COLUMBIA, Mo. (Aug. 7, 2020) - Elena Galata Bickell was raised in a family who trained her to work to measure success based on the impact she would have on others. She knew the day she arrived in Missouri from Greece that she was going to make it her home, “I was provided all the resources to make an impact on my community,” she said.
It all began when she met Nicholas Kalaitzandonakes, Ph.D., who she refers to as Dr. Nicholas, at a conference in Greece. “We both agreed there was something unique about my research and his research. I had just finished up my master’s degree in Chania, Greece and showed up at Mizzou with one suitcase,” she said. Six years later, she will graduate this summer with a doctorate in Agricultural and Applied Economics from the University of Missouri.
“It’s a gift to be in the United States,” she said. Since she left Greece to attend MU, she met her husband, a Missouri native and elementary school teacher, and together they have a 15-month-old son, Nicholas James.
The agricultural economics department embraced her from the first day, she said, by taking her by the hand and extending her knowledge. “Mizzou is close to my heart. They gave me access to educational resources that helped me grow as an individual and made me feel safe.”
She now considers herself “Midwestern,” and likes to go to state fairs, bake pumpkin pie and travel the gravel roads to look at old grain silos.
Throughout her education she has had the opportunity to attend schools in Sweden and the United States. Coming from a village of 400 people, “it’s been eye opening to see how things are done in one place over another. It’s been fruitful to come together with people who have different experiences and approaches to research,” she said.
During her undergraduate course work she pursued an International Economics and Politics degree with a focus in Diplomacy. She knew she wanted to work with numbers since she loved the empirical aspect of economics. She found an Agriculture Economics degree could expand her expertise and help her pursue an impactful career.
“Economics is the most fascinating profession in the world,” Elena said. “The most exciting thing about economics is that it’s a social science and allows you to study humans and human behavior. Then, being an Applied Economist means I can use methods resembling those of the natural sciences to solve complex problems of our society. As an Applied Economist, I conduct empirical research to provide answers to difficult questions, and help people work together to solve problems and live better lives.”
Elena’s degree and training is in Agricultural and Applied Economics, which means that she does economic research on issues related to agriculture, food, natural resources, and rural America.
“There are nearly 100,000 farmers in Missouri and most farms are family-operated. It is difficult to overstate how important these farmers are to us, the Midwest and the national food, livestock, crop and fuel production.”
“I see it every single day in my research at Mizzou and my scholarship has been motivated to help farmers produce more efficiently by making more food and more money,” she said. “I am providing them the best available research and science, so they can make more sustainable and profitable choices.”
This has driven her since even before she attended MU. For the last few years, as a researcher at the Economics and Management of Agro-biotechnologies Center (EMAC) and at the Food Equation Institute (FEI), Elena measures and analyzes how public perceptions on agricultural biotechnology change over time, by looking at how the mass media’s representation of the technology affect our attitudes and opinions on the topic.
During her time at Mizzou, she has gone from being mentored to mentoring other students and starting student organizations along with attending a variety of professional development conferences. The most rewarding experience has been informing regulators, she said. During her graduate assistantship at EMAC and FEI, she has been a part of a team that has brought in over 200 regulators from across the globe to MU for 14 days to educate them around biotechnology and regulation. At the Biotechnology Regulation Immersion Course (BRIC) top researchers and scientists in the field of biotechnology teach international policymakers on the science behind biotechnology, innovation, technology, commercialization, stewardship and science communication and provide them with the tools they will need to apply what they learned in their training back in their countries.
In her dissertation research she analyzes how mass media and social media inform and shape public opinion on genetically engineered (GE) foods and the factors that shape their agenda, frames, and degree of influence. She says she focused her research on GE foods because they have been somehow controversial, have involved multiple information sources and stakeholders, and they have had complex considerations of risks and benefits.
One issue of interest in her dissertation has been the role and influence of experts and their centrality and degree of influence on the public discourse of GE foods and crops. As information and media is becoming more decentralized through social platforms, it is of interest to understand how experts and non-experts shape public discourse and what are the factors that affect their influence.
She says that the effects of innovation, such as the innovation in agriculture are hard to see if you look outside the window, but are easy to measure. “We often rely on expert voices, such as scientists, to translate to us what the impacts of technology are. I study the farm level impacts of genetically engineered crops, and how these impacts have been communicated by large scale communication providers, such as the print-media, but also non-institutional sources, such as bloggers.”
We rely on experts to tell us about the significance and risks associated with the technology, but she says a lot of Americans receive information from social media on a range of topics. She cautions that anyone can produce content on any topic they want, but the information is not always reliable.
Her primary research goal is to increase awareness of the ways that large scale communication providers such as mass media and social media can impact the decisions that we make on the food that we eat.
This September she will be one of five post-doctoral fellows making up the inaugural class of Missouri Science and Technology Policy Fellows. She will be a scientific advisor to the Missouri legislators, advising them on agriculture and natural resources, including some economics issues, she said. “I care deeply about our state and being part of this country. I want to help every Missourian to achieve their highest potential by providing sound science and research to those who make the final decisions for our state.”
With her background as an applied economist Elena is prepared to speak the language of the policy makers and of researchers, translating the science to them and working with them side by side to make the best decisions they can for their constituents based on the best science available, she said. “Lawmakers are faced with a tremendous number of choices and they have to make the best decision they can with the information they have available” she said. “I am excited to be setting roots down in Missouri and have a career where I can have an impact on my community.”