I graduated with a Plant Science degree from the University of Edinburgh and obtained a PhD in plant molecular biology from the University of Durham before spending three years as a postdoc at Aberystwyth University. I then moved to IGER and have worked at IGER/IBERS ever since. I have moved through various roles, from post-doc to BBSRC Fellow, to leading the Energy Crop Biology Research Group, and I now lead the Agricultural Sciences and the Bioeconomy Theme.
Research in my lab focuses on increasing biomass yield and resilience in energy crops to produce renewable energy, liquid transport fuels, bulk chemicals and materials which otherwise would be derived from fossil fuels. Our research looks at how to sequester atmospheric carbon and facilitate the transition to a sustainable low carbon future. In order to achieve this, there are two main research areas: plant developmental biology, and genomic and plant-soil-microbe interactions. Our focus is predominantly on the energy grass Miscanthus.
Miscanthus is a tall C4 grass from South East Asia which grows to a height of several metres even in temperate climates. We host a large and diverse Miscanthus collection which underpins both the research and a breeding program. We have recently been involved in the international consortium that sequenced the Miscanthus genome, and we are using this information to understand better how the plant performs the way it does, and to accelerate the development of new improved varieties.
My research focuses on understanding the trait diversity among our collection, how different aspects of the plant development are regulated, and how we can best combine different types to achieve faster growing plants. We also study the microbiome, particularly the bacteria that live inside healthy plants, and how they can help the plants to grow and withstand different environmental stresses. Useful bacteria can then be added as a low-carbon biofertilizer or potentially incorporated into plant breeding programs.
Our work is part funded by BBSRC, a national funding agency investing in bioscience research and training in the UK which works in partnership with universities, research organisations, businesses, charities, and government to create the best possible environment for research and innovation to flourish. They recognise us as one of many world-class bioscience research projects that are helping society to meet major challenges, including food security, green energy and healthier, longer lives, underpinning important UK economic sectors such as farming, food, industrial biotechnology, and pharmaceuticals.
Useful learnings from IBERS
Be inspired by your surroundings – Wales is a beautiful part of the world combining some stunning environments with agriculture and other industries. I thought that being a scientist interested in plants, I would have to move elsewhere to follow my passion, but I have been fortunate to be able to build my career here and see how my work can make a difference. Follow your heart as well as your head, you don’t have to know exactly where you are going on day one – it’s all a journey.
It’s ok if you don’t feel like you fit in. As a woman in this field, I didn’t always feel like I fitted in. I’ve learned over the years to embrace those differences; we all bring something different to the table and the world is more committed to diversity and inclusivity than ever before.
Follow your passion and you will find your place, even if that means creating something that wasn’t there before. As Gandhi said: “Be the change you want to see in the world.”
Seek out those who inspire you. Find people you can relate to, work with, and learn from. They’ll help you grow and to find your direction. Publish as you go, it’s a must for all scientists. Where possible, write articles that will be read by a wider audience than the academic community, it will help you to communicate clearly and might engage someone you would not have reached otherwise.
Don’t worry too much about setbacks, they’re part of life, and don’t be too much of a perfectionist. Keep an eye on the big picture as well as the details, and the long game as well as the here and now. Be prepared for challenges along the way and persevere.
Lastly, start small and build up. This is worth remembering, particularly in terms of accessing funding. It’s important to get involved with other initiatives as well as your own projects, they can open up opportunities. Look for different ways you can contribute to larger projects and get involved, you will develop your network, increase your profile, and learn a range of different skills.