Alumni Spotlight: Regulating Crops and Developing Leaders with Angela Hendrickson Culler

May 24, 2017

By Echo Martin

It costs as much as $140 million for Monsanto to release a new genetically modified crop, and from start to finish Angela Hendrickson Culler (Ph.D. Plant Biological Sciences ’07) ensures that crop is safe for people, animals, and the environment. Culler is the lead for Monsanto’s U.S. Biotech Regulatory Affairs department and was recently named one of the Saint Louis Business Journal’s 40 Under 40, which recognizes individuals who have made significant contributions to their businesses and community. She manages a team of 25 people and is responsible for obtaining and maintaining global regulatory approvals for a $10 billion product portfolio.

“We have oversight from a product’s proof of concept through to discontinuation when a product is no longer used,” says Culler. That’s no small task when getting a product to market can take 10–12 years. Her team will often start work with product developers to understand any unique safety concerns for a crop or trait, manage risk assessment, and look at the long-term picture for where regulatory roadblocks might pop up later. “Regulatory approval is the last step before a crop is released for commercial purposes,” says Culler. “We make sure that if there’s a safety issue, it’s caught as early as possible.” Regulatory approval is one of the longest processes in the product development phase, lasting a minimum of six years. Beyond that, Culler’s team often conducts post-market evaluations to ensure there are no unforeseen hazards after release. “A lot of people don’t realize it, but there are more safety tests and regulations on genetically modified crops than on any other food,” says Culler.

Culler has been at Monsanto for the past eight years, but when she first started there she didn’t plan to work in the regulatory approval space. Initially she started as a plant biochemist within the regulatory sciences division, but she was quickly drawn to more than just the technical science of safety assessments. “It really stretches different areas of my brain, including the creative side. When people think of regulatory affairs, they usually think of tons and tons of paperwork,” she says. “That’s only part of what we do. What really makes me passionate about my work is that it’s a mixture of hard technical science, social science, and political science. There’s a very human aspect to it.” While she works closely with the scientists developing Monsanto’s new crops, she must also communicate frequently with government officials so they have the right information to perform risk assessments and explain Monsanto’s products to the public to dispel myths about GMOs.

Culler is particularly proud of the balance she’s managed between having a very successful career and personal life. “I’m still working on it, but I’ve come to understand what my priorities are,” says Culler. That balance has in turn helped her to be a better leader. She strives to be an example to her team, and credits the foundation of her leadership skills to her Ph.D. advisor Jerry Cohen. “Jerry really made a point of showing the people in his lab what it means to be a leader and a manager. He cares for his students and employees as people first, and there’s something special about that.”

To those considering pursuing plant science at any level, she stresses developing soft skills in addition to the technical ones. “Your CV will get you an interview and a foot in the door, but your ability to communicate, think about matters broadly, and balance being a team player and a leader are what will really stand out,” she says. Her other piece of advice is to think critically about how you want to continue to grow. “You don’t necessarily need a Master’s or Ph.D. to work at a technical organization. The process of learning and pursuing a higher degree provides really great training tools, but it’s not the only piece that matters,” says Culler. She warns against getting too focused on one path, particularly in graduate school. “Remember that there are scientists in all different parts of a company, and there’s more than one way to develop your career.”