By Vivian Cheung, Operations Coordinator
To celebrate this year’s Science Odyssey, Canada’s biggest science and technology festival, we are highlighting amazing scientists from across the country! Young adult staff members at Fresh Roots interviewed inspiring individuals contributing to science, to learn more about their personal and professional journey, career, and what advice they have for youth. These scientists surprise and delight us with their unique topics and backgrounds, and the unexpected ways their work connects back to healthy food systems and a healthy environment.
Interview with Dr. Annett Rozek
Dr. Annett Rozek obtained her degree in chemistry from Humboldt University in Berlin and completed her PhD at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada. Her interest in life sciences led her to join the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. In 2003, she started as Senior Scientist at Inimex Pharmaceuticals, leading the Research & Development team in the discovery and development of Innate Defense Regulators. In 2011, she joined Terramera as Chief Scientific Officer, where she leads discovery and Research & Development in the development of Terramera’s Actigate™ Targeted Performance technology. Alongside CEO and Founder Karn Manhas, Annett has launched Proof® and CIRKIL®, Terramera’s initial products.
We have a tradition at Fresh Roots of starting our conversations with this question: What vegetable do you feel like today?
I picked lettuce for today. Lettuce is a plant that keeps growing new leaves and becomes more and more complex, and since we’re talking about science, science and industry, and science at Terramera, it seemed fitting! We grow new leaves and layers all the time, and what we’re building becomes more complex and more rounded over time.
Can you describe your work chief scientific officer?
I am leading the scientific part of our Research & Development (R&D) team. I’m also at the management level of the company, focusing on how we work towards our company’s objectives to help change the world. Terramera is very passionate about changing agriculture to be more sustainable and regenerative, and all our different projects in the company flow together towards that goal.
One of our big goals is to reduce the global synthetic pesticide load by 80% by replacing them with natural products. With our Actigate™ technology platform, we’ve found a way to reduce the amount of synthetic chemicals in pesticide products which are used to treat pests and disease on plants. Developing that technology is the main thing I do every day. We continually apply Actigate technology to natural active ingredients to make them more effective, robust, and reliable. We also apply it to synthetic active ingredients to reduce the dose needed. We do a lot of experiments to further develop Actigate technology and test our hypothesis that Actigate materials help speed up and increase the transfer of active ingredients through cell membranes. We use machine learning and computational chemistry to understand interactions between molecules to predict what products will work best for an application. Then we continue to test and improve the formulation to perform well in the field
Orchestrating this whole thing is what I do day-to-day. I keep working towards my vision of perfecting the Actigate platform and creating products and applications that really help the farmers out there to do their work more efficiently and with safer materials.
What was your path to becoming chief scientific officer?
I was at a pharmaceutical startup company before I came to Terramera. We were designing peptides, the building blocks of protein, very deliberately to fulfill certain functions. Peptides are natural compounds, but similar to synthetic drugs in that they are single molecules. At the time, I’ve always viewed natural products and extracts with a little bit of skepticism because they tend to be complex mixtures of different kinds of things. As I started reading more about natural products, specifically plant extracts, I got really fascinated with what these extracts can do. I was curious about other applications for extracts other than for human medicine. It was at that time that I was starting to think about plant extracts and their use in agriculture. I realized how similar the agricultural field is to the pharmaceutical industry. In some ways, pharmaceutical discoveries foreshadow what is done in agriculture. To this day, I want to make agricultural research and development as sophisticated, effective, and successful as it is in the pharmaceutical industry. I figured out it could be really cool to apply all these fancy things we do in pharmaceuticals towards creating agricultural products. And then Terramera happened. It was almost like it was envisioned, you could say. It crossed my mind first and then I just jumped on the opportunity when I had it.
What motivates you to keep doing what you do?
The most enjoyable part is actually seeing our products work in the field. Once it gets close to making a difference in people’s lives, that’s when it gets really exciting. When the rubber hits the road, that’s rewarding. There’s a scientific curiosity part too. It’s really fun to do all of this and work with our team.
As I previously mentioned, it’s also very interesting to see all these parallels from different industries and be innovative. We can say, “they’re doing it like this. I’m just going to apply it here like that” and boom, I solved the problem! We can use the techniques and principles and skills of one industry and apply it to another industry very successfully. There are fundamental things that define success, and we can transfer it to our work at Terramera.
How does your work relate to food systems or the environment?
I’ve always been really conscious about the environment and how we as humans, as a society, affect the environment. We need to be very aware of what we’re doing and that we are doing it sustainably. We can do a lot of damage when we are not aware. There’s a lot of things that we need to repair or at least allow nature to repair. I’ve always been passionate about that, and it’s great that I can feed that into my work. I want to contribute to growing our food in cleaner ways than what we have been doing because it has left its mark on our environment. I’d like to find changes that promote sustainable agriculture and also regenerate where damage has been done. With my work, my main goal is to reduce synthetic pesticides.
I have really high respect for growers and farmers. They are scientists and have such a wealth of knowledge. I learn from great growers because they really understand, steward, and care for the land. I think the agricultural technology industry and growers should be partners and work together.
What advice would you give to your younger self, or to youth today?
Advice number one is just finding your passion. If you are aware of what excites you and what keeps you motivated, what’s driving you, or what’s getting you out of bed every morning, then you can always look for ways to work on exactly those things. Invest yourself in that and then life will always be interesting, work will never feel like work. That’s how it is for me. I made that choice early on in my 20s that I will never have a 9-to-5 job that isn’t fun. I said no, it’s 8 hours a day, and I’m going to have fun the whole time. I found what excites me and now work in that area so that I can have fun all day.
Once you have found that, just keep your eyes on the prize. Sometimes we don’t get to where we envision ourselves right away, especially if we set ourselves big goals. But the road can be rocky, and it may not be a direct path, so don’t be discouraged. Keep your vision and you will find ways. Sometimes you need to take a detour, sometimes there’s a dead end and you have to backtrack, but as long as you keep your vision and your eyes on the prize, you will keep going towards it.