The best job ever?

I was asked recently what was the best job I’d had.

Well, I guess the best job was the one I was occupying at the time. Until it wasn’t.

As a teenager in the 1960s, I had a Saturday job at a local garage, Peppers of Leek, pumping gasoline and helping in the car parts store, for which I earned 15/- (fifteen shillings or 75p in new money), equivalent today of less than £18 for an eight hour shift. What exploitation!

However, discounting that Saturday job, then I’ve held five different positions at three organizations over a fulfilling career lasting 37 years and 4 months. I took early retirement at the end of April 2010, aged 61.

Exploring Peru
My first job was at the International Potato Center (CIP) in Lima, Peru. I first met Richard Sawyer (left), CIP’s Director General when he visited the University of Birmingham after I’d completed my MSc degree in genetic resources conservation and use in September 1971.  He confirmed my appointment at CIP from January 1973. It was my first encounter with an American.

As an Associate Taxonomist at CIP I had two responsibilities: collecting potato varieties in the Andes of Peru, which were added to CIP’s large germplasm collection; and completing the field research for my PhD at the University of Birmingham.

In May 1973, just a few months after I arrived in Peru, I travelled to the north of Peru, specifically to the Departments of Ancash and La Libertad, with my Peruvian colleague Zosimo Huaman (seen in the photo below with two farmers). We explored remote valleys in this region (that has the highest mountains in the country) for almost a month, arriving back in Lima with a handsome collection of potato varieties.

Looking north towards Peru’s highest mountain, Huascaran (6768 m) in the Callejon de Huaylas in Ancash.

Some of the places we visited were so remote we could only access them on foot or on horseback.

In February 1974 I traveled to the south of Peru to carry out a field study of mixed variety potato cultivation as part of my thesis research in the remote valley of Cuyo Cuyo (below) with its fabulous terraces or andenes, northeast of Lake Titicaca.

And then, in May, I explored the Department of Cajamarca in the north of Peru with a driver, Octavio, seen in the photo below marking potato tubers with a collection number while I discussed these samples with the farmer.

Three years passed by in a flash. It had been a fantastic opportunity for a young person like myself. I was just 24 when I headed to Peru in 1973.

Working in CIP’s potato field genebank at Huancayo, 3100 m (>10,000 feet) in the central Andes.

Not many folks enjoy the same level of freedom to pursue a project as I did, or to travel throughout such an awe-inspiring country. I continue to count my blessings.

I also had a fantastic supervisor/head of department in geneticist Dr Roger Rowe (left).

Heading to Central America
I stayed with CIP for another five years, until March 1981. But not in Lima. It would have been fun to remain in the germplasm program, but there wasn’t a position available. The only one was filled by Zosimo. In any case, I was keen to expand my potato horizons and learn more about potato production in the round. So, after completing my PhD in December 1975, I joined CIP’s Outreach Program (that, in the course of time, became the Regional Research Program), not entirely sure what the future held. Costa Rica was mooted as a possible regional location.

In January 1976, Roger Rowe, Ed French (head of plant pathology at CIP), and I made a recce visit to Costa Rica, where we met officials at CATIE in Turrialba and it was agreed that CATIE would host a CIP scientist to work on adaptation of potatoes to warm environments. My wife Steph and I finally made it to Turrialba in April, and I set about setting up my research.

CATIE plant pathologist Raul Moreno (left) explains the center’s research in Turrialba on multiple cropping systems to (L-R) University of Wisconsin professor Luis Sequeira, Ed French, and Roger Rowe.

Quite quickly the focus changed to identify resistance to a disease known as bacterial wilt.

Evaluating potatoes in the field at Turrialba in 1977 (top). Potatoes showing typical asymmetrical wilt symptoms (bottom left) and bacterial exudate in infected tubers (bottom right).

Not only did we test different potatoes varieties for resistance to the bacterium, but we developed different agronomic solutions to control the amount of disease that was surviving from one season to the next.

I also worked closely with colleagues in the Ministry of Agriculture and the University of Costa Rica, and with potato farmers to reduce the high use of fertilizers and pesticides, as well as setting up a potato seed production project.
We developed a major regional project, PRECODEPA, during this time, involving six countries in the region and Caribbean, and funded by the Swiss government.
I was just 27 when we moved to Costa Rica. This was my first taste of program management; I was on my own (although I did receive administrative backup from CATIE, where we lived). My boss in Lima, Dr Ken Brown (left, head of the Regional Research Program) managed all his staff outside Lima on ‘a light rein’: encouraging, supporting, correcting program alignment when necessary. And always with great humor.

We spent five, happy years in Costa Rica. The work was enjoyable. I had a great couple of technical staff, Jorge and Moises, and secretary Leda.

I worked with the CIP team in Toluca, Mexico, and after the regional team leader left for the USA to pursue his PhD, Richard Sawyer asked me to take on the leadership of the program, which I did for over three years.

I learnt to grow a potato crop, and work alongside farmers and various government officials from the region. I learnt a lot about people management, and was all set to continue my career with CIP.

However, by November 1980, I decided that I needed a change. I’d achieved as much as I could in Central America. So we returned to Lima, with the expectation of moving with CIP to Brazil or the Philippines.

Joining academia
But fate stepped in. I was asked to apply for a lectureship at Birmingham, in my old department, now renamed ‘Plant Biology’. In January 1981 I flew back to the UK for interview (at my own expense!) and was offered the position to start in April that year. So, with some regret—but full of anticipation—I resigned from CIP and we returned to the UK in mid-March.

With the forthcoming retirement in September 1982 of Professor Jack Hawkes (right), Mason Professor of Botany and genetic resources MSc course leader (who had supervised my PhD), the university created this new lectureship to ‘fill the teaching gap’ following Jack’s departure, particularly on the MSc course.

I spent the next ten years teaching and carrying out research on potatoes and legume species at Birmingham. I had quite a heavy teaching load, mostly with graduate MSc students studying the theory and practice of the conservation and use of plant genetic resources (the same course that I had attended a decade earlier).

I co-taught a BSc third (final) year module on genetic resources with my close friend and colleague Brian Ford-Lloyd (left), and contributed half the lectures in a second-year module on flowering plant taxonomy with another colleague, Richard Lester. Fortunately I had no first year teaching.

Over a decade I supervised or co-supervised ten PhD students, and perhaps 30 MSc students. I really enjoyed working with these graduates, mostly from overseas.

Around 1988, the four departments (Plant Biology, Zoology and Comparative Physiology, Microbiology, and Genetics) making up the School of Biological Sciences merged, and formed five research groups. I moved to the Plant Genetics Group, and was quite contented working with my new head of group, Professor Mike Kearsey (left above). Much better than the head of Plant Biology, Professor Jim Callow (right above, who was appointed in 1983 to succeed Hawkes as Mason Professor of Botany) who had little understanding of and empathy with my research interests.

By 1990 I still hadn’t hadn’t made Senior Lecturer, but I was on that particular pay scale and hoping for promotion imminently. I was working my way up the academic ladder, or at least I thought so. I took on wider responsibilities in the School of Biological Sciences, where I became Second Year Course Chair, and also as vice-chair of a university-wide initiative known as ‘Environmental Research Management’, set up to ‘market’ the university’s expertise in environmental research.

Nevertheless, I could see the writing on the wall. It was highly unlikely that I’d ever get my research on wild species funded (although I had received a large government grant to continue my potato collaboration with CIP). And with other work pressures, academia was beginning to lose its appeal.

Returning to international agricultural research
In September 1990, I received—quite out of the blue (and anonymously)—information about a new position at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines, as Head of a newly-created Genetic Resources Center (GRC).

Nothing ventured, nothing gained, I threw my proverbial hat in the ring, and was called for interview at the beginning of January 1991. My flight from London-Gatwick to Manila via Hong Kong was delayed more than 12 hours. Instead of arriving in Los Baños a day ahead of the interviews, I arrived in the early hours of the morning and managed about two hours sleep before I had a breakfast meeting with the Director General, Klaus Lampe (right) and his three deputies! The interview sessions lasted more than three days. There were two other candidates, friends of mine who had studied at Birmingham under Jack Hawkes!

To cut a long story short, I was offered the position at the end of January which I accepted once a starting salary had been agreed. However I wasn’t able to join IRRI until 1 July because I still had teaching and examination commitments at the university.

Quite a few of my university colleagues were surprised, concerned even, that I was giving up a tenured position. I’ll admit to some qualms as well. But the die was cast. I flew out to the Philippines on Sunday 30 June. Steph and our daughters Hannah (13) and Philippa (9) joined me at the end of December.

Not long after he joined IRRI in 1988, Klaus Lampe launched a major reorganization of departments and programs. The Genetic Resources Center combined two of the seed conservation and distribution activities of the institute: the International Rice Genebank (the largest and most genetically-diverse of its kind in the world), and the International Network for the Genetic Evaluation of Rice (INGER). Besides overall responsibility for GRC, I had day-to-day management of the genebank. INGER was led by an Indian geneticist and rice breeder Dr Seshu Durvasula who made it quite clear from the outset that he didn’t take kindly to these new arrangements nor having to report to someone who had never worked on rice. Such inflexible attitudes were not part of Lampe’s plan, and Seshu lasted only about 18 more months more before resigning. That’s yet another story.

I quickly realised that many improvements were needed to enhance the management of the genebank and its important rice germplasm collection. I took six months to familiarize myself fully with the genebank operations, consulting frequently with my staff, before making changes and assigning new responsibilities. Working with the genebank staff was a delight.

I convinced KLaus Lampe and senior management to invest appropriately in improving the genebank’s facilities, and to upgrade the positions of more than 70 staff. Since they constantly claimed that ‘the genebank was the jewel in IRRI’s crown‘, all I asked them was to put the money where their mouths were.

Our efforts paid off. We made the genebank ‘a model for others to emulate’. Not my words but those of external reviewers.

During my time in GRC, I had the privilege of meeting VIPs from around the world: presidents, prime ministers and other government officials, members of the diplomatic corps, and Nobel Prize winners.

In 1995 we initiated a major research and exploration project funded by the Swiss Government, which lasted for five years. We expanded the genebank collection by more than 25% to over 100,000 seed samples or accessions (since when it has grown further), many of them having been collected from farmers’ fields for the first time. This was a great opportunity to collect in more than 20 countries in Asia, Africa, and South and Central America where there were gaps in collections or, as in the case of Laos for example, war and other unrest had prevented any collections being made throughout the country until peace was established. In the photo below, taken in the Lao genebank at Vientiane in 1999, I’m with one of my staff Dr Seepana Appa Rao (center) and two genebank staff. On the left is Dr Chay Bounphanousay, head of the genebank, and now Director of the National Agriculture and Forestry Research Institute (NAFRI).

I had international commitments as well, chairing the Inter-Center Working Group on Genetic Resources (ICWG-GR) and establishing the System-wide Genetic Resources Program, the only program of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (or CGIAR) involving all fifteen centers. In 1994, the ICWG-GR met in Kenya, and stayed at a hotel in the shadow of Mt Kenya (below). The ICWG-GR was a great group of colleagues to work with, and we worked together with great enthusiasm and collegiality. 

The early 1990s were an important time for genebanks since the Convention on Biological Diversity had come into effect in December 1992, and this began to have an impact on access to and use of genetic resources. However, one consequence was the increased politicization of genetic resources conservation and use. As the decade wore on, these aspects began to take up more and more of my time. Not so much fun for someone who was more interested in the technical and research aspects of genetic conservation.


A directorship beckons
Then, quite out of the blue at the beginning of January 2001, Director General Ron Cantrell (right) asked me to stop by his office. He proposed I should leave GRC and join the senior management team as a Director to reorganize and manage the institute’s research portfolio and relationships with the donor community. I said I’d think it over, talk with Steph, and give him my answer in a couple of days.

I turned him down! The  reasons are too complicated to explain here. I was contented in GRC. There were many things I still wanted to achieve there.

After about six weeks, Cantrell sent word he’d like to discuss his proposal once again. This time we came to an understanding, and my last day as head of GRC was 30 April 2001. I became IRRI’s Director for Program Planning and Coordination (later Communications) or DPPC, with line management for Communication and Publications Services (CPS), Library and Documentation Services (LDS), IT Services (ITS), the Development Office (DO), as well as the Program Planning and Communications unit (PPC).

Here I am with (left to right): Gene Hettel (CPS), Mila Ramos (LDS), Marco van den Berg (ITS), Duncan Macintosh (DO), and Corinta Guerta (PPC).

When I set up DPPC I inherited a small number of staff who had managed (not very effectively I’m sad to say) IRRI’s relationships with the donor community. IRRI’s reputation had hit rock bottom with its donors. I had to dig deep to understand just why the institute could not meet its reporting and financial obligations to the donors. After recruiting five new staff, we implemented new procedures to keep things on an even keel, and within six months we had salvaged what had been quite a dire situation. Data management and integration of information across different research and finance functions was the basis of the changes we made. And we never looked back. By the time I retired from IRRI, we had supported raising the institute’s annual budget to around USD 60 million, and IRRI’s was shining bright among the donors.

Here I am with PCC staff on my last day at IRRI, 30 April 2010. Left to right: Eric Clutario, Corinta Guerta, Zeny Federico, me, Vel Ilao, and Yeyet Enriquez. After I left IRRI, Corinta became head of PPC and was made a Director, the first national staff to rise through the ranks from Research Assistant in 1975 (she was originally a soil chemist) to a seat on the senior management committee.

As a Director, I was a member of IRRI’s senior management team taking responsibility for the institute’s strategy development and medium term plans, performance management, and several cross-cutting initiatives that enhanced IRRI’s welfare and that of the staff.

It wasn’t a bowl of cherries all the time at IRRI. There certainly were some impressive downs. The institute had a bit of a bleak patch for just under a decade from the time Lampe retired in 1995 until Bob Zeigler’s appointment in 2005. The institute had lost its way, and I guess that was one of the reasons I was asked to create the PPC office, to coordinate different functions of institute management.

But all good things come to an end, and by 2009 I’d already decided that I wanted to retire (and smell the roses, as they say), even though Zeigler encouraged me to stay on. By then I was already planning the celebrations for IRRI’s 50th anniversary, and agreed to see those through to April 2010. What fun we had, at the Big Show on Sunday 13 December 2009 and earlier.

With the Big Show production crew on stage afterwards.

The best?
Having thought long and hard about this, I believe that the DPPC role was the one I enjoyed most. That’s not to say that everything else I accomplished has not been cherished. But DPPC was different. I’d moved into a position where I could really influence events, I was managing areas of the institute’s portfolio and making a difference.

IRRI gave me the honour of hosting my despedida during the institute’s 50th gala anniversary dinner on 14 April 2010.

Do I have any regrets about the career choices I made? Not for one second.

I made some useful contributions to science (some of which is still being cited 40 years after publication). I traveled the world. I became fluent (for a while at least) in Spanish. And I have worked alongside many great scientists, fought with a few. Made many great friends, some sadly no longer with us.

Who could ask for more?


Meandering across North Tyneside

I always said I’d never buy a house near running water. But that is precisely what we did in February 2021.

The Brierdene Burn is a small stream in North Tyneside, just over 4 miles long (and a catchment of around 3¾ square miles) that flows in a deep ditch close by my house. Fortunately, the ditch is full of plants, and these slow the flow of water considerably. Even during periods of very heavy rain that we experienced recently, the flow didn’t increase appreciably.

That’s because the length of the Burn from its source west of the A19 trunk road (in a field at the top of a slope) to here is less than half a mile, if that.

As near as I can be certain, its actual source is close by the tree in the top image below. In the lower image, the housing development where I live can be seen on the east side of the A19, perhaps only a quarter of a mile away.

From here it meanders eastwards under the A19, through the lower section of Backworth and onwards until it meets the North Sea at Whitley Bay.

The Brierdene Burn meets the North Sea at Whitley Bay.

Just beyond our housing there is an overflow pool, where the Brierdene Burn is joined by a southern, shorter tributary.

Now I’m not sure if this pool was constructed when the houses were built to reduce the risk of flooding, or whether it’s a natural, ‘ancient’ feature in the landscape. The whole area was once covered in coal mines, and maybe the pool was dug when the mines were opened to reduce flooding. I just don’t know.

I often follow the Brierdene Burn and past the pool on many of my daily walks. They are havens for biodiversity, a changing flora throughout the year, and so many different birds. I haven’t seen any mammals in the pool, although I’ve heard reports of otters. I have seen roe deer a little further east.

The Burn flows under Station Road, where common reeds (Phragmites spp.) flourish.

The Brierdene Burn as it emerges from the overflow pool and just before it disappears under Station Road.

Common reed bed.

And in the Spring, the Burn is an excellent habitat for marsh marigolds (Caltha palustris L.) and yellow flag (Iris pseudacorus L.).

Marsh marigolds in Spring, and emerging yellow flag.

And just yesterday, there were the first signs of Spring, with these hazel catkins shaking in the breeze.

A year ago I decided to take photos of the overflow pool every week from two different locations, and make them into these two timelapse videos.

From the dark dismal days of January to the height of midsummer, there is a succession of different species, with a ring of bulrushes (Typha spp., right below) around the perimeter of the pool developing throughout the year and flowering around August, a flush of bedstraws (Galium spp., left below) in June/July, followed by the purple common knapweed (Centaurea nigra L., middle below).

These are some of the birds¹ which I regularly see around the pool all year round.

In summer there are some delightful visitors to the pool, and the occasional species that pass through like the little egret and Canada goose.

And on the fields along the Burn on the west side, several other species including winter visitors like the redwing, fieldfare, and golden plover, as well as many of those I see beside the pool.

Just the other day, I stopped to take this photo, looking east from Hotspur North towards the pool. And disappointed that folks had decided to drop litter instead of taking it home (an issue I commented on not long after we moved to North Tyneside).

Anyway, just as I took the photo, a small bird flew into a gorse bush beside me. My first reaction was a wren. But to my surprise and delight it was a goldcrest (below), Britain’s smallest bird. I’ve only seen a goldcrest once before and then not very clearly. This one stayed there for almost five minutes, hopping through the branches, and giving me a spectacular view.

There’s always some new delight to inspire me around here. I certainly look forward to exploring more of this fascinating landscape that has come to life 40 years after the coal mines were closed.

¹ Bird photos courtesy of Northamptonshire-based photographer Barry Boswell. Take a look at his excellent website: