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— When Mike Mack, chief executive of the multi-national biotech firm Syngenta, called Mary-Dell Chilton from Switzerland this summer to congratulate his employee on winning the prestigious World Food Prize, Chilton had one question.

“Who?” she asked abruptly, not registering the name of her top boss.

It was classic Chilton. Her pioneering discoveries on how to alter seeds genetically to make crops more plentiful and resistant to diseases and pests have made business leaders such as Mack wealthy.

But Chilton is simply a scientist, fixated on questions most can’t comprehend. For more than 50 years, she has found a home in laboratories, where pure love of science led her to breakthroughs that have changed or will change everything about the way the world eats. Her universe is two long benches filled with pipes and petri dishes and pressing questions she intends to answer in the years she’s still healthy enough to work.

The legacy of her discoveries is a lightning rod among activists and environmentalists concerned about food safety and equity for farmers, yet Chilton carefully avoids getting mired in the politics of it all.

She mostly ignores the criticism and, now and again, she lets herself marvel over the potential of her life’s work: The world’s hungry could be fed. Such indulgences are fleeting.

“These are social questions, not science,” Chilton says. “I do science.”

Syngenta, formerly Ciba-Geigy, latched on to Chilton 30 years ago, soon after she and colleagues demonstrated how to pass along traits to plants and their seeds by transporting genes through bacteria. Chilton was slow to realize how important she would become in the race to produce genetically modified seeds, but Ciba-Geigy bet the company’s future on her.

“She didn’t set out to develop this technology,” says Mark Chilton, Chilton’s son. “It popped out of the back end of her research. It was such a huge discovery, though, that there was no question for any of us that she needed to follow this path.”

In 1983, Ciba-Geigy invested in a patent from Washington University for Chilton’s discovery and lured her and her family to North Carolina to a vacant plot of land in the vast expanses of Research Triangle Park. They offered simple instructions: build a world-class biotechnology laboratory to develop seeds we can sell to farmers to help ease their most vexing problems. The company says genetically modified seeds account for nearly 10 percent of its total sales, which last year were $14.2 billion.

The company’s leaders knew they needed her. As it would turn out, Chilton needed them, too.

A forgotten child

At 74, Chilton won’t quit. She wakes each work day as she has for the past 30 years and heads to Syngenta’s biotechnology laboratory. Chilton parks her Lincoln Town Car in a space reserved for her. She leans on a cane and walks toward a building with her name stripped across the front. A steady stream of researchers passes her in the hallway, smiling and nodding as if she is a sort of beloved matriarch.

If there is any doubt this laboratory is Chilton’s, a painted portrait of her greets visitors in the lobby.

“It’s flattering. I enjoy the notoriety,” Chilton says. “I’m an iconic character.”

Chilton’s desire for adoration took hold early. Her birth, the third in the family, was unexpected. When she was a toddler, Chilton’s parents shipped her from Indiana to Southern Pines to live with her grandparents. Her older brother’s behavior issues had proven more than her parents could handle.

Her grandparents were kind and doting, but Chilton, the only one of their three children sent away, craved her parents’ affection. The distance made her doubt their love.

Chilton was a teen when she rejoined her parents in Illinois. Her brothers shared the second bedroom in the family home; Chilton slept on the couch. She felt like a stranger in their home, constantly in the way.

Those years ignited a hunger in Chilton she struggles to explain. She is a striver, and her success depended on her need for things she lacked. She has spent her life trying to fill the holes left by her childhood.

“It’s our travails that make us,” she says.

Before her father died, Chilton finally got the nerve to ask him why they sent her away as a child. His response unsettled her: “What do you mean? It was just for a few weeks.”

The answer reinforced what Chilton had feared: She had been forgotten.

Fighting for a job

Chilton came of age in the 1950s, an era in which some state universities didn’t even admit women into science and engineering programs. Chilton knew she was bound for college and possibly graduate school, and, luckily, nearby University of Illinois at Urbana allowed women to attend.

Though her parents missed most of her adolescence, they saw and embraced her promise when she returned to them as a teenager. Her father drew no distinction between the opportunities awaiting Chilton versus her two older brothers.

She had been a stellar student in school, and even stood out among peers her age. As a high school junior, Chilton built a telescope and won a prestigious Westinghouse award for talented young scientists.

Chilton never expected that her gender might pose any sort of barrier for her, so she was caught flat-footed in the 1970s as she sought work in academia after finishing her doctorate in chemistry. She had followed her thesis adviser to the University of Washington in Seattle, and after finishing her post-doc research, she couldn’t find a job in academia.

She married Scott Chilton, a chemistry professor at the University of Washington, and while he headed to the laboratory each day, Mary-Dell stayed home with their two young boys, Andrew and Mark. Chilton loved being a mother, but she had also wanted to be a tenured professor.

Scott Chilton believed his wife was an intellectual equal, and at home and in private, he made her ambitions his own. As the years passed, and Chilton watched people with less experience secure positions, she became more frustrated.

“My father brought me up with the belief that I had certain gifts. I believed if I worked hard and kept my face clean, I would rise,” Chilton says. “I did everything a girl should do, and I failed. I felt kind of betrayed.”

While Chilton bristled at the exclusion, she decided to bide her time doing research that interested her. DNA had been discovered 20 years earlier, and Chilton had gotten a taste of the burgeoning field of genetics during her early time in Seattle.

Scientists around the globe piled through the doors opened by this new field. The questions seemed endless. When a student in a class Chilton taught suggested in a paper that a bacteria was transferring its DNA to plants, she found the question intriguing. A team of researchers at the university had gotten resources to determine whether the transfer was actually happening and how.

They asked Chilton, who had an aptitude for designing experiments, to join their team.

In Chilton’s mind, though, she already had the answer to the question: absolutely not.

“I thought it was all nonsense,” she says.

Chilton’s mind is wired like an engineer, so she immediately sees her way to an answer. She designed methodology so elaborate a team of seven had to work around the clock for three days to execute the experiment.

“Figuring it all out would become the Holy Grail,” says Gene Nester, her collaborator at the University of Washington. “Mary-Dell was smart enough to realize that.”

Chilton was wrong about the bacteria and its DNA, and she had never been so thrilled. A few years before, she’d struggled to find work; this discovery solidified her career. The group published a landmark academic article and, overnight, Chilton’s name became one to know.

Working with industry

The offer seemed too good to ignore. Washington University, a private school in St. Louis, wanted Chilton to join its faculty and run a laboratory continuing the work she started in Seattle.

The dean who recruited her agreed to give Mary-Dell’s husband a faculty and research position. Without hesitation, Scott Chilton embraced his wife’s chance to advance at this new school. Chilton felt sure she had finally gotten a reward for her talent and work.

Life at Washington University was far from glamorous. Her laboratory was poorly supplied compared with her surroundings in Seattle. And she didn’t have any graduate students or post-doctoral candidates at her disposal. She had been able to transfer only one grant from Seattle to Washington University, and a stream of rejections arrived for other applications. Without more investment, her lab would go under.

Two men from Monsanto, an agricultural supply company, visited one day in 1979. They saw an opportunity in Chilton’s science and offered to pay for two post-doctoral positions. In exchange, they wanted to learn about Chilton’s research.

“I woke up and smelled the coffee pretty quickly. Industry wanted this science,” Chilton says. Monsanto “climbed up on my back and started running.”

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, academia and industry lived in vastly different worlds. Most scientists in Chilton’s field of study had never before been courted by private companies. In those early years, questions of turf and ownership were just starting to be settled. No one fully understood the eventual market value of these technologies, but Chilton’s team did secure a patent for their work. Syngenta later bought exclusive rights.

With Monsanto’s financial support, Chilton and some collaborators at the University of Pennsylvania hit paydirt. They figured out how to transfer a chosen genetic trait from bacteria to a tobacco plant in a way that the trait regenerated in the plant’s seeds.

Agricultural company leaders salivated. Though no one needed or wanted to modify tobacco crops, the potential was clear. Chilton and her colleagues had just proven it could be done: Humans could manipulate nature.

‘The Chilton Hilton’

Chilton deals almost exclusively in facts and figures. She doesn’t entertain hypothetical questions, and she wastes little time on self-analysis. Chilton works harder and more efficiently than nearly any colleague, even those half her age. She wasn’t satisfied to sit in academia and ponder. She wanted results.

Chilton’s report on the tobacco plant modification ignited another race. Every company that sold seeds and plants to farmers wanted to develop a useful genetically modified seed.

Executives from Ciba-Geigy recruited Chilton in 1983. They doubled Chilton’s pay and gave her a long leash. The directions were few: build a team, design a lab, make products farmers can use. Ciba-Geigy set its sights on corn, one of the world’s largest crops.

Chilton had to pull back from her beloved lab work and manage. She invited a young French post-doc from St. Louis, Anic Deframond, to join her, and the two worked out of rented office space in another RTP location until they could build a biotech center. Even in this unfamiliar role, Chilton seemed certain.

“She knows exactly what she wants to do, and she knows how to get to the heart of the matter,” says Deframond, now a researcher at Syngenta.

Chilton knew every other company would be working on a similar technology, and the race excited her. Chilton soon learned that corn was far more temperamental than tobacco. The more she discovered about the world’s crippling population problem and the role genetically modified corn could play in easing hunger, the more she felt rushed.

A steady stream of young scientists flocked to Research Triangle Park in the 1980s to interview for a spot in Chilton’s lab. She hired by gut. Now and again, she would stop an interview short and send an applicant packing to the airport just an hour into a scheduled daylong visit. Even those she liked weren’t sure they had her approval.

Vance Kramer remembers thinking Chilton hated him when she drove him to the airport early after a day of interviews. As she drove away, though, Chilton rolled down the window and shouted: “I’ll have an offer for you in a few days.”

Layers deep, Chilton is warm and nurturing. She adores her pets, and she looks like the quintessential grandmother with her bifocals and gray curls. She loves holding babies and talks longingly about family camping trips before Scott Chilton’s death in 2004. The two loved young people and teaching; over the years, they welcomed dozens of graduate students to live in their home, earning it the nickname “The Chilton Hilton.”

Emotionally, Chilton admits to being aloof. She spends little time holding the hands of fellow scientists or offering affirmation. It never occurs to her. Years ago, a Syngenta executive told Chilton that her direction to employees could come across as sharp and uncaring. The news crushed her.

“I have no idea what people feel or think,” she says. “I’ve kind of accepted that about myself.”

Eventually, Syngenta allowed Chilton to retreat to the haven of her laboratory, to the familiarity of pipes and gels and bacteria.

“I’m good at science. I’m good at scrutinizing,” she says. “I’m good at projects. I didn’t have any visionary talents.”

‘Like a rock star’

Whatever shortcomings Chilton claims, she is beloved at Syngenta and in the larger biotech research community.

She’s seen as a pioneer. Her stock is as high as it has ever been, boosted this year by the World Food Prize, the agriculture and biotechnology industry’s version of a Nobel.

Chilton and two other pioneers of genetically modified foods shared the honor at a fancy weeklong celebration in Des Moines, Iowa, in October. She was wined and dined and guarded like a national prize in case a crowd of detractors protesting genetically modified foods got too rowdy. Retired Secret Service agents escorted her everywhere.

“I felt like a rock star,” she says.

The accolades have washed in during the past few years. This summer, the governor awarded her the Order of the Long Leaf Pine, a distinguished honor for North Carolinians.

Syngenta takes every opportunity to celebrate her. In November, the company honored Chilton’s prize at a company barbecue and groundbreaking for an expansion. Employees compiled a video tribute set to rock music and stood and cheered as Chilton walked to the front of the crowd.

“She is our prize,” said Michiel van Lookeren Campagne, head of Syngenta’s operations at RTP.

With treatment like this, why quit working? Her contemporaries have slowed down or fully retired. The notion seems ridiculous to Chilton.

“What would I do?” she asks.

Her boys are grown and have laid their own roots in the Triangle. Andrew Chilton is a lawyer, and Mark Chilton is a community activist and until this fall served as Carrboro’s mayor. Chilton loves to shop, but she gets her fill of that on weekends.

Since her husband’s sudden death, Chilton has struggled to plug the hole he left. She moved from Raleigh to Carrboro to be closer to her boys, joined the Unitarian Universalist church in Chapel Hill and began singing in the choir. Mary-Dell and Scott were consummate companions, compatible in both work and play. Nine years after his death, she still wears her wedding ring.

“Those were such good years,” she says quietly.

At the lab, everything makes sense. She knows exactly what to do every second of the day. She finds her current research both exhilarating and vexing. She is trying to figure out the best way to direct selected genetic traits to a specific place in the DNA sequence of a plant.

Targeting the gene will make the work of Syngenta more efficient in the product review phase and may lead scientists to an understanding of how to remove certain traits from plants.

Each day, a sequence of experiments gets her closer to a method. Each result is a clue, a welcome gift.

One afternoon last month, she leaned over a tray, squinting to see where the bacteria traveled.

“This is Christmas morning,” Chilton says, smiling. “I hope it’s not ashes and switches.”

Locke: 919-829-8927