I never aspired to be an academic

If, in the summer of 1970, someone had told me that one day I would be teaching botany at university, I would have told them they were delusional. But that’s what happened in April 1981 when I was appointed Lecturer in Plant Biology at the University of Birmingham. Hard to believe that’s already 40 years ago today. I stayed at Birmingham for a decade.

Birmingham is a campus university, one of the first, and also the first of the so-called ‘redbrick‘ universities. The campus has changed radically in the 30 years since I left, but many of the same landmarks are still there. The beauty of the campus can be appreciated in this promotional video.


I never, ever had any pretensions to a life in academia. As an undergraduate studying for a combined degree in Environmental Botany and Geography at University of Southampton between 1967 and 1970, I was a run-of-the-mill student. It wasn’t that I had little enthusiasm for my degree. Quite the contrary, for the most part. I enjoyed my three years at university, but I did burn the candle more at one end than the other. Also, I didn’t really know (or understand) how to study effectively, and no-one mentored me to become better. And it showed in my exam results. So while I graduated with a BSc (Hons.) degree, it was only a Lower Second; I just missed out, by a couple of percentage points, on an Upper or 2(i) degree. Perhaps with a little more effort I could have achieved that goal of a ‘better degree’. Que será . . .

However, about halfway through my final year at Southampton, I applied to Birmingham for a place on the recently-established graduate MSc course on Conservation and Utilisation of Plant Genetic Resources (CUPGR) in the Department of Botany. And the rest is history, so to speak.

I was interviewed in February 1970 and offered a place, but with no guarantee of funding. It wasn’t until late in the summer—about a couple of weeks before classes commenced—that the head of department, Professor Jack Hawkes phoned me to confirm my place (notwithstanding my ‘poor’ degree) and that he’d managed to squeeze a small grant from the university. It was just sufficient to pay my academic fees, and provide an allowance of around £5 per week (about £67 at today’s value) towards my living expenses.

So, in early September 1970 I found myself in Birmingham alongside four other MSc candidates, all older than me, from Nigeria, Pakistan, Turkey, and Venezuela, excited to learn all about plant genetic resources. I discovered my study mojo, redeeming myself academically (rather well, in fact), sufficient for Jack Hawkes to take me on as one of his PhD students, even as I was expecting to move to Peru to join the newly-established International Potato Center (CIP) in Lima. And that’s what I did for the rest of the decade, working in South and Central America before returning to Birmingham as a member of staff.


The years before Birmingham
I spent over eight years with CIP, between January 1973 and April 1976, working as an Associate Taxonomist in Lima, and helping to manage the multitude of potato varieties in the center’s field genebank, participating in collecting trips to different parts of Peru to find new varieties not already conserved in the genebank, and continuing research towards my PhD.

In the meantime, my girlfriend Stephanie (who I met at Birmingham) and I decided to get married, and she flew out to Peru in July 1973. We were married in Lima in October [1].

In May 1975, Steph and I returned to Birmingham for six months so I could complete the residency requirements for my PhD, and to write and defend my thesis. We returned to Lima by the end of December just after I received my degree.

From April 1976 and November 1980, Steph and I lived in Costa Rica in Central America on the campus of the regional agricultural research center, CATIE, in Turrialba, a small town 62 km due east of the capital, San José.

I had joined CIP’s Regional Research Department to strengthen the regional program for Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean. In 1976, the regional headquarters were in Toluca, Mexico where my head of program, Oscar Hidalgo lived. After he moved to the USA for graduate studies in 1977, CIP’s Director General, Richard Sawyer, asked me to take on the leadership of the regional program, and that’s what I did for the next four years, with an emphasis on breeding potatoes adapted to hot tropical environments, seed systems, bacterial disease resistance, and regional program development.

By November 1980 I felt it was time to move on, and requested CIP to assign me to another program. We moved back to Lima. However, with one eye on life beyond CIP, and with a growing daughter, Hannah (born in April 1978, and who would, in the next couple of years, be starting school) I also began to look for employment opportunities in the UK.


Looking for new opportunities
Towards the end of 1980 (but before we had returned to Lima) I became aware that a new lectureship was about to be advertised in the Department of Plant Biology (formerly Botany, my alma mater) at Birmingham. With the retirement of Jack Hawkes scheduled for September 1982, the lectureship would be recruited to fill an anticipated gap in teaching on the CUPGR Course.

I sent in an application and waited ‘patiently’ (patience is not one of my virtues) for a reply to come through. By the end of December (when we were already back in Lima, and in limbo so to speak) I was told I was on a long short list, but would only proceed to the final short list if I would confirm attending an interview in Birmingham (at my own expense) towards the end of January 1981. So, nothing ventured, nothing gained, and with the encouragement of the Dr Sawyer (who promised to keep a position open for me if the Birmingham application was unsuccessful) I headed to the UK.

Since completing my PhD in 1975, I had published three papers from my thesis, and a few others on potato diseases and agronomy. Not an extensive publication list by any stretch of the imagination, compared to what might be expected of faculty candidates nowadays. In reality my work at CIP hadn’t led to many scientific publication opportunities. Publications were not the be-all and end-all metric of success with the international centers back in the day. It’s what one achieved programmatically, and its impact on the lives of potato farmers that was the most important performance criterion. So, while I didn’t have a string of papers to my name, I did have lots of field and managerial experience, I’d worked with genetic resources for a number of years, and my research interests, in taxonomy and biosystematics, aligned well with the new position at Birmingham.

I interviewed successfully (eminent geneticist Professor John Jinks chairing the selection panel), and was offered the lectureship on the spot, from 1 April. The university even coughed up more than half the costs of my travel from Peru for interview. Subject to successfully passing a three-year probation period, I would then be offered tenure (tenure track as they say in North America), the holy grail of all who aspire to life in academia.


Heading to Birmingham
Saying farewell to CIP in mid-March 1981, and after more than eight happy years in South and Central America, Steph, Hannah, and I headed back to the UK via New York, where I had to close our account with Citibank on 5th Avenue.

Steph and Hannah at the top of the Empire State Building

This was just a couple of weeks or so before I was due to begin at Birmingham. We headed first to Steph’s parents in Southend-on-Sea. Since we had nowhere to live in Birmingham, we decided that I should move there on my own in the first instance, and start to look for a house that would suit us.

A few months before I joined Plant Biology, the department had recruited a lecturer in plant biochemistry, Dr John Dodds, a few years younger than me (I was 32 when I joined the university). John and I quickly became friends, and he offered me the second bedroom in his apartment, a short distance from the university.

The search for a house didn’t take long, and by mid-April we’d put in an offer on a house in Bromsgrove, some 13 miles south of the university, which was to remain our home for the next 39 years until we sold up last September. We moved in at the beginning of July, the day before I had to go away for the following two weeks as one of the staff supervising a second year undergraduate ecology field trip in Scotland. Not the most convenient of commitments under the circumstances. But that’s another story.


I start teaching
So, 40 years on, what are my reflections on the decade I spent at Birmingham?

It was midway through the 1980-81 academic year when I joined the department. I spent much of April settling in. My first office (I eventually moved office three times over the next decade) was located in the GRACE Lab (i.e., Genetic Resources and Crop Evolution Lab) where the CUPGR MSc students were based, in the grounds of Winterbourne House, on the edge of the main university campus, and about ten minutes walk from the department.

The GRACE Lab

The lab had been constructed around 1970 or so to house the Botanical Section of the British Antarctic Survey (before it moved to Cambridge). One other member of staff, Dr Pauline Mumford (a seed physiologist, on a temporary lectureship funded by the International Board for Plant Genetic Resources – now Bioversity International) also had her office there.

Pauline Mumford (standing, center) with the MSc Class of ’82 (my first full year at Birmingham) from (L-R) Malaysia, Uruguay, Germany, Turkey, Bangladesh (x2), Portugal, and Indonesia.

By September, an office had been found for me in the main building. This was necessary since, unlike Pauline, I had teaching commitments to undergraduate students on the honours Biological Sciences degree course, as well as having undergraduate tutees to mentor and meet with on a regular basis.

As I said, I’d been recruited to take over, in the first instance, Jack Hawkes’ teaching commitments, which comprised a contribution to the second year module in plant taxonomy, and evolution of crop plants, one of the main components of the CUPGR course. There were also opportunities to develop other courses, and in due time, this is what I did.

At the end of April 1981, Jack called me into his office, handed me his taxonomy lecture notes and said ‘You’re up tomorrow morning’. Talk about being thrown in the deep end. Jack lectured about ‘experimental taxonomy’, patterns of variations, breeding systems and the like, and how taxonomic classification drew on these data. Come the next day, I strode into the lecture theater with as much confidence as I could muster, and began to wax lyrical about breeding systems. About half way through, I noticed Jack quietly walk into the room, and seat himself at the back, to check on how well I was doing (or not). That was one of his mentor roles. He was gone before I’d finished, and later on he gave me some useful feedback—he’d liked what he had seen and heard.

But the lecture hadn’t nearly taken place. One of my colleagues, Dr Richard Lester, who was the lead on the taxonomy module, blithely informed me that he would be sitting in on my lecture the next day. ‘Oh no, you’re not‘ I emphatically retorted. I continued, ‘Walk in and I stop the lecture’. I had never really seen eye-to-eye with Richard ever since the day he had taught me on the MSc Course. I won’t go into detail, but let me say that we just had a prickly relationship. What particularly irked me is that Richard reported our conversation to Jack, and that’s why Jack appeared the next day.

I had quite a heavy teaching load, compared to many of my colleagues, even among those in the other three departments [2] that made up the School of Biological Sciences. Fortunately, I had no first year teaching. Besides my second year plant taxonomy lectures, I developed a small module on agroecosystems in the Second Year Common Course (of which I became chair over the course of the decade).

In their final year, students took four modules each of five weeks (plus a common evolution course). My long-time friend Brian Ford-Lloyd and I developed a module on plant genetic resources. Besides daily lectures, each student had to complete a short research project. I can’t deny that it was always a challenge to come up with appropriate projects that would yield results in such a short period. But I found working alongside these (mostly enthusiastic) students a lot of fun.

Dave Astley

Each year I’d take the group a few miles down the road to the National Vegetable Gene Bank (now the UK Vegetable Genebank) at Wellesbourne, where we’d meet its Director, Dr Dave Astley (who had completed his MSc and PhD, on potatoes with Jack Hawkes at Birmingham). It was a great opportunity for my students to understand the realities of genetic conservation.

I taught a 25 lecture course to the MSc students on crop diversity and evolution, with two practical classes each week during which students would look at as wide a range of diversity as we could grow at Winterbourne (mostly under glass). In this way, they learned about the taxonomy of the different crops, how diversity had developed, their breeding systems, and the like. The practical classes were always the most challenging element to this course. We never knew until each class just what materials would be available.

In 1982, I took a group of students to Israel for a two week course on genetic resources of the eastern Mediterranean. Not all of that year’s intake, unfortunately, as some came from countries that banned travel to Israel.

I developed a module on germplasm collecting, and in the summer months set some field exercises on a synthetic barley population comprising up to ten varieties that differed morphologically, and also matured at different times, among other traits. We would sample this population in several ways to see how each method ‘captured’ the various barleys at the known frequency of each (obviously I knew the proportions of each variety in the population).

The functioning of agroecosystems was something I’d been drawn to during my time in Costa Rica, so I passed some of that interest on to the MSc group, and helped out on some other modules like data management. And I became the Short Course Tutor for students who came to Birmingham for one or other of the two taught semesters, or both in some instances. Looking after a cohort of students from all over the world, who often had limited language skills, was both a challenge and a worthwhile endeavour. To help all of our MSc and Short Course students we worked with colleagues in the English Department who ran courses for students with English as a second language. Each member of staff would record a lecture or more, and these would be worked up into an interactive tutorial between students, ourselves, and the English staff. Once one’s lectures have been pulled apart, it’s remarkable to discover just how many idiomatic phrases one uses quite casually but which mean almost nothing to a non-native speaker.

Each MSc student had to write a dissertation, examined in September at the end of the year (just as I had on lentils in 1971), based on research completed during the summer months after sitting the written exams. Over my decade with the course, I must have supervised the dissertations of 25 students or more, working mainly on potatoes and legumes, and leading in some cases to worthwhile scientific publications. Several of these students went on to complete their PhD under my supervision often in partnership with another research institute like CIP, Rothamsted Experiment Station (now Rothamsted Research), MAFF plant pathology lab in Harpenden, and the Food Research Institute in Norwich.

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With PhD students Ghani Yunus (from Malaysia) and Javier Francisco-Ortega (from Spain-Canary Islands).

The course celebrated it 20th anniversary in 1989, and among the celebrations we planted a medlar tree (sadly no longer there) in the Biological Sciences quadrangle.

Left of the tree: Professor Smallman, Jim Callow, Trevor Williams, Jack Hawkes. Right of the tree: Mike Jackson, Richard Lester, Mike Lawrence. And many students, of course.


Tutees
Earlier, I mentioned that at the beginning of each academic year every staff member was assigned a group of students (the annual intake then was more than 100 students, and is considerably larger today) as tutees, with whom we would meet on a regular basis. These tutorial sessions, one-on-one or in a small group, were an informal opportunity of assessing each student’s progress, to set some work, and overall to help with their well-being since for many, attending university would be the first time they were away from home, and fending for themselves. The tutorial system was not like those at the Oxbridge colleges.

Most students flourished, some struggled. Having someone with whom to share their concerns was a lifeline for some students. I always thought that my tutor responsibilities were among the most important I had as a member of staff, and ensuring my door was always open (or as open as it could be) whenever a tutee needed to contact me. Not all my colleagues viewed their tutorial responsibilities the same. And I do appreciate that, today, with so many more students arriving at university, staff have to structure their availability much more rigidly, sometimes to excess.

In October 1981, my first final year tutee was Vernonica ‘Noni’ Tong* who went on to complete a PhD with my close colleague, geneticist Dr Mike Lawrence on incompatibility systems in poppies. Noni joined the Genetics Department and rose to become Professor of Plant Cell Biology (now Emeritus). Several others also went on to graduate work. Another, Julian Parkhill, graduated around 1987 or 1988, went on to Bristol for his PhD, and is now Professor of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Cambridge. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 2014.

I like to think that, in some way, I helped these students and others make wise career choices, and instilled in them a sense of their own worth. At least one former tutee (who completed her PhD at the University of Durham) has told me so, and that made it all worthwhile.


The School of Biological Sciences
In September 1982, Jack Hawkes retired from the Mason Chair of Botany, and a young lecturer, Jim Callow from the University of Leeds, was elected to the position. Jim took on the role of MSc Course leader, but the day-to-day administration fell to Brian Ford-Lloyd (as Tutor) and myself (for the Short Course students). Jim was a physiologist/ biochemist with an interest in biotechnology, but nothing about genetic resources. He also had little understanding (or sympathy, so I felt) for my areas of research and teaching interests. He frankly did not understand, so I never developed a good relationship with him.

Brian Ford-Lloyd

My closest colleague in the department was Brian who had been appointed to a lectureship around 1977 or 1978. He had completed his PhD in the department in 1973, and he and I were graduate students together until I moved to Peru. We became good friends, and this friendship has lasted until today. He also lived in Bromsgrove, and after I returned to the UK on retirement in 2010, Brian (now Professor Ford-Lloyd) and I would meet up every few weeks for a few beers at the Red Lion on Bromsgrove’s High Street, and to put the world to rights.

On reflection, I can say that relationships among the staff of Plant Biology were pretty harmonious, notwithstanding the comment I made earlier. But several staff were approaching retirement as well, so there was quite a change in the department when a couple of young lecturers were also appointed within a year of me, Drs John Newbury and Jon Green, both of whom also rose to professorships late in their careers.

Towards the end of the 1980s, the School of Biological Sciences underwent a fundamental reorganization, abandoning the federal system, and transforming into a single department with a unitary Head of School. Much to the chagrin of my friends and colleagues in Genetics, Jim Callow was selected as the first Head of School under this new arrangement. To replace the old four department structure, we organized ourselves into five research themes. I joined the Plant Genetics Group, moving my office once again closer to other group members. As a member of this group, I probably had two or three of the best years I spent at Birmingham, with Dr (later Professor) Mike Kearsey as my head of group.


Research and publications
My research interests focused on potatoes and legumes, often sustained by a healthy cohort of MSc and PhD students.

One project, funded by the British government from overseas aid budget in partnership with CIP, investigated the options for breeding potatoes grown from true potato seed. A project that we had to pull the plug on after five years.

In another, Brian and I worked with a commercial crisping (potato chips, in US parlance) company to produce improved potato varieties using induced somaclonal variation, leading to some interesting and unexpected implications for in vitro genetic conservation. There was also an interesting PR outcome from the project.

All in all, my group research led to 29 scientific papers in peer-reviewed journals, several book chapters, and a range of contributions to the so-called grey literature (not peer-reviewed, but nonetheless important scientifically). You can open a list of those Birmingham publications here.

I’m also proud of the introductory textbook on genetic resources that Brian and I wrote together, published in 1986. It quickly sold its print run of more than 3000 copies.

Then, in 1989, we organized a weekend conference (with Professor Martin Parry of the Department of Geography) on climate change, leading to the pioneer publication of the conference proceedings in 1990 [3] in this newly-emerged field of climate change science. Brian, Martin and I collaborated almost a quarter of a century later to edit another book on the same topic.

I was fortunate to undertake one or two consultancies during my years at Birmingham. The most significant was a three week assignment towards the end of the decade to review a seed production project funded by the Swiss government, that took us Huancayo in the Central Andes, to Cajamarca in the north, and Cuzco in the south, as well as on the coast. This was an excellent project, which we recommended for second phase funding, that ultimately collapsed due to the conflict with the terrorist group Shining Path or Sendero Luminoso that affected all parts of Peruvian society.

The seed project review team (L-R): Peruvian agronomist, me (University of Birmingham), Cesar Vittorelli (CIP Liaison), Swiss economist (SDC), Carlos Valverde (ISNAR, team leader)

With funding from the International Board for Plant Genetic Resources, one of my PhD students, Javier Francisco-Ortega was able to collect an indigenous legume species from his native Canary Islands in 1989, for his dissertation research. I joined Javier for three weeks on that trip.

Collecting escobon (Chamaecytisus proliferus) in Tenerife in 1989


All work and no play . . .
Each December, the Plant Biology Christmas party was usually held at Winterbourne House. For several years, we organized a pantomime, written and produced by one of the graduate students, Wendy (I don’t remember her surname). These were great fun, and everyone could let their hair down, taking the opportunity for some friendly digs at one staff member or another. In the photos below, I played the Fairy Godmother in a 1987 version of Cinderella, and on the right, I was the Grand Vizier in Aladdin, seen here with graduate student Hilary Denny as Aladdin. In the top left photo, kneeling on the right, and wearing what looks like a blue saucepan on his head, is Ian Godwin, a postdoc from Australia for one year. Ian is now Professor of Crop Science at the Queensland Alliance for Agriculture and Food Innovation. To Ian’s left is Liz Aitken, also a postdoc at that time who came from the University of Aberdeen, and now also a Professor at the University of Queensland.

Then, in the summer months, I organized a departmental barbecue that we held in Winterbourne Gardens, that were part of the department in those days, and now open to the public. In this photo, I’m being assisted by one of my PhD students, Denise Burman.

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Moving on
So why did I leave in July 1991?

Professor Martin Parry

Towards the end of the 1980s I also became heavily involved in a university-wide initiative, known as Environmental Research Management or ERM, to promote the university’s expertise in environmental research, chaired by Martin Parry (I became the Deputy Chair). So, coupled with my own teaching, research, and administrative duties in Biological Sciences, I was quite busy, and on my way to promotion. I was doing all the ‘right things’, and working my way up the promotions ladder (competing with all other eligible staff in the Science Faculty). It was quite helpful that the Dean of the Science Faculty, Professor George Morrison (a nuclear physicist), and someone with his finger on the promotions pulse, also took a close interest in ERM, and I got to know him quite well.

When I handed in my resignation in March 1991, I knew that my application for promotion to Senior Lecturer was about to be approved (I was already on the Senior Lecturer pay scale). By then, however, life in academia had lost some of its allure. And Margaret Thatcher was to blame.

Around 1998 or 1989, the Thatcher government forced a number of ‘reforms’ on the universities, bringing in performance initiatives and the like, without which the government would not consider either increased funding to the system or pay increases for staff.

So we all underwent performance management training (something I became very familiar with during the next phases of my career). It was made clear that staff who were struggling (as teachers, researchers, or even with administration) would be offered help and remedial training to up their game. Those of us performing well (which included myself) were offered the opportunity to take on even more. It was a breaking point moment. With the increased emphasis on research performance and research income, I felt that my time in academia had almost run its course. My research interests did not easily attract research council funding. I was beginning to feel like a square peg in a round hole.

So, when in September 1990, a job advert for the position of head of the Genetic Resources Center at IRRI landed on my desk, I successfully threw my hat in the ring, and joined IRRI in July 1991, remaining there for the next 19 years, before retiring back to the UK in May 2010.

With few regrets I resigned and prepared for the move to the Philippines. I had to see my students (both undergraduate and MSc) through their exams in June before I could, with good conscience, leave the university. My last day was Friday 30 June, and Brian often reminds me that when he came round to our house in Bromsgrove to say goodbye and wish me well the following day, he was shocked at how white-faced and stressed I appeared. Well, it was a big move and I was leaving the family behind for the next six months, and heading off into the unknown to some extent. Early on Sunday morning I headed to Birmingham International Airport to begin the long journey east via London Heathrow.


But that’s not quite the end of my academic life. Not long after I joined IRRI, I was appointed Affiliate Professor of Agronomy at the University of the Philippines-Los Baños (UPLB). Then, with Brian, John Newbury, and colleagues at the John Innes Centre, we developed a collaborative research project looking at the application of molecular markers to study and manage the large rice germplasm collection at IRRI. I was appointed Honorary Senior Lecturer at Birmingham, and for several years when I was back on home leave I would visit the university and lecture to the MSc students on the realities and challenges of managing a large genebank, as well as following up on our research collaboration.

That came to an end when the funding ran out after five years, and I moved out of research and genebank management at IRRI into a senior management position as Director for Program Planning and Communications.

As Director for Program Planning and Communications, I had line management responsibility for (L-R) Communications and Publications Services (Gene Hettel), IRRI’s library (Mila Ramos), IT Services (Marco van den Berg), the Development Office (Duncan Macintosh), and Program Planning (Corinta Guerta).


Was I cut out for a life in academia? Yes and no. I think I fulfilled my duties conscientiously, and with some success in some aspects. I admit that my research contributions were not the strongest perhaps. But I did mostly enjoy the teaching and the interaction with students. I always felt that not enough weight was given to one’s teaching contributions. Back in the day research was the main performance metric, and increasingly the amount of research funding that one could generate. That was a bit of a treadmill. So while I mostly enjoyed my decade at Birmingham, I found the next nineteen years at IRRI far more satisfying. I had the opportunity to put my stamp on an important component of the institute’s program, bringing the genebank and its operations into the 21st century, and ensuring the safety and availability of one of the world’s most important germplasm collections. Having left genebanking behind in 2001, I then enjoyed another nine years as a member of the institute’s senior management team. And, on reflection, I think those management years gave me the most satisfaction of my career.


Roger Rowe

[1] Steph also worked at CIP as an Associate Geneticist assisting the head of department, Dr Roger Rowe (who co-supervised my PhD research), to manage the germplasm collection. Prior to joining CIP, Steph had been a research assistant with the Commonwealth Potato Collection (CPC) that, in those days, was housed at the Scottish Plant Breeding Station just south of Edinburgh. The CPC is now maintained at the James Hutton Institute west of Dundee.

[2] These were: Zoology & Comparative Physiology; Genetics; and Microbiology. With Plant Biology, the four departments were administratively semi-independent in a federal School of Biological Sciences, coming together to teach a degree in Biological Sciences, with specialisms in the component disciplines. All first year biologists took the same common course, as well as a multidisciplinary common course in their second year and an evolution course in the third and final year.

In 2000, the School of Biological Sciences merged with the School of Biochemistry to form the School of Biosciences. Then, in 2008, there was a much larger university-wide reorganization, and Biosciences became part of the College of Life and Environmental Sciences, one of five Colleges that replaced Faculties across the university.

[3] Jackson, M., B.V. Ford-Lloyd & M.L. Parry (eds.), 1990. Climatic Change and Plant Genetic Resources. Belhaven Press, London, p. 190.

* On 6 May 2021, it was announced that Noni had been elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society!

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