Shaileen McGovern
Shaileen McGovern

Hi, I'm Shaileen - an award-winning genetics nerd, animal lover, and passionate science communicator! My agricultural background, having grown up in rural Ireland, has greatly influenced my career path. Today, I want to move from agriculture to 'agri-culture', and use this blog to brainstorm my ideas about how we can take learnings from traditional agriculture and apply them in the cellular agriculture space.

I have a Bachelor's Degree in Agricultural Science, as well as a Master's in Bioinformatics and Computational Biology, in which I focused on the field of Quantitative Genetics for my thesis. I've spent years working in the animal health industry, in a variety of roles for large multinationals and small startups, spanning R&D, Business Development, Science Education, and everything in between!

My passion for genetics was ignited when I learned we can read the blueprints of our cells (the very blueprints of life!), and use these blueprints to gain valuable insights about our ancestry and heritage, disease risks and how we can reduce them, and how we can tailor our lifestyles to best suit our genetics (e.g. through nutrigenomics and precision medicine). I've always been driven to reduce suffering and improve welfare in this world. I vividly remember sitting in my first genetics lecture, transfixed by how we can read our biological code to understand things like the gene variants that contribute to different characteristics, hair colour, weight, height... I just had to learn more!

A testament to this passion, and how it has always been more than a job to me, is perhaps the year my birthday present ('to: me', 'many happy returns, also me') was getting my DNA genotyped to see what more I could learn about myself at the cellular level! This passion and drive has resulted in me receiving multiple grants, awards, and scholarships throughout my career - performing and producing my very best when my interest in genetics aligns with my desire to improve the world for animals, human and non-human alike.

As my degree progressed, the genetics concepts I learned were, of course, focused more on non-human animal applications - which included the pitch for how genetics can be used to breed farmed animals effectively and efficiently, addressing the question "how can we feed ~10 billion people by 2050?". This was the lens through which I had been viewing animal health and welfare for most of my career. I focused my Master's thesis on the genetics of cows used in the dairy industry, investigating the variants that contribute to Johne's Disease (which can be likened to human Crohn's Disease). Most recently, I held a role as a Senior Scientist in the animal health and pharmaceutical space; my responsibilities included educating people on how to use genomics to breed healthy, productive cattle, and showing the value of genomics in the agribusiness sector through webinars, interviews, and scientific publications.

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, I've had lots of time to sit with myself, and reflect on how I can do more for animal health. For me, the pandemic really highlighted the importance of One Health, and how we can combat zoonotic diseases using genomics and bioinformatics to help safeguard human and non-human animal health globally.

In 2021, I had an interesting conversation with a friend, who's part of the Effective Altruism Community (more specifically, the Effective Animal Advocacy space), which really got me thinking - thinking that perhaps another complementary solution to combating zoonoses, and simultaneously improving farmed animal health and welfare, is actually to remove farmed animal agriculture from the equation. Then it dawned on me - we don't need to worry about lameness, bullying, liver fluke, mastitis, ketosis, abortion and stillbirths, boredom, stress, and vices, if we simply remove animals from the equation... What better way is there to reduce animal health and welfare concerns?!

This conversation was a pivotal moment in my life - it challenged my worldview, and invited me to update my perspective on animal health and welfare. And like any good scientist, I decided to update my thinking based on reason and evidence. I've been reading up on foundational texts, like Peter Singer's Animal Liberation, as well as the Effective Altruism Forum to broaden my knowledge and thoughts. The more I read and reflect, the more I'm convinced of the benefits of displacing intensively-farmed animal-based products in the market - for animal health and our planet. Minimising zoonotic disease transmission, antimicrobial resistance, deforestation, environmental pollution, and climate change, all while improving animal welfare and food security, is a 'no-brainer' for me.

Since the update to Shaileen v2.0, I've been actively participating in the Effective Altruism Community and educating myself on the Effective Animal Advocacy Space. Completing Animal Advocacy Careers' Introduction to Animal Advocacy Course, brought me to the burgeoning alternative protein space - reigniting the passion in me for animal genetics, as it relates to fermentation and cellular agriculture.

In this new beginning, I will use my skills and knowledge I've built up to help optimise production of these alternative proteins. I've been so enamoured by the idea of alternative proteins, especially cellular agriculture, that I'm completing the Cambridge University Alternative Protein Society and Good Food Institute's Alternative Protein Fundamentals Programme to delve deeper into the space. I've also been attending alt. protein industry events, and have had the opportunity to network and meet some really wonderful and insightful people through PROBION's "The Future of Food - Alternative Protein Industry and Our Diet", and the Good Food Institute's regular networking events.

Over the years, my viewpoint on animal health and welfare has changed, and so too has my answer for "how can we feed ~10 billion people by 2050?". I'm a firm believer in the potential of alternative proteins, and I'm eager to contribute to the transformation of our food system. What once seemed like sci-fi to me, now seems like it really could become an inevitable reality. Reading Jacy Reece's "The End of Animal Farming: How Scientists, Entrepreneurs, and Activists Are Building an Animal-Free Food System", and New Harvest's work, plus listening to Doug Grant's Brave New Meat has inspired me to scope how I can best support this exciting field.

My goal for joining Medium has been to share with you my journey, offer some thoughts, ideas, and brainstorming bytes to foster discourse on how we can take learnings from farmed animal agriculture, and apply them to the cutting-edge field of alternative protein production. I've made some really meaningful connections in the alt. protein space who've advised I share my thoughts with the world.... so here I am! I love sitting at the intersections of tradition and innovation; bridging the gaps, and building on the learnings from traditional fields to optimise novel ones... That's what I think of when I hear the word "innovation".

Thanks for reading, and looking forward to conversing with you!

Want to find out more about my background and experience? Check out my LinkedIn profile here, and feel free to reach out to me via email!

Shaileen McGovern

Shaileen McGovern

Animal Geneticist | Effective Altruist | Science Communicator | Bioinformatician | Alt Protein Enthusiast. I enjoy bridging gaps & dreaming up innovative ideas!