Women in Ag by Global BioAg Linkages

Interview with Global BioAg Linkages Women in Agriculture blog.

Q: What are some of the challenges you have faced as a female leader in agriculture and how have you overcome these challenges?

A: “I have been in agriculture all of my life. I work hard because agriculture requires hard work in every aspect. One thing I did see, when you’re a woman, people don’t see your accomplishments. When you’re a man, they immediately recognize them. But when women do the same accomplishment or more, most of the time it goes unnoticed. Even though we don’t do things for recognition, it is nice to be recognized from time to time that we know our efforts are appreciated.

“The way I overcame many challenges is I surrounded myself with very positive and supportive people. Keep reading.


Coping with the COVID-19 Disaster

The COVID-19 pandemic is unlike any disaster we have seen in our lives. Our first coping strategy was to understand the disaster as much as we can. The consequences of COVID-19 multiply the disaster’s effects. Unfortunately, our governments were not prepared for this pandemic. Our hospitals do not have enough beds or equipment to take care of the sick. We do not know when we get sick whether we will be taken care of or triaged to die alone or with family. We are very thankful for all the healthcare professionals who are working tirelessly to find a cure, develop diagnostic tests, create a vaccine, take care of the sick, and provide us with guidance on how to protect ourselves and others (CDC).

Due to COVID-19, all of the institutions that we rely on to function in our daily lives are gone overnight. For example, schools closed unexpectedly and everyone was told to work from home. We are all expected to have rooms ready for distance learning for our kids and home offices so we could work from home. Nevermind that in dual profession families, our partners are also expected to work at the same time from home. What about the daycare closures? Families with young children are miraculously expected to work from home while taking care of the kids at the same time. Closures of many businesses like restaurants and bakeries, bars, and the hospitality industry have left people without jobs and without health insurance at a time when health insurance is a necessity. Even simple things like buying toilet paper, paper towels, baking soda or flour at the grocery store became a major issue due to shortages. These are all that we count on and take for granted, and now they are gone.

Tomatoes in a field waiting.

Are these really important? Yes. Those things that make us productive so we can take care of responsibilities such as pay our rent, bills, or care for ourselves and our families. Even when we are told to self-quarantine at home, our responsibilities have not gone away. Because we are still expected to work and be as productive as before the pandemic. Plenty of people are sharing pictures of their Zoom meetings, going about business as usual and pretending that self-quarantine has not slowed them down. It is time to realize that the COVID-19 disaster disrupted our lives, our governments, and the entire world. We are not alone. This change is very different from everything we have experienced or could imagine. That is stressful by itself.

You may be wondering “What does this have to do with Pheronym’s work?” It has everything to do with developing a coping strategy to function. The disruption to our daily lives directly affects our founders’ and employees’ effectiveness. It creates additional stress that was not there before. This is not ordinary stress. It is a global crisis that is felt by everyone worldwide. Our first focus is how can we reduce the stress to a manageable level because the stress is not going to go away anytime soon. Every day there is more grim news; a rising death toll globally, more new cases every day, and we know it is just going to get worse. We are working very hard to keep the morale up by being supportive and positive and sharing whatever good news we have. There is still hope. Keep reading

Pheronym’s initial COVID-19 disaster response

Nothing could have prepared us for this

Being a preseed/seed biotech startup in Agriculture is a challenge all by itself. The COVID-19 pandemic makes it even harder. Four weeks ago we were informed that the COVID-19 pandemic had arrived in the US and we needed to self-quarantine and start social distancing. This was an incomparable challenge to our resilience.

Pheronym’s founders (Dr. Fatma Kaplan and Mr. Karl Schiller) lived many years in Florida and were accustomed to dealing with natural disasters (hurricanes). We learned to continue to work without any disruption, take care of ourselves and families. The State of Florida had disaster plans and shelters already in place. We knew when the hurricanes were coming, what degree of damage to expect, how long we would stay at home (distance work), and whether we needed to go to a shelter/stop the work temporarily. All of this information helped us to plan and how to utilize our time efficiently during the many potential disruptions. If we needed to stop work for a period of time, we knew what to do.

I (Fatma) worked for the USDA-ARS. Many of my colleagues went through government shutdowns/furloughs where they were not allowed to work. During my time at the USDA, the government almost shutdown, so everyone got training for how to run a biotechnology research program during a government shutdown, where we would not be allowed to go to work and conduct experiments. I never thought this training would be useful, but here we are.

The first confirmed incidence of community spread COVID-19 in the US occurred in Solano County, California, not far from Davis where Pheronym operates R&D. I set up a temporary shutdown of laboratory work while maintaining the essential culture that would be ready to go when things come back to normal. My co-founder and I knew how to deal with unavoidable work disruptions, so we went about our usual disaster preparations. All disasters are bad, but nothing is like COVID-19.

I don’t think anyone was prepared for the kind of disruption caused by the COVID-19 disaster. The disruption was not just to Pheronym or businesses in our state, it was in all 50 states altogether. It was disrupting the entire world. It was like an alien invasion of our planet, disrupting our lives globally.

COVID-19 is worse than the deadliest hurricane in the US, Hurricane Katrina. Unfortunately, this time we are not trying to clean up some fallen trees or fix property damage caused by the winds and rain. This time we are worrying that our friends, family, and colleagues are getting sick and dying. Our hospitals do not have enough beds or equipment to take care of the sick.

In addition, all of the institutions that we rely on to function in our daily life are gone overnight. For example, the schools are closed, daycares are closed, eating out is no longer a possibility, getting together more than a group of two is not OK. We can’t find a simple toilet paper or flour at the grocery stores.

These are all things we have taken for granted, and they are gone. It is like living in a science fiction story where our planet is invaded and we lost everything except for our virtual world. We now realize that the virtual world is not enough. Now we have to figure out how to survive and thrive when everything is taken from us. We, humans, are very resilient, I believe we can do it together.