Discovering Vavilov, and building a career in plant genetic resources: (2) Training the next generation of specialists in the 1980s

When, in the mid- to late-60s, Jack Hawkes was planning a one-year MSc course, Conservation and Utilization of Plant Genetic Resources (CUPGR), at the University of Birmingham (in the Department of Botany), Sir Otto Frankel (that doyen of the genetic resources movement) predicted that the course would probably have a lifetime of just 20 years, at most. By then, he assumed, all the persons who needed such training would have passed through the university’s doors. Job done! Well, it didn’t turn out quite that way.

The first cohort of four students graduated in September 1970, when I (and four others) arrived at the university to begin our careers in plant genetic resources. In 1989, the course celebrated its 20th anniversary. But there was still a demand, and Birmingham would continue to offer graduate training (and short course modules) in genetic resources for the next 15 or so years before dwindling applications and staff retirements made the course no longer viable.

Over its lifetime, I guess at least 500 MSc and Short Course students from more than 100 countries received their training in genetic conservation and use. So, for many years, the University of Birmingham lay at the heart of the growing genetic resources movement, and played a pivotal role in ensuring that national programs worldwide had the trained personnel to set up and sustain genetic conservation of local crops and wild species. Many Birmingham graduates went on to lead national genetic resources programs, as evidenced by the number who attended the 4th International Technical Conference on Plant Genetic Resources convened by FAO in Leipzig in June 1996.

Birmingham PGR students at the Leipzig conference in 1996. Trevor Sykes (class of 1969) is wearing the red tie, in the middle of the front row, standing next to Andrea Clausen (Argentina) on his left. Geoff Hawtin, then Director General of IPGRI is fourth from the right (On the back row), and Lyndsey Withers (who gave a course on in vitro conservation to Birmingham students) is second from the right on the front row (standing in between Liz Matos (from Angola) on her left, and the late Rosa Kambuou (Papua New Guinea).

In April 1981, I joined that training effort as a faculty member at the university. For the previous eight years, I had been working for the International Potato Center (CIP) in Peru and Costa Rica. Around September 1980 (a couple months before I left Costa Rica to return to Lima and my next assignment with CIP), I was made aware that a Lectureship had just been advertised in the Department of Plant Biology (as the Department of Botany had been renamed) to contribute to the MSc course curriculum.

Jack Hawkes was due to retire in September 1982 after he reached the mandatory retirement age (for full professors) of 67. He persuaded the university to create a lectureship in his department to cover some of the important topics that he would vacate, primarily in crop diversity and evolution.

After my arrival in Birmingham, I didn’t have any specific duties for first four months. With the intake of the 1981-82 cohort, however, it was ‘full steam ahead’ and my teaching load remained much the same for the next decade. My teaching focused on crop diversity and evolution, germplasm exploration, and agricultural systems, although I made some small contributions to other topics as well.

I also took on the role of Short Course Tutor for those who came to study on one or both of the semester modules (about 12 weeks each).

Since its inception in 1969, the overall structure of the course remained much the same, with about nine months of theory, followed by written examinations. The curriculum varied to some degree over the lifetime of the course, as did the content as new biology opened new opportunities to study, conserve, and use genetic resources.

Following the examinations, all students completed a three-month research project and submitted a dissertation around the middle of September, which was examined by an external examiner. The first external examiner, from 1970-1972, was Professor Norman Simmonds, then Director of the Scottish Plant Breeding Station, and a widely respected plant breeder and potato and banana expert.

Financial support for students came from a variety of sources. The year after I graduated, the course was recognized by one of the UK research councils (I don’t remember which) for studentship support, and annually three or four British students were funded in this way through the 1970s and 80s. By the late 1970s, the International Board for Plant Genetic Resources¹ (IBPGR) funded many of the students coming from overseas, and had also agreed an annual grant to the department that, among other aspects, funded a lectureship in seed physiology and conservation (held by Dr Pauline Mumford). A few students were self-funded.

Here are some of the classes from 1978 to 1988; names of students can be found in this file. Do you recognize anyone?

L: Class of 1978 | R: Class of 1979

L: Class of 1984 | R: Class of 1985

L: Class of 1986 | Class of 1987

L: Class of 1988 | R: Short Course participants, Autumn semester 1987

The first group of students that I had direct contact with, in the autumn of 1981, came from Bangladesh, Germany, Indonesia, Malaysia, Portugal, Turkey, and Uruguay. After nearly 40 years I can’t remember all their names, unfortunately.

The MSc class of 1982: L-R: Ghani Yunus (Malaysia), ?? (Uruguay), Rainer Freund (Germany), Ayfer Tan (Turkey), Dr Pauline Mumford (IBPGR-funded lecturer), ?? (Bangladesh), ?? (Bangladesh), Maria Texeira (Portugal), ?? (Indonesia).

Over the decade I remained at Birmingham, I must have supervised the dissertation projects of about 20-25 students, quite an intensive commitment during the summer months. Since my main interest was crop diversity and biosystematics, several students ran projects on potatoes and Lathyrus. I curated the Hawkes collection of wild potato species, and had also assembled a large collection of Lathyrus species from different countries and diverse environments. Some students wanted to work on crops and species important in their countries and, whenever possible, we tried to accommodate their interests. Even with glasshouse facilities it was not always possible to grow many tropical species at Birmingham². In any case, the important issue was for students to gain experience in designing and executing projects, and evaluating germplasm effectively. Two students from Uganda for example, studied the resistance of wild potatoes from Bolivia to the potato cyst nematode, in collaboration with the Nematology Department at Rothamsted Experiment Station.

Several students stayed on to complete PhD degrees under my supervision, or jointly supervised with my colleague Professor Brian Ford-Lloyd (who was the MSc Course Tutor), and I have written more about that here.

Immediately on joining the department in 1981, Jack asked me to take on the supervision of two of his students, Lynne Woodwards and Adi Damania who were half way through their research. Lynne competed her study of the non-blackening trait in a tetraploid (2n=4x=48 chromosomes) wild potato species from Mexico, Solanum hjertingii in 1982. Adi split his time between Birmingham and the Germplasm Institute in Bari, Italy, where he was co-supervised by Professor Enrico Porceddu, studying barley and wheat landraces from Nepal and Yemen. One of the methods he used was the separation of seed proteins using gel electrophoresis. His PhD was completed in 1983.

Lynne’s research on Solanum hjertingii was continued by Ian Gubb, in collaboration with the Institute of Food Research in Norwich.

Two Peruvian students, Rene Chavez (1978) and Carlos Arbizu (1979) completed their PhD theses in 1984 and 1990 respectively. They did all their experimental work at CIP in Lima, studying wide crosses in potato breeding, and wild potatoes as sources of virus resistance.

Malaysian student Ghani Yunus (1982) returned to Birmingham around 1986 to commence his PhD and continued his study of the grasspea (Lathyrus sativus) that he began for his MSc dissertation.

While the MSc course comprised my main teaching load, I also had some undergraduate teaching commitments. I did no First Year teaching, thank goodness! In the Summer Semester I had a 50% commitment to a Flowering Plant Taxonomy module as part of the Second Year Plant Biology stream. I also gave half a dozen lectures on agricultural systems as part of a Second Year Common Course attended by all Biological Sciences students, and I eventually became chair of that course.

With Brian, we offered a Third (Final) Year option in conservation and use of genetic resources under the Plant Biology degree. I guess during the 1980s some 40 students (maybe more) chose that option. The five-week module comprised about 20-25 lectures, and each student also had to undertake an practical project as well. It was quite a challenge to devise and supervise so many ‘doable’ projects during such a short period.

While all this was going on, I also had a couple of research projects on potatoes. The first, on true potato seed, was in collaboration with CIP in Peru and the Plant Breeding Institute in Cambridge. Over the project’s five-year life, I traveled to Lima at least once a year. This also gave me an opportunity to check on progress of my PhD students there.

In another project (with Brian) funded by industry, we investigated the opportunity for using somaclonal variation to identify genotypes resistant to low temperature sweetening in potatoes. The research had an important spin-off however for the genetic conservation of vegetatively-propagated crops like potatoes, as we demonstrated that genetic changes do occur during in vitro or tissue culture.

Knowing of my annual trips to Peru, the chocolate and confectionery manufacturers in the UK asked me to scope the possibility of establishing a field genebank in Peru of cacao (cocoa) trees in the northeast of the country. The industry had funded a project like this in Ecuador, and wanted to replicate it in Peru. Regrettably, the security situation deteriorated markedly in Peru (due to the Shining Path or Sendero Luminoso terrorist group), and the project never went ahead.

Brian and I collaborated a good deal during the 1980s, in teaching, research, and publishing.

Around 1983 he and I had the idea of writing a short general text about genetic resources and their conservation. As far as we could determine there were no books of this nature suitable for both undergraduates and postgraduates. Having approached the publisher Edward Arnold, we set about putting our ideas down on paper. The book appeared in 1986, with a print run of 3000, which quickly sold out. After Edward Arnold was taken over by Cambridge University Press, our modest volume was re-issued in a digitally printed version in 2010.

In 1988, we organized the first International Workshop on Plant Genetic Resources at Birmingham, on in situ conservation. The topic of the second two-day workshop, in April 1989, focused on climate change and genetic resources. We were ahead of our time! Proceedings from the workshop were published by Belhaven Press in 1990. It was a theme that my co-editors and I returned to in 2014, published by CAB International.

Around 1989, however, I was becoming increasingly disillusioned with university life, and had begun to think about seeking other opportunities, although none seemed to come along. Until September 1990, that is. One morning, I received in the mail a copy of a recruitment announcement for Head of the Genetic Resources Center at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines. To this day I have no idea who sent me this announcement, as there was no cover note.

Nothing ventured, nothing gained, I decided to submit my application. After all, IRRI was a sister center of CIP, and I was very familiar with the international agricultural research centers funded through the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR).

Personally, I knew it would be a huge opportunity, but also a challenge for Steph and our two daughters Hannah (13) and Philippa (9). But apply I did, and went for an interview at the beginning of January 1991, learning three weeks later that I was the preferred candidate of three interviewed. All three of us were ex-Birmingham MSc and PhD, having completed our theses under the supervision of Jack Hawkes. My ‘rivals’ were managing genebanks in the UK and Nigeria. I had no genebank experience per se.

I was about to become a genebanker, but I couldn’t join the institute quite as early as IRRI management desired. I still had teaching and examination commitments to fulfill for that academic year, which would not be finished until the end of June. Nevertheless, IRRI did ask me to represent the institute at a meeting in April of the Commission on Plant Genetic Resources at the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in Rome, the first of many that I would attend over the next decade.

Friday 28 June was my last day at the university. Two days later I was on my way to Manila, to open the next chapter of my genetic resources adventure.

¹ Around 1990, IBPGR became the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute (IPGRI), and later, Bioversity International, expanding its headquarters in Rome.

² One of the students in my 1970-71 class, Folu Ogbe from Nigeria, undertook a project on West African rice and part of one glasshouse was converted to a ‘rice paddy’!

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