In 1998, Tyrone Hayes, a biologist at U.C. Berkeley, was hired by the agribusiness company Syngenta to conduct tests on its herbacide atrazine, which is used on more than half of the corn grown in the United States and is one of the most common contaminants in drinking water. Through his research, he found that the chemical had serious adverse effects on the sexual development of frogs, causing mutations and other reproductive abnormalities. After reporting these results to Syngenta, he got the distinct impression that the company was trying to undermine the research and delay his publications. He stopped working with Syngenta, in 2000, and continued to study atrazine independently—he also continued to find that it caused serious harm. But he encountered opposition and obstacles to his research every step of the way, and gradually became convinced that Syngenta was carrying out an orchestrated campaign to unsettle and discredit him.

In 2012, a series of class-action lawsuits against Syngenta caused the release of a number of the company’s internal documents, which revealed that Hayes was at least partially right: the company had been closely monitoring him and strategizing about how to discredit his science. Rachel Aviv wrote about Hayes for the magazine in 2014, in a story that sheds light on the labyrinthine connections between scientists, industry, and government.

Hayes was thirty-one when he first started studying atrazine. He was a promising researcher who had come to academia from atypical circumstances: he grew up in a poor, segregated neighborhood in South Carolina and later won a scholarship to Harvard, but didn’t feel at home in the élite circles he suddenly found himself in. Perhaps as a result, Hayes has been vehemently outspoken in his ongoing battle with Syngenta, and hasn’t always fit in among the polite protocols that often govern such debates. In this short documentary from our TV show “The New Yorker Presents” (Amazon Originals), based on Aviv’s piece, Hayes returns to the neighborhood where he grew up and discusses his winding life path and what drives him to keep fighting his long, uphill battle.

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