Supervising graduate students . . .

Completing a PhD thesis is one thing. Supervising the research of someone else is another.

And when I joined the University of Birmingham in April 1981 as lecturer in plant sciences, one of the duties expected of me was to supervise graduate students. Since I had already spent over eight years overseas, I was quite keen to take on graduate students from different countries. So over the decade I remained at Birmingham, half of my PhD students were from overseas, as were many of the students on the genetic resources MSc course.

Apart from advice to give a prospective student regarding a suitable thesis topic (and the opportunity to secure adequate funding), it’s very important for a supervisor to be ‘there’ for a graduate student, to be a sounding board, to be available for discussion on a regular basis, to help make contacts with others working in the same or similar field, and to dedicate a good deal of attention when students begins to write their thesis in earnest. I remember very clearly how my PhD supervisor helped me during the writing phase. And the most important aspect was that he gave me thorough, detailed and prompt feedback – usually no more than 24 hours or so after I had handed a draft to him. Over the years I’ve heard horror stories of supervisors not being available at this critical stage, of taking weeks, months even, to read drafts and provide feedback. I decided from the outset that I would always provide feedback promptly.

Professor Jack Hawkes was still head of department when I joined Plant Biology (in the School of Biological Sciences); we overlapped for just over a year, since he retired in September 1992. I took on a couple of Jack’s PhD students who were, in April 1991, about half way through their PhD programs. Most of the theses I supervised were about potatoes, and a couple on legume species. Some were carried out entirely at Birmingham, but most were collaborative studies with research institutes in the UK or overseas (in Peru and Italy). Unfortunately I have lost touch with some of these students and have been unable to find out what they are now up to.

In any case, here’s a brief description of them all.

Lynne Woodwards 1982The non-blackening character of Solanum hjertingii Hawkes – studies on its nature and transference into European potato cultivars
Lynne had completed her MSc degree and began this study with Jack Hawkes, who asked me to take on responsibility for her supervision as soon as I arrived at Birmingham. Solanum hjertingii is a tetraploid species from Mexico. In most potatoes the tuber flesh begins to blacken since cells when sliced because cells are ruptured and phenols are oxidised. We looked at the variation in various accessions of this wild potato and others in the same taxonomic group, and investigated how easily the character might be bred into commercial varieties. Lynne published just one paper from her thesis:

  • Woodwards, L. & M.T. Jackson, 1985. The lack of enzymic browning in wild potato species, Series Longipedicellata, and their crossability with Solanum tuberosum. Zeitschrift für Pflanzenzüchtung 94, 278-287.

Ardeshir B Damania 1983: Variation in wheat and barley landraces from Nepal and the Yemen Arab Republic
Adi carried out much of his field work at the Italian genebank at Bari in southern Italy, and was co-supervised by Prof. Enrico Porceddu. Adi is now working in the genetic resources program at the University of California-Davis, and has been a collaborator of emeritus professor and cereal breeder Cal Qualset for many years. We published two papers:

rene002Rene Chavez 1984The use of wide crosses in potato breeding
Rene had come to Birmingham as an MSc student from the University of Tacna in the south of Peru. He then started a PhD with me in 1981 based at CIP, working on the problems of inter-ploidy crosses to transfer pest resistance from wild to cultivated potatoes. At CIP, his principal supervisor was Peter Schmiediche (also a Birmingham graduate), but was supported by other CIP staff whose names appear on the three  papers we published:

After returning to South America, Rene spent a couple of years at CIAT, in Cali, Colombia, helping to curate a large field collection of wild species of Manihot – cassava. He then returned to the University of Tacna, and as far as I’m aware, developed some collaborative research on potatoes with CIP. Sadly Rene died of cancer a couple of years ago.

denise002Denise B Clugston 1988Embryo culture and protoplast fusion for the introduction of Mexican wild species germplasm into the cultivated potato

Denise came to Birmingham as an MSc student in the early 80s and stayed on to complete her PhD on different biotechnology options to transfer genes from the valuable Mexican wild potato species into commercial forms. She had studied originally at the Royal College of Music in London, and had played the oboe professionally. She then took an Open University degree in biology, and came to Birmingham to study genetic resources. Regretfully I have lost touch with her completely.

Elizabeth L Newton 1989: Studies towards the control of viruses transmitted through true potato seed
Beth was a Birmingham graduate in biological sciences. I was able to offer her a studentship in collaboration with the then Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Fisheries (MAFF) Harpenden Laboratory to study the mechanisms of sexual transmission of potato viruses. Her co-supervisor at Harpenden was Dr Roger Jones, an ex-colleague of mine from CIP in the 70s. As a government laboratory the Harpenden lab had permission to study several dangerous viruses under quarantine, so Beth had to carry out her practical work there. Before she completed her PhD, Roger moved to Australia in 1986 where he is now a Research Professor at the University of Western Australia. Supervision of the work at Harpenden was then taken over by Dr Lesley Torrance, who subsequently moved to Dundee to what is now the James Hutton Institute. I’ve lost touch with Beth.

Carlos Arbizu 1990The use of Solanum acaule as a source of resistance to potato spindle tuber viroid (PSTV) and potato leaf roll virus (PLRV)
Another Birmingham MSc genetic resources graduate, Carlos hails from Ayacucho in central Peru, and can relate many stories about the emergence of the terrorist group Sendero Luminoso and how it affected him and his family, and some of the adventures he found himself in while collecting germplasm in the Andes. He is also a widely-acclaimed expert on minor Andean tuber crops. At CIP, he worked with eminent virologist Luis Salazar (now retired, but who obtained his PhD in Scotland). Carlos stayed with CIP for several years, but has now retired.

Abdul Ghani Yunus 1990Biosystematics of Lathyrus Section Lathyrus with special reference to the grass pea, L. sativus L.
Ghani is from Malaysia. He first came to Birmingham in the early 80s, and completed his MSc dissertation on Lathyrus. Later on in the decade he successfully applied for a government scholarship and returned to Birmingham, and made an excellent study of breeding relationships among Lathyrus species, several aspects of which were published:

Ian R Gubb 1991The biochemical and genetic basis for the lack of enzymic browning in the wild potato species Solanum hjertingii Hawkes
We continued our work on non-blackening potatoes and, with a joint studentship with Dr JG Hughes at the Institute of Food Research in Norwich, we recruited Ian to carry out this much more detailed study on Solanum hjertingii. After completing his PhD, Ian moved to Wye College for a while, but I’ve lost contact with him. Just one paper was published:

F Javier Franisco Ortega 1992An ecogeographical study within the Chamaecytisus proliferus (L.fil.) Link complex (Fabaceae: Genisteae) in the Canary Islands
Javier came to Birmingham as a self-funded MSc student from Spain. He completed a dissertation with me on Lathyrus pratensis, which led to one publication:

  • Francisco-Ortega, J. & M.T. Jackson, 1992. The use of discriminant function analysis to study diploid and tetraploid cytotypes of Lathyrus pratensis L. (Fabaceae: Faboideae). Acta Botanica Neerlandica 41, 63-73.

Having obtained a Spanish government scholarship, Javier undertook an extraordinary ecogeographical study of a perennial forage legume species, known locally as tagasaste, from his native Canary Islands, and our field studies in 1989 were supported by the International Board for Plant Genetic resources (now Bioversity International). Javier published prolifically afterwards:

Javier is now an Associate Professor at Florida International University in Miami, USA and holds a joint appointment at the Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden.

Susan A Juned 1994: Somaclonal variation in the potato (Solanum tuberosum L.) cultivar Record with particular reference to the reducing sugar variation after cold storage
Sue came to Birmingham to study genetic resources, and when my colleague Brian Ford-Lloyd and I were awarded a commercial grant to study low temperature sweetening and somaclonal variation in potatoes (see an earlier post), we offered her the research position attached to the grant. Sue had completed her MSc dissertation with me on variation in a wild potato species from southern South America:

The somaclonal project, funded by United Biscuits, was quite successful, and although we did identify several somaclones that responded better to low storage temperatures, none were taken into commercial production, as the variety Record was increasingly dropped in favor of better crisping varieties. But we did demonstrate some of the disadvantages of producing seed potatoes from tissue culture and its implications for different ‘clones’ to emerge:

After leaving Birmingham, Sue became involved with Liberal Democrat politics, serving in local government in Warwickshire, and standing as a candidate twice in parliamentary elections. Sue now works as an environmental consultant.

When I resigned from Birmingham in 1991 to join IRRI as head of the Genetic Resources Center, two students had already begun their PhD studies with me in October 1990. Since I already knew by the beginning of February 1991 that I would be leaving the university later that year, I arranged for other colleagues to take over their supervision.

Gisella Orjeda (Peru) transferred to geneticist Dr Mike Lawrence and completed her study in 1995 on ploidy manipulations for sweet potato breeding and genetic studies, in collaboration with the International Potato Center (CIP). Gisella is now the President (CEO) of CONCYTEC (Consejo Nacional de Ciencia, Tecnología e Innovación Tecnológica) in Lima, Peru.

Sarah Jane Bennett completed her study on the ecogeographcal variation in ryegrass (Lolium) in Europe with Dr Mike Hayward from the Institute of Grassland and Environmental Research, Aberystwyth (now retired) and Dr Dave Marshall at Birmingham (now at the James Hutton Institute near Dundee) in 1994. She is now a senior lecturer in farming systems agronomy at Curtin University in Western Australia.

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