Profile: Science advocate Alison Van Eenennaam

By Joan Conrow

October 9, 2018

In the contentious arena of livestock breeding and biotechnology, Dr. Alison L. Van Eenennaam has emerged as a tireless advocate for getting the science right.

Whether she’s conducting research in her role as a cooperative extension specialist in the Department of Animal Science at the University of California, Davis, where she runs the Animal Genomics and Biotechnology Laboratory, or crossing the globe to talk about the implications of her work, Van Eenennaam is committed to ensuring that scientific facts inform both her work and the surrounding conversation.

It’s not an easy position, given that the topics of animal agriculture and biotechnology —individually controversial — become downright combustible when combined. Yet Van Eenennaam has consistently communicated solid science, despite direct hostility on subjects ranging from cloning to genomic selection to genetically engineered animals.

“We have to speak up,” she said of herself and other scientists who know and understand the technology. “I’m not going to let the fearmongerers dominate the conversation.”

Anti-progress groups have repeatedly attempted to silence her powerful voice by threatening her scientific reputation through libelous websites maligning her work, hit pieces in fringe media and repeated FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) requests of her email correspondence for years.

Yet Van Eenennaam, an Australian native with a sunny disposition, has managed to rise above the storm, thanks to her friendly demeanor, willingness to hear opposing views, contagious enthusiasm for her topic and deft grasp of the issues.

And then there are her impeccable scientific creds. A review of her formal curriculum vitae shows that she has authored over 70 peer-reviewed scientific publications in well-respected journals of relevance to her field including Nature Biotechnology, Genome, Transgenic Research, Journal of Animal Science, Journal of Dairy Science, and Metabolic Engineering, and 10 book chapters. She has also written more than 130 abstracts and proceedings papers.

A passionate advocate of science, Van Eenennaam was the recipient of the 2014 Council for Agricultural Science and Technology (CAST) Borlaug Communication Award, and in 2017 was elected as a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). She also serves on the advisory board of the Cornell Alliance for Science.

Most recently, her collaboration in the pioneering use of genome editing to successfully silence the gene that produces unwanted horns in Holstein dairy cows has been widely lauded in both scientific and animal welfare circles.

Van Eenennaam has succeeded as a science communicator by directing her message directly to the public, in terms that non-scientists can understand. She publishes often on her Biobeef Blog, writes for the popular press, engages ardently on social media (@BioBeef) and produces press materials, fact sheets and other materials in an effort to accurately disseminate scientific information to the general public.

In addition to doing all of this, she also has an unremitting speaking schedule, having delivered more than 550 presentations to date to audiences in more than two dozen countries. An examination of the subject matter diversity and geographical location of her speaking engagements reveals an academic scientist who takes her role as an educator and hands-on communicator of science very seriously.

Van Eenennaam also has made extensive use of videos and parodies to spread the word about new advances in agricultural science, and was even featured in a documentary, Food Evolution, where she spoke so eloquently and honestly about biotech that she prompted some who held anti-GMO views to change their minds.

Though she’s been engaged in the discussion for more than two decades, Van Eenennaam remains somewhat perplexed by the antipathy that her field of expertise elicits in some critics.

“We seem to adopt technology in all aspects of our life, but there’s a hesitation when it comes to agriculture,” she said. “To me, it’s the area where we should most be applying technology, to try to advance our capability to provide sufficient food for the people of Earth, while minimizing our impact on the environment.”

Van Eenennaam is also motivated by her own compassionate bent. As a mother, she’s deeply troubled by reports that 25,000 people — most of them children — die of starvation each day.

“I would like to be part of the solution to stop that from happening in the future,” she said.