Doane Chilcoat ’93

Anika Jane Beamer ’22

“What does ag science have to do with pandemic public health?” That’s what Doane Chilcoat ’93 found himself asking in 2020 amid news of COVID-19 outbreaks. As it turns out, the link between the two lay in Chilcoat’s area of expertise — molecular genetics.

“Genetic screening is pretty much the same in humans as it is in plants,” he says.

A Grinnell biology graduate, Chilcoat led a large research and development group at Corteva Agriscience in Johnston, Iowa. At the outset of the pandemic, Iowa’s PCR testing capacity was inadequate to effectively track the COVID-19 virus. Chilcoat and his colleagues wondered if Corteva’s expertise in largescale genetic screening could help meet the demand.

In April 2020, the Corteva team began to provide rapid, low-cost COVID-19 testing to MercyOne health facilities. A testing program run through Corteva also helped allow small cohorts of Grinnell students to return to campus.

What came next was even more unprecedented than an agriscience company doing health care — the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation contacted the Corteva team. The foundation wanted to support programs that used automation and robotics to test at a high scale.

“The volume of molecular testing in agriculture biotech industry is greater than that in health care, historically,” Chilcoat explains. “So Corteva was more prepared for the massive scale of genetic testing that a pandemic response demanded.”

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