UC Davis Speaker: Fatma Kaplan, A Go-Getter and Maybe a Genius

There's no doubt--no doubt at all--that Fatma Kaplan is a go-getter. And maybe a genius. 

Born on her family's 40-acre farm in Turkey, where they grew hazel nuts, Kaplan went from farmer to scientist to entrepreneur. Today Kaplan is the chief executive officer and co-founder of Pheronym, Inc., an agricultural-biotechnology startup based in Woodland, Calif.

Pheronym develops nontoxic solutions for plant protection. "We use pheromones to control the behavior and development of microscopic roundworms called nematodes," the organization explains on its website. The pheromones are water soluble, which makes them suitable for seed treatment."

Kaplan says she co-founded Pheronym to bring nematode pheromone technology to the market and to provide effective, non-toxic pest control for farmers and gardeners.

Journalist Amy Wu includes Kaplan in her book, “From Farms to Incubators: Women Innovators Revolutionizing How Our Food is Grown,” which tells the stories of women entrepreneurs who are transforming agriculture through high technology.

And good news--Kaplan will address the UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology at an in-person and virtual seminar at 4:10 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 1 in 122 Briggs Hall on "Conspecific and Heterospecific Pheromones Stimulate Dispersal of Entomopathogenic Nematodes during Quiescence." 

Zoom link: https://ucdavis.zoom.us/j/99515291076.

"Ascaroside pheromones stimulate dispersal, a key nematode behavior to find a new food source," Kaplan says in her abstract. "For entomopathogenic nematodes (EPNs), the new food source is insects. The talk will focus on understanding the interaction between pheromone signals, dispersal and foraging strategies, and practical applications to improve the EPN's efficacy as biocontrol agents."  

Seminar coordinator Shahid Siddique, a nematologist and assistant professor, Department of Entomology and Nematology, will introduce her.  She will  share "the development of Pheronym and the significance of its innovations to the advancement of agricultural technology," he said.

Three Degrees. Kaplan holds a bachelor's degree in agricultural engineering from the College of Agriculture at Cumhuriyet University, Silvas, Turkey, and two degrees from the University of Florida, Gainesville: a master's degree in molecular breeding of horticultural crops and a doctorate in plant molecular and cellular biology and stress tolerance. She did postdoctoral training in natural product chemistry with a focus on isolating biologically active compounds. She worked as a scientist at NASA, the National Magnetic Field Laboratory. and the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service.  

Kaplan discovered the first sex pheromone of the nematode Caenorhabditis elegans, publishing her work in Nature. She went on to discover pheromones that regulate other behaviors in both parasitic and beneficial nematodes. She conducted the first agricultural biocontrol experiment in space at the International Space Station in 2020. 

Kaplan describes her work in her Linked-In article, A Technical Founder's Journey: An Ag-Biotech Startup CEO with a Vision

"Being a scientist, I often have to convince people that I am the right CEO for Pheronym, an ag-biotech startup. Frequently I hear, 'You would make a great CSO.' I know I would be a great CSO, but I am the only one who can be Pheronym's CEO."

"Let's start with 'What does a startup CEO do?' Everyone knows that the CEO is the person in charge, but what does that mean for a small startup? Startup CEO's can play very different roles depending on the type, stage, and founding team. For example, digital healthcare, digital agriculture, biotechnology, consumer-facing and B2B startups all have different needs. Furthermore, a startup is expected to create something visionary that will transform the industry or create some new and novel technology. So the startup needs a CEO with a vision."

"It's always been my belief I had the vision required. In 2005, when I accepted the position to identify the model nematode's (Caenorhabditis elegans) sex pheromone, I knew how these discoveries could revolutionize agricultural pest control for nematodes. Soon after we published the work in Nature(2008), the USDA-ARS recruited me to apply this discovery to control agriculturally important nematodes. After all, pheromones had been used to control insects successfully for decades. Why not for nematodes? When I was at the USDA, I won the 2011 American Phytopathological Society Schroth Faces of the Future, Nematology Award for my vision of using pheromones to control parasitic nematodes. Then, in 2014, my article on the future of the nematode pheromone field won an essay contest sponsored by the Genetics Society of America and was published in the GSA Reporter. When I started thinking about filing patents and commercializing my discoveries, I realized that I was the only one with the knowledge, passion, and vision to make it happen." (See more.)

The Department of Entomology and Nematology seminars--some are virtual and some are in-person--are held at 4:10 p.m. on Wednesdays. Coordinator Shahid Siddique may be reached at ssiddique@ucdavis.edu for any technical issues regarding the Zoom seminars.