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Champion of the Plant Kingdom

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Meet Kellye Eversole, the woman to thank for your plant genomics research dollars.

by Karen Young Kreeger

 

“You could say Kellye is a matchmaker,” says Daphne Preuss, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator at the University of Chicago, of Kellye Eversole. Eversole is an inside-the-Beltway lobbyist who has been instrumental in garnering funds for the Plant Genome Initiative, a project that has resulted in major increases in funding not just for plant research, but for development of new technologies useful for all types of genome research.

Eversole’s matchmaking skills were most recently exemplified by a lavish reception she organized to bring together researchers funded by the initiative, such key politicians as Senators Christopher Bond (R-Mo.) and Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), and a group of almost 30 agriculture trade organizations.

The get-together was held in late September in the opulent Mansfield Room of the Capitol Building. Eversole worked the marbled-floor, dark-wood-paneled room ¯ the epitome of an old-boys-network dealmaking setting — like a pro.

Still, she’s one of DC’s most atypical lobbyists. “She doesn’t operate within that network,” remarks Bob Mustell, former vice president of marketing for the National Corn Growers Association, one of Eversole’s main clients. “She’s not bashful, but at the same time she doesn’t come across as pushy.”

Eversole, 42, takes pride in her open-minded and down-to-earth approach to lobbying: “I’d much rather be at the table getting something started than standing outside demanding the whole thing.”

She has had the last 20 years to hone her insider-at-the-table savvy and amass her Rolodex worth its weight in gold. Eversole began her career on the Hill in the late 1970s, first in the office of Senator David Boren. By the time she started her own firm in 1991, the early days of the Human Genome Project, she knew she wanted to focus on biotechnology.

In late 1995, the Chevy Chase-based Eversole Associates began representing the National Corn Growers Association, which was seeking funds for a maize sequencing project. By March of 1997, the effort was cemented as the more expansive Plant Genome Initiative when the National Science Foundation was brought in as a source of wider funding. That was when Senator Bond, Chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee’s Subcommittee on VA, HUD and Independent Agencies, became involved. Bond’s subcommittee determines appropriations and funding priorities for NSF. (Senator Mikulski is the ranking Democrat on the subcommittee.)

A few weeks after Eversole’s initial meeting with Bond’s staff, he attended a small-town meeting in the Missouri countryside where farmers raised the issue of funding for corn genomics. Bond said he would see what he could do. Eventually, an interagency working group was set up to plan the project. To date, the NSF Plant Genome Initiative has received about $150 million.

In addition to traditional plant genome sequencing and gene expression analysis projects, the initiative has spurred development of specific technologies including cDNA-tag direct selection methods, EST databases, and bioinformatics tools.

The initiative is slated to get another $90 million for FY 2001 for core programs and the “2010 Project,” an effort aimed at uncovering the function of all genes in Arabidopsis thaliana by 2010.

If it weren’t for two pivotal events in the early part of Eversole’s career, the story of the Plant Genome Initiative might have turned out differently. She worked in a hospital recovery room the year between high school and college. “I was taking someone’s blood pressure and she died as I was doing it,” recalls Eversole. “I thought that after a period of time I’d be able to lose that image, but even to this day I’ve never lost it.” It’s the reason she says she abandoned pre-med studies at Oklahoma State University.

But another choice sealed the deal. Between her junior and senior year at Oklahoma State, Eversole was offered two summer internships — one in the Washington office of Senator David Boren and another as a lifeguard in a small town in California. “I thought the Washington one would be a 6-week summer thing and I could always go to California next summer,” she remembers. But when a staff position in Boren’s office opened up, Eversole landed it. She eventually transferred to George Washington University to continue studying political science and stayed on as a legislative assistant with Boren until 1988.

Now, 12 years later, by Eversole’s own estimate she spends about one-quarter of her hectic work schedule on the Hill and the other 75 percent in meetings, on the phone, or traveling to the many genomics conferences held around the country. “The thing about Eversole is that she really does her homework,” notes Mary Clutter, NSF assistant director. “She’s seen at any kind of occasion that relates to the agriculture of the future.”

Eversole lists talking to people outside of Washington as one of the aspects she loves most about her job, “not dealing with the minutiae of who’s getting more than I’m getting.” She even hesitates to refer to herself as a lobbyist when dealing with researchers and farmers.

“She’s able to communicate with scientists and lawmakers,” says Preuss, who has met with Eversole at various genomics conferences both inside and outside Washington.

The dollars that Eversole has been able to secure for plant science have been a tremendous boost for what many term an underdog area for funding in the sciences.

“It’s really changed the way we look at plant biology because we’re not looking at plant genes one at a time any more, now it’s thousands at once,” says Pamela Green, a plant functional genomics researcher at the Michigan State University-DOE Plant Research Laboratory in East Lansing, Mich. “That makes a huge difference in our ability to interpret the large picture of a plant’s genetic circuitry.”

Green has helped Eversole ¯ and in turn her applied agriculture clients — to understand the relevance to crop plants of Arabidopsis genome research. Indeed, this overarching view of the plant kingdom, and not its individual fiefdoms, illustrates Eversole’s philosophy towards her work: “It’s really about looking to the long-term and trying never to burn your bridges.”

 

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