into the commercial field. An example is if a team of researchers changed a plant’s genes to be more drought resistant. If they followed USDA regulation and if the genetically modified plant does not show any potential harm, then it can proceed through the petitioning process and eventually be granted non regulated status. Once granted non regulated status, the plant does not need continuous regulation from Dr. Grant's team and the modified plant can enter the food supply.
Dr. Grant majored in Biological sciences with an emphasis in Botany and minored in Chemistry. Throughout college he worked on different projects that revolved around plant identification and devoted a lot of his summers to working in research labs. It was during this time that Dr. Grant realized his passion for botany. After graduating with a Bachelor’s of Science, he worked various seasonal and temporary jobs in Colorado's Natural Heritage Program, in which he identified rare plants throughout the state's vast wilderness. It was during this time he was persuaded to first earn a Masters and then a doctorate as he realized that many full-time positions in botany research required extra education.
Dr. Grant's excitement and passion for his job and science was clear throughout our interview. When asked what he loved most about his job he answered, “I really love plants but the people are really amazing too, they tend to create most of the biggest challenges but are one of the most rewarding aspects of what we do.” This job requires a lot of social interaction and balancing between people's desires and efficient administration. There is a fine line between enforcing government regulations effectively and stifling scientific research. Despite this challenge, Dr. Grant enjoys his work and looks forward to meeting new people. Another challenge that his field faces is the differing views on GM plant regulation. Some see all GM crops as threats to humanity while others see them as the key for advancing human progress. Despite the public debate on GM crops, Dr. Grant and his team will tirelessly continue their work in GM crop regulation.
Working in the USDA as a Supervisory Biological Scientist nurtures Dr. Grant's intellectual curiosity, “as a person who really loves science, the science part of it is really interesting and uplifting because there is always something different going on.” Dr. Grant is excited because of new uses for biotechnology and different research opportunities presenting themselves, which may greatly benefit society. His excitement is tempered somewhat by knowing new research will bring new challenges for USDA-APHIS.
Our interview with Dr. Grant gave us valuable insight into the world of innovative biotechnology, the hurdles new science brings with it and the crucial role of the USDA in promoting scientific advancement while safeguarding society. Dr. Grant also gave us a new perspective of the regulatory side of the agriculture industry and the vast amount of opportunity within it.
Authors: Diego Jones and Miguel Guerrero