Leaving academia . . . heading east

28 June 1991. It was a Friday. Ten years and three months since I joined the University of Birmingham as a Lecturer in Plant Biology. And it was my last day in that post. A brief farewell party in the School of Biological Sciences at the end of the day, and that was it. I was no longer an academic.

I’d left Peru in March 1981 with such enthusiasm for the next stage of my career at Birmingham. Having spent the previous eight years and three months in South and Central America with the International Potato Center (CIP), Steph and I were looking forward to setting up home with our daughter Hannah (then almost three) back in the UK. I joined the university on 1 April. Was I the fool?

By the end of the 1980s, however, my enthusiasm for academia had waned considerably. Not that I wasn’t getting on. Far from it. I was about to be promoted to Senior Lecturer, I had an active research group (looking at the relationships between crop plants and their wild species relatives), and I enjoyed teaching.

But I began to get itchy feet, and when the opportunity arose (in September 1990) for a move to the Philippines, to join the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) as Head of the newly-established Genetic Resources Center (with its mandate to manage the world’s largest and genetically most important genebank for rice), I didn’t hesitate. Although, I have to admit, Steph and our daughters (Philippa was born in 1982) were less keen on the idea.

In early January 1991, I was interviewed for the position at IRRI (at its research center in Los Baños, about 70 km south of Manila, the capital city of the Philippines)

This was only my second trip to Asia. I’m not sure how or why at this distance of 30 years, but I flew to Manila (MNL) with British Airways out of London-Gatwick (LGW). Having checked in, I was informed that the flight to Manila was delayed because of a fault with the assigned aircraft (a 747), and that it would be replaced by an incoming aircraft – from Miami, which wasn’t expected for at least five hours. In the end, the delay was almost 15 hours, and I arrived in Los Baños just after 1 am on the Monday morning, having set out from the UK early on Saturday, with the expectation of arriving in the Philippines with just under 24 hours to recover from my trip before the interview schedule began. In the end, I had less than four hours sleep, and was up for a 7 am breakfast meeting with Director General Klaus Lampe (right) and his three Deputy Directors General!

By the end of the month I’d agreed a three year contract. Lampe wanted me to start on 1 April. But, as I explained—and he reluctantly accepted—I still had teaching and examination commitments at the university that would take me up to the end of June. So the earliest I would be able to join the institute was 1 July.

Even so, Lampe asked me to represent IRRI at a genetic resources meeting held in April at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) in Rome. That would be the first of many meetings at FAO and even more visits to Rome where the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute (IPGRI, now Bioversity International) also had its office.

I flew out to the Philippines on Sunday 30 June. With just one day between leaving Birmingham and heading east, I still had some final packing. And, in any case, I had to make sure that everything was ship shape and Bristol fashion for Steph and the girls, as we’d agreed I would head off to the Philippines on my own, in the first instance, get settled into my new job, and they would join me just after Christmas.

That last couple of days were quite stressful. My friend and close colleague at Birmingham, Brian Ford-Lloyd and his wife Pat dropped by on the Saturday to wish me Bon Voyage! Brian has often told me subsequently that I looked rather drained. After all it was quite a step to up sticks and move the family to the Philippines. But it was a move we have never regretted.

Steph and I also agreed that we wouldn’t rent out our home in Bromsgrove (in northeast Worcestershire, and about thirteen miles south of Birmingham), but keep it locked up and safe in case we ever needed a bolt hole, as it were, should things not work out well at IRRI, or civil unrest required us to leave the country at short notice. Politics in the Philippines has always been volatile, to say the least.

So, come Sunday morning, it was a teary goodbye for all of us when the taxi arrived to take me to Birmingham airport (BHX) for the flight to MNL via London Heathrow (LHR) and Hong Kong (HKG). In subsequent years, and for a decade until Emirates had daily flights from BHX to Dubai (DXB) and on to MNL, we always flew with KLM via Amsterdam (AMS), much more convenient than transiting through LHR. Apart from our first home leave in the summer of 1992.

British Midland (now defunct) operated the connecting flight from BHX to LHR. Placing my two or three bags on the scales, the check-in agent told me that I was way over my allowance, and if I chose to check them through to MNL, then she would have to charge me £500. On the other hand, she could send them to LHR free of charge, and I could argue with my next carrier, British Airways, for the onward flight. She checked my schedule and we agreed there was more than sufficient time between landing in LHR and the departure of my HKG flight to pick up my bags in Terminal 1 and get to Terminal 4 to check-in for the HKG/MNL flight. Wrong!

The flight left BHX on time, but on landing at LHR we taxied to the perimeter of the apron because gates were either occupied or undergoing refurbishment. And there we sat for about 30 minutes until buses came along to take us to the terminal. All the while, my connection time was being eroded by the minute. Then I had to wait for my bags to offload, and for the bus to Terminal 4. On previous transits through LHR between terminals, the bus had always crossed to the other side of the airport where Terminal 4 is located through a tunnel, a journey of a matter of minutes. Not that day, however. Our bus headed out on to the public roads, hit the M25 then exited close to Terminal 4. By the time I reached the back of a check-in queue for my flight, it was due to depart in just five minutes. Panic stations!

Leaving my bags where they were, I politely walked to the front of the queue explaining to other waiting passengers my dilemma, and they kindly let me move to the front. I was in luck. The flight had been delayed by at least 30 minutes, and the agent reckoned I could still make it. What to do about the excess baggage charges? He agreed not to charge me the full amount, and after several attempts to charge my credit card, he waived the fees, told me to put the bags on an express shute, and RUN!

The aircraft door was closed immediately after I boarded and found the only empty seat in Business Class (my reserved seat having been reallocated), and we were off. I sat there, thanking my lucky stars that I’d made the flight after all, feeling rather sweaty, and hoping it wouldn’t be too long after take-off before the cabin crew brought round the drinks trolley and I could get stuck into my first G&T.

I don’t remember too much about the trip from that point. Not because of over-imbibing, I hasten to add. It was just uneventful. On arrival in Manila, I was greeted by Director of Administration Tim Bertotti (right) and his Vietnamese wife who would be my ‘welcomers’ for the next few weeks, show me the IRRI ropes, so to speak, and be a couple I could turn to for advice. Having collected my heavy bags, and found the IRRI driver we headed south to Los Baños, where I stayed in the IRRI Guesthouse for the next month or so until the house allocated to me had been redecorated.

I can’t deny that the first night in Los Baños was quite miserable. I was overwhelmed by a feeling of regret, whether I had made the right choice to give up a tenured position at the university (a number of colleagues there thought I was crazy to leave a tenured position for the ‘insecurity’ of short-term contracts overseas). And how would the family fare during the intervening six months until they headed east? So many questions, so many uncertainties. And hard to sleep because of jet-lag.

But the next morning there was no time for self pity. I had a job to do, and just get stuck in. A driver collected me from the Guesthouse after breakfast and took me down to the research center, less than a ten minute drive across the campus of the University of the Philippines-Los Baños (UPLB). I got my ID, was assigned a car, and made an appointment to meet with Klaus Lampe.

Jack Hawkes

Then it was off to GRC in the Brady Laboratory, a building named after IRRI’s second Director General, Nyle Brady. I was already aware that there was only measured enthusiasm among the GRC staff for my appointment. Three of us had been interviewed in January, all with MSc and PhD degrees from the University of Birmingham, and Professor Jack Hawkes had supervised our PhD research. The other two candidates already managed genebanks; I had no hands-on experience of genebank management. One of the candidates, a Chinese Malay national, had carried out his thesis research at IRRI (on rice of course) with my predecessor in the IRRI gene bank, Dr TT Chang, co-supervising his research. He was a known quantity for the GRC staff and, I think, their preferred candidate. Instead they got this straight-talking Brit.

First things first. I needed to understand in detail how the genebank was currently being managed, who the key personnel were, and what were their thoughts about how things might change. I also had to manage the merger of the genebank (known in 1991 as the International Rice Germplasm Center) with another group, the International Network for the Genetic Evaluation of Rice (INGER) that was coordinated by a senior Indian scientist, Dr Seshu Durvasula who, I’m sorry to say, had no intention of going along easily with the intended merger into GRC. He resented, I believe, that he had been overlooked for the leadership of GRC.  And, in any case, who was this British scientist with no rice experience?

Anyway, back to the genebank. I think the staff were quite surprised to be asked their opinions. That was not Dr Chang’s style. Thanks to Eves, Pola (who I quickly identified as someone to lead the genebank operations on a daily basis, as genebank manager), Ato, Tom, Soccie, the data management group (Adel, Myrna, and Vangie), and Yvette and Amy (who I assigned to wild species research) for being very patient, answering all my questions, and letting me know when one of my ideas was perhaps a step too far. But one thing was clear: the operations of the genebank had to be upgraded and made more efficient. After about six months I was ready to put a plan into operation. By then, Steph and the girls were ready to fly out to the Philippines to join me.

But I have to make special mention to two very special ladies, who made my first months at GRC (and IRRI in general) so much easier: the GRC secretaries Sylvia Arellano (L below) and Tessie Santos (R). Jewels in the IRRI crown.

Sylvia was my personal secretary, and had worked for TT Chang for a number of years before he retired. Tessie supported the other internationally-recruited scientist in the genebank, British geneticist Dr Duncan Vaughan, and the rest of the genebank staff as and when needed.

Sylvia (known as Syl to everyone) was a mine of information, knew exactly who to contact should I need to follow up on any issue, and was quick to advise me how to deal with colleagues (especially the old timers) with whom I had to work across the institute. She knew just how to get things done, call in favors, and the like. I reckon that without her day-to-day support my first few months at IRRI (before I knew the ropes or understood the institutional politics) would have been far less productive. I cannot thank her too much for all the support she gave me, and we remain in contact and good friends to this day, even though it’s eleven years since I retired from IRRI, and almost 25 years since she last worked with me.

When I was on home leave in the UK during the summer of 1997, I had a phone call from the then Director General, Dr George Rothschild, who asked ‘permission’ for Sylvia to move from my office to become Executive Secretary to the Director General. It was hardly an offer I could refuse, and in any case, it was a huge promotion for Syl. She remained as Executive Secretary to the DG until her retirement a few years back, serving under three DGs (possibly four) and an Acting DG.

Tessie was quite shy, and seemed rather in awe of me. But she was a valued member of the GRC staff, and on those occasions when Syl was away from the institute, Tessie would admirably step into her shoes as my personal secretary. After a few months and once she got used to me, Tessie began to relax in my presence. Tessie was just the sort of staff member that IRRI should be proud of: hard-working, loyal, knowledgeable. And it was my good fortune that Syl had someone like Tessie to back her up.

By the end of 1991, I was very much at home at IRRI. I had a good relationship with Klaus Lampe (well, for the next couple of years or so), I had the measure of my immediate boss, Deputy Director General for International Programs, Dr Fernando ‘Nanding’ Bernardo for whom, I’m sad to relate, I didn’t have much time, and I was moving ahead with plans for the upgrade of the genebank, and reorganization of the staff. It felt like the world was my oyster, and I looked forward to the coming year with the family in Los Baños as well.

Originally thinking that I’d remain at IRRI for perhaps a couple of three-year contracts, but certainly no longer than ten years, when I retired at the end of April 2010 I’d been at IRRI for almost 19 years. Joining IRRI was the best career move I made.


You are welcome to comment on this post . . .

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.