Young researchers have their say on science and careers

Six young researchers won prizes for their presentations at BioResources Group’s recent Crop Productivity, Sustainability and Utility conference at the University of Reading. PhD students and post-docs from 14 universities and research institutes presented oral papers and posters at this multidisciplinary event.

Concerns over global food security in the coming decades have added to recent debates over issues such as biofuels and GM crops to raise the profile of agrisciences.  Population growth and moves to more meat based diets, amidst fast depleting availability of fresh water and fossil energy reserves, all exacerbated by the possible effects of climate change, threaten us all.  During the Green Revolution of the 1960’s and 70’s agricultural productivity increased by 4% each year, but this rate has now fallen to only 1% p.a.  In the next decade, according to forecasters at Humboldt University in Berlin, the price of crop commodities such as cereals and oilseeds are set to almost double.  By 2030 the world will need to produce 50% more food to feed a global population of nearly 9 billion.  Technologies need to be developed and implemented to meet this demand from the same amount of farm land while minimising the environmental impact of intensive production.

Fellow delegates voted Helen Greatrex (Reading) the best oral paper presenter.  Her paper described her PhD on developing weather monitoring systems to forecast crop yields in Africa.  Helen’s research is aimed at making authorities in Sub-Saharan countries prone to drought better prepared to act in response to likely crop yields at harvest. “I love the fact that most of my work is interdisciplinary -  it means I never get bored!” Helen said.  “I also like the fact that a large proportion of my work involves explaining the system to non-scientists.”  Helen was not originally planning to do a PhD, but was attracted to this project because it was an opportunity to take existing science and ideas (such as crop models and satellite rainfall estimates) and pull them together into an innovative new application.  Spending time in Sub-Saharan Africa and the chance to travel to new places clinched the decision.  In her future career, Helen can already see opportunities for building on her current research.

Oral paper prize winners Helen Greatrex and Robin BlakeThe runner-up was Robin Blake (Reading) who discussed crop management systems to encourage bees and other pollinator insects.  Fruit trees, many vegetables and field crops such as oilseed rape rely on insects for pollination, and Robin’s PhD on establishing wildflowers on field margins is designed to help reverse recent serious declines in bee populations and encourage generally greater biodiversity.  After his first degree Robin spent seven years working for Syngenta at Jealott’s Hill Research Centre. 

“Whilst this was invaluable in helping me develop transferable skills, it also allowed me to see how much a PhD was valued by employers, especially for the more senior positions,” said Robin.   

Choosing a project such as this which not only matches Robin’s personal interests in wildlife, but also covers topics of public concern was important.  The chance to do research outdoors was an added bonus.  When he returns to employment, Robin is considering areas around connecting scientific research with public policy objectives in agriculture.

Poster prize winners, Marta, Sacha, Katarzyna, Viviane (L-R) Katarzyna Gacek (Warwick HRI) won the poster competition with her presentation on the regulation of seed size by receptor kinases.  These and their peptide ligands are involved in cell-to-cell communication in early seed development.  Katarzyna’s work at present is with the model plant Arabidopsis, but she feels that important crop species will benefit from this fundamental research. Katarzyna is planning to do post-doctoral research in plant developmental biology as the next step in her career.

Runners-up prizes went to Marta Martin-Lorenzo (Reading), Sacha White (Warwick HRI) and Viviane Schroeder (Royal Holloway).   

Marta is developing near infrared spectroscopy for analysis of tannins in the forage crop, sainfoin.  Marta studied chemistry at the University of Valladolid, Spain and has worked for GSK.  She has been spending a few months in Reading funded by the EU Marie Curie Research Training Network.  Marta said, “The part I like best is working with different partners’ results. That helps me to have a real idea of all the things involved in the ‘HealthyHay’ project: botanical parameters, nutritional and biological effects, tannin composition, etc.”.  Next step for Marta is to find a PhD project involving plant metabolism.

Sacha is investigating the impact of energy-efficient greenhouse systems on pest and disease pressures.  The work focuses on two greenhouse pests; the two-spotted spider mite and tomato powdery mildew, and organisms used in their biological control.  Sacha wanted to a PhD to further his employability and ensure that he would have greater scope for progression in future work, ideally in agricultural research.

Viviane is in the first year of her PhD researching the effects of using arbuscular mycorrhizas to improve vegetable quality and yield.  The motivation behind embarking on a PhD came from her interests in food and nutrition, and from a module on "Insects, Plants and Fungi: Ecology and Applications" on her first degree course which introduced her to mycorrhizas.  “There are so many options to explore and it fascinates me to see where each will lead me, what I will learn about my subject and what real practical benefits there may be,” said Viviane. 

BioResources Group plans to make similar multidisciplinary events for postgraduates and early career scientists a regular part of its programme, possibly with regional events.  The group will welcome postgraduates and postdocs who would like to get involved.  Please contact the SCI Membership Communications Team:

Alan Baylis, Chairman, BioResources Group

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