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Seed planted by images of famine

Irene Mueller-Harvey

13 Apr 2012

What does your current job involve?
I've been at the University of Reading since 1993 and am currently Principal Research Fellow and Director of the Chemistry and Biochemistry Laboratory in the School of Agriculture, Policy and Development. In this role I supervise PhD and postdoctoral researchers and coordinate a multi-partner €4.1m EU Marie Curie Initial Training Network.

Did you have an interest in science from childhood?
Growing up I was shocked by reports of famine and images of hungry children. This prompted an interest in agriculture and food production. In school I enjoyed finding out about how nature worked and this gradually focused on the emerging field of biochemistry.

During a chance meeting on a bus, a complete stranger advised me to study chemistry instead. Biochemistry in the late 1960s was a brand new subject and this stranger suggested that a good foundation in chemistry would allow a transition to biology at a later stage.

How did you decide that you wanted a career in science?
The desire to solve important problems made me choose agriculture as a career goal and chemistry because I liked it. I studied chemistry at Freiburg University followed by a year at Southampton University as a visiting student. I completed my studies at Hamburg University. Then I made the move into agriculture by enrolling in an MSc degree in soil chemistry at the University of Reading, followed by a PhD in the same subject there.

The PhD field experiments took me to International Institute Tropical Agriculture (IITA), Ibadan, Nigeria. My first postdoc position was at the Agriculture and Food Research Council Grassland Research Institute, Hurley, where I developed my current research interest in bioactive plant compounds (tannins).

Short stints took me to the Dunstaffnage Marine Biological Association in Oban and the BBSRC Food Research Institute at Reading. In 1993, I moved to the University of Reading, where I built up an analytical chemistry research laboratory.

What are the most important things you've learned in your career so far?
Enjoy your job - but keep things that are important in life in perspective. This is the reason why I am making time available for union activities. As one of several University and College Union case workers, I support members when they find themselves in difficulties at work.

What would you say have been the significant milestones in your career?
I moved to the IITA in Nigeria and left my new husband in the UK just five months after getting married. He was kind enough to let me pursue my interests. It was hard, but I learned a lot professionally and personally.

You've recently started coordinating the new EU ‘LegumePlus' project. What does this venture entail, and how can people get involved?
LegumePlus is a new EU Marie Curie Initial Training Network (ITN). Some 14 partners and two visiting researchers from New Zealand and the US will train two early stage, 12 PhD and two postdoctoral researchers. The research will investigate opportunities for using bioactive legumes to improve animal nutrition and health and at the same time for reducing the environmental footprint of ruminant production systems.

Ruminant animals are a significant source of greenhouse gases. However, some legumes contain tannins, and these can significantly reduce these emissions. The key is to establish which particular tannins benefit both the animal and the environment. By closely linking the studies on tannin chemistry, with animal nutrition and parasitology, we hope to be able to provide guidelines and tools for plant breeders in order to develop improved varieties of sainfoin and birdsfoot trefoil, that can deliver consistent benefits.

These ITN projects represent fantastic research and training opportunities for young researchers. They include interdisciplinary research training, three- to six-month secondments to partner institutions, plus dedicated training courses in each of the scientific disciplines and complementary skills courses.

The four-year programme is packed full of training courses, research and meetings, and represents unique opportunities for high-flying young researchers. At the end of their training they emerge with a network of peers and senior researchers, which will place them in good stead for their future careers in either industry or academia.

How did you first become involved with SCI and what has that has meant for you?
I joined SCI when I heard of its new BioResources Committee from a colleague in the Chemistry Department. I am also very keen on Alan Baylis's crop productivity, sustainability and utility event, the Young Researchers' Interdisciplinary Networking Day. It presents great opportunities for students to present their research and win prizes, which is good for their CVs and future job prospects.

What key things would a young person need to do if they wanted to get to the position you've achieved thus far?
Don't give up, when someone tells you otherwise. You can do things you never thought you could.

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