Science publications that influenced my choice of career . . .

I’m sure, like me, many scientists have a few publications that they treasure. No, I’m not referring to any which they themselves authored; rather, publications that made them sit up and pay attention, so to speak. And, in doing so, particularly stimulated their interest and perhaps even guided their own scientific careers subsequently.

I’ve now been retired for ten years, but I still look back to how I got started in the world of plant genetic resources fifty years ago, and some of the scientific publications that pointed me in that direction. Let me backup a little and explain how this came about.

In 1967, I was accepted on to a BSc degree course at the University of Southampton (on England’s south coast) to study environmental botany and geography. I’ve written elsewhere about the three very happy years I spent in Southampton until graduation in July 1970.

The core of my degree course, particularly in my third or senior year, was a two semester ecology module taught in the Botany department, and different aspects of physical geography (such as geomorphology, biogeography, and climatology) in the Geography department. But I also took several shorter elective modules in Botany, including plant speciation, plant breeding, and population genetics. This latter course was taught by one of the pioneers in this field, Vice Chancellor Professor Sir Kenneth Mather who came to Southampton from the University of Birmingham (where he had been head of the Department of Genetics). He claimed (probably with some justification) that he was the only teaching Vice Chancellor at that time in the UK.

Joyce Lambert

We were a small group of only six or so ecology students, and this module was taught by quantitative ecologist Dr Joyce Lambert (who was also my personal tutor). All of us were required to submit an extended essay of 4-5000 words on an ‘ecological topic’ of our choice. It goes without saying that Joyce hinted she would prefer essays about her interest, namely the application of numerical methods to study vegetation landscapes.

I did not heed Joyce’s ‘advice’; I guess she was not best pleased. Instead, and with encouragement from genetics lecturer Dr Joe Smartt, I chose to explore the relationship between ecology, genetics, and taxonomy (the related fields of ecological genetics and experimental taxonomy) in an essay about the concept of ‘ecotypes’. Simply put, an ecotype is a distinct form or race of a plant occupying a particular habitat.

So that was my aim. What would be my entry point? And which literature would be most useful for my purpose?

From the 1920s onwards, several botanists (Göte Turesson in Sweden, JW Gregor in Scotland, and three staff at the Carnegie Institute of Washington in Stanford: geneticist Jens Clausen, physiologist William Hiesey, and taxonomist David Keck) had studied the variation of species (genetically, physiologically, and taxonomically) in relation to their environments, and the role of natural selection on plant adaptation. There was a wealth of literature to delve into. But where to begin?

Jack Heslop-Harrison

I was fortunate that, just a few years earlier, Professor Jack Heslop-Harrison (then Mason Professor of Botany at the University of Birmingham) published an important review paper about what became for me a fascinating branch of botanical science, the study of variation within species in relation to environment.

Forty years of genecology, published in Advances in Ecological Research in 1964 (Vol. 2: 159-247) was, for me, one of those formative publications. Not only was the review thoroughly comprehensive in its coverage, but had the added quality of being extremely well written. It has stood the test of time. Yet, it would be interesting to bring it up to date, introducing all the latest evidence based on molecular biology and genomics.

When I contacted Heslop-Harrison’s son ‘Pat’ (who is Professor of Plant Cell Biology and Molecular Cytogenetics at the University of Leicester) to request a copy of his father’s paper (I’d ‘lost’ the copy I once had) he told me that he began writing a review 100 years of genecology, but had never completed it.

He did make this interesting comment: When I started on a ‘100 years’ update, I was taken that some parts [of ‘Forty years of genecology’] sounded remarkably old-fashioned, while other parts could fit unchanged in a strong grant application made today. But how the combination of molecular/marker studies and modelling has really allowed genecology to take its rightful place in biology.

Immersing myself in the various concepts of ‘ecotype’, ‘clines’, and ‘infraspecific variation’ among many others, Heslop-Harrison’s review not only provided me with the impetus to fulfil a pressing course assignment, but subconsciously perhaps helped me make some decisions about a future career. I guess this was the first time I became really enthusiastic about any botanical sub-discipline. Later on, when I began working in the area of conservation and use of plant genetic resources, the study of variation patterns and adaptation in crop species and their wild relatives became an important focus of what I set out to achieve. In fact, understanding the nature of crop plant variation—and how to use it—is one of the fundamental concepts underpinning the value of plant genetic resources.

No study of variation in plant species would be complete, even today I believe, without reference to the pioneering work of Clausen, Keck, and Hiesey in California over several decades from the 1930s. Their work had been highlighted, of course, in Heslop-Harrison’s review. I went back to their original papers*.

L-R: Jens Clausen (cytology and genetics), William Hiesey (physiology), and David Keck (taxonomy/botany)

And what an eye-opener they were: a classic set of papers, published between 1934 and 1958, describing experimental studies on the nature of species that really caught my attention, and to which I still return from time to time.

While others, like Turesson and Gregor, had also studied plant variation experimentally, their work was not on the same scale that Clausen and his colleagues achieved across central California, from the coast to the high Sierra Nevada.

Working with a range of species, they collected samples from different populations of each across this Californian transect and, using a reciprocal transplant approach, grew samples at experimental gardens on the coast at Stanford and at different altitudes in the mountains, at Mather and Timberline. So, for example, samples collected from coastal sites were grown at the high altitude garden, and vice versa and all combinations in between. Even the same species looked different under different environments, in terms of plant stature or days to flowering, for example, being just two of the many traits they studied. They were interested if these traits would persist when grown in another environment. Here is an example from yarrow or Achillea.

Clausen, J, DD Keck and WM Hiesey, 1948. Experimental studies on the nature of species. III: Environmental responses of climatic races of Achillea. Publication 581. Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Institution of Washington.

They studied how well plants from one environment thrived in another, identifying the adaptations that enabled them to survive, and understanding both the genetic and physiological basis for adaptation, while recognising some of the variants taxonomically, if warranted. Many were simply locally-adapted populations, or ecotypes. Just a beautiful and competent piece of science.

Anyway, come the summer of 1970 and having just graduated, I still wasn’t sure what I’d be doing or where. I’d been accepted on to the MSc course on Conservation and Utilization of Plant Genetic Resources at the University of Birmingham to begin in September. But while I had a guaranteed place, there was no funding. And without a studentship there was no way I could support myself and pay tuition fees.

That all changed at the beginning of August or thereabouts. I had a phone call from Professor Jack Hawkes, who was Mason Professor of Botany (succeeding Heslop-Harrison) and the MSc course director, letting me know he’d found some funds to support my studies. It was wonderful news, and I immediately began to make plans to move to Birmingham in mid-September.

There was one important thing Jack asked me to do: purchase a copy of a book that had just been published, and try and work my way through it before I landed up in Birmingham.

This book, Genetic Resources in Plants – their Exploration and Conservation, was more than an eye opener as far as I was concerned. It was as if the scales fell from my eyes. What a revelation!

The book was dedicated to Nikolai Ivanovich Vavilov. Until then I’d never heard of this eminent Russian geneticist, the ‘Father of Plant Genetic Resources’, who subsequently became something of a scientific hero of mine.

Edited by wheat breeder Sir Otto Frankel and FAO scientist Dr Erna Bennett, both pioneers of the 1960s genetic resources movement, this book was essential reading for anyone entering the new field of conservation and use of plant genetic resources.

Sir Otto Frankel and Erna Bennett

It emerged from a technical conference held at FAO headquarters in Rome on 18-26 September 1967, and comprised 44 chapters penned by many if not most of the leading lights then in genetic conservation and crop and forestry specialists from around the world. As Sir Otto wrote in the preface, the book attempts to define and develop the principles underlying the various stages of exploration, conservation and utilization. Its usefulness will depend on the degree to which it succeeds in illuminating practical problems, rather than offering prescriptions or instructions.

In the course of my own entry into the world of plant genetic resources, I came to meet and become friends with several of the contributors.

The six sections covered topics in: (1) Biological background (the nature of crop diversity, centers of origin, taxonomy); (2) Tactics of exploration and collection; (3) Examples of exploration (crops and forestry); (4) Evaluation and utilization; (5) Documentation, records and retrieval; and (6) Conservation.

It became something of a ‘bible’ for me, and even today, I dip into its many chapters to refresh some of my ideas. Yes, the world of conservation and use of plant genetic resources has moved on significantly since its publication 50 years ago. Just think of the remarkable advances in molecular biology and genomics that nowadays open up a whole new dimension to our understanding of variation among important crop species and their wild relatives. And the impressive progress in computing for both data analysis as well as data management for crop germplasm collections. Fifty years ago, many things that we consider routine today were then but a pipe dream, if they were even on someone’s intellectual horizon.

I really do believe that anyone contemplating a career in plant genetic conservation as I was, 50 years ago, would benefit from delving into Frankel and Bennett, not only to appreciate how the genetic resources movement started in the 1960s, but also just how we have come in the five decades since.

*These are the papers from the California group of Clausen, Keck and Hiesey:

  • Clausen J, DD Keck & WM Hiesey, 1934. Experimental taxonomy. Yearb. Carneg. Inst. 33, 173-177.
  • Clausen J, DD Keck & WM Hiesey, 1939. The concept of species based on experiment. Amer. J. Bot. 26, 103-106.
  • Clausen J, DD Keck & WM Hiesey, 1940. Experimental studies on the nature of species. I. Effect of varied environments on western North American plants. Publ. Carneg. Instn. No. 520.
  • Clausen J, DD Keck & WM Hiesey, 1945. Experimental studies on the nature of species. II. Plant evolution through amphiploidy and autoploidy, with examples from the Madiinae. Publ. Carneg. Instn. No. 564.
  • Clausen J, DD Keck, & WM Hiesey, 1948. Experimental studies on the nature of species. III. Environmental responses of climatic races of Achillea. Publ. Carneg. Instn. No. 581.
  • Clausen J & WM Hiesey, 1958. Experimental studies on the nature of species. IV. Genetic structure of ecological races. Publ. Carneg. Instn. No. 615.


You’ve got mail . . . maybe

Email. Something we take for granted. In these Covid-19 lockdown days, where would be without email to keep in touch with family and friends? In fact, for many, working from home without access to emails would not be an option.

And what about Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, WhatsApp, Zoom, and all the other messaging apps?

Bob Zeigler

Yet it’s not so long ago that none of us had access to any of these. How things have changed over the past 40 years, even just the last decade.

My former colleague and IRRI Director General Bob Zeigler often said that we were living through three revolutions: in telecommunications, computing, and molecular biology. It was the combination of these three that allowed scientists to collaborate world-wide in real time, using the ‘new’ computing power to handle the vast amounts of data that molecular biology was generating.

That wasn’t so . . . not so long ago.

When, in 1976, the Director General of the International Potato Center (CIP), Dr Richard Sawyer, asked me to set up a satellite research program in Costa Rica (at a regional center, CATIE, in Turrialba) the only ways we had to communicate with HQ in Lima were ‘snail mail’, telephone, or Telex. Even making a phone call was difficult. I had to book an international call to Peru at least a day ahead.

Margaret Hamilton in 1969, standing next to listings of the software she and her MIT team produced for the Apollo project.

There were no personal computers. Even hand-held calculators were a novelty. I remember one scientist at CATIE, soil scientist Warren Forsythe, proudly showing off a newfangled—and basic—electronic calculator (addition, subtraction, division, multiplication functions only) that he’d recently spent more than USD400 on (that’s about USD1800 today!). They almost give them away nowadays. There’s more processing power in your basic smartphone than took the first astronauts to the Moon.

When I was an undergraduate at the University of Southampton in the late 1960s we used either logarithmic tables (log tables) or a hand-cranked calculating machine like the one shown below. I’m not sure if I remember nowadays how to use log tables. I never did master the slide rule.

The first computer I ever saw was at a major steelworks (Ravenscraig I think it was, at Motherwell, just south of Glasgow) where my eldest brother Martin was a computer engineer. He took me along one afternoon when he had access to the computer (an ICL mainframe if memory serves me right) for routine maintenance.

He showed me how paper tapes were used to run routines. Paper tape? I can’t remember the last time I saw that.

Completing an honours ecology project for my undergraduate dissertation in 1970, I used the university’s mainframe computer to complete a type of vegetation analysis known as Association Analysis.  Ecologist Joyce Lambert was my supervisor, and she and former head of the Department of Botany, Professor Bill Williams, were pioneers in the use of computers and quantitative methods in ecology [1]. I encoded my data on punched cards, with the help of one of the graduate students, John Barr (studying for a PhD in numerical taxonomy).

When I moved to Birmingham in 1970 (to study for the one year MSc course on plant genetic resources) there was a short module on data management, taught by Brian Kershaw, a programmer in the university’s Computer Centre. He developed the computer programs to sort and collate data, and print maps, for A Computer-Mapped Flora: A Study of The County of Warwickshire [2] published in 1971, and the first of its kind. His MSc module was more about basic programming than data management per se and not, in my opinion, very helpful, or enlightening. Things changed once we had access to personal computers over a decade later.

IBM launched its first personal computer (PC) in August 1981, just a few months after I had returned to the UK and joined the faculty of the University of Birmingham. My memory is fuzzy. We must have had one of these in our lab in the Department of Plant Biology (School of Biological Sciences). I can remember that we used 5¼ inch floppy disks, but also installed an 8 inch disk reader. MS-DOS was the operating system.

It wasn’t until one of my colleagues, plant physiologist Dr Digby Idle secured a grant to purchase half a dozen Apple Macintosh computers that we had access to personal computers, mainly for teaching. They certainly revolutionized the teaching of data management to MSc students by my colleague Dr Brian Ford-Lloyd.

Staff were sometimes allowed to take a machine home for weekend. My young daughters Hannah and Philippa had great fun exploring a couple of the games (rudimentary by today’s standards) that came with each computer.

Personal computing really took off, however, once Alan Sugar released the first IBM clones under the Amstrad brand in the 1980s. I bought several machines for my lab. We were still using the university’s mainframe computer for analysis of large data sets. It wasn’t until the end of the 1980s that PCs began to have the power to carry out some of these same analyses.

I even purchased an Amstrad for home use. It had twin 5¼ inch floppy disk drives, each with a capacity of about 500 Kb if I’m not mistaken. But then I installed a 32 MB hard drive, and then we were really cooking! There was no internet of course, and no WiFi. But connected to a dot matrix printer (are they around any more?), and using a word processing package called PFS First Choice. By today’s standards it wasn’t sophisticated at all, but it was convenient for home use [3].

We even took that Amstrad to the Philippines in 1991 and used it for a couple of years. I found it at the back of a cupboard 19 years later when we were packing to return to the UK.

But I digress. Back to emails.

I don’t really remember when we started to use email in a rather simple way at the university during the 1980s. Even after I had moved to IRRI in July 1991 I had to ‘fight’ to have a PC on my desk. Again I’m not certain when email was routinely used at the institute.

But by the time I had moved from the Genetic Resources Center to become Director for Program Planning and Communications (DPPC) in May 2001, email was well established as the most convenient and regularly used method of communication among staff at IRRI, and with external collaborators and donors. In fact, as I set up the DPPC Office much of what we achieved was based on a systematic use and filing of emails in lieu of communication through hard copies.

I’m the sort of person who attends to all incoming correspondence—memos, letters, emails—more or less straight away, deciding whether to respond immediately or taking a decision to put that to one side for a response later on. At the very least, I tried to send an acknowledgment that someone’s communication has been received. Being in a senior management position, I felt it was really important to keep on top of emails and the like, because without a response, the sender might not be able to move ahead without a decision from me. Even if that meant working through 10s if not 100s of emails a day. I never liked the grass to grow beneath my feet, so to speak.

But communication by email was both a blessing and a curse as far as project management was concerned. Because emails could be sent instantaneously, more or less, it was possible to send off project reports, or even funding requests, right up to any deadline, not having to prepare several weeks ahead for ‘snail mail’ delivery.

However, the use of emails also made some donors (like USAID, for example) somewhat dysfunctional. Knowing that we would be able to send replies in by email, they would often make demands of us for information, reports, or whatever, just before their deadline, without understanding that we also needed appropriate lead time to compile and prepare the information requested. The transmission by email was just a bonus.

But there’s no doubt that how we used email in DPPC, straight to our donor contacts, greatly enhanced fund-raising capability at IRRI.

I still look forward to receiving emails from family and friends. For many years I have used Fastmail as my platform of choice, although I do keep a Gmail address as a backup. And, for most of my continuing business and utility contacts, emails are the preferred method of communication. It’s always a pleasure when an unexpected email drops into my mailbox especially from someone I haven’t heard from for some time.

Yes, I’ve got mail . . .

[1] Williams, WT and JM Lambert, 1960. Multivariate methods in plant ecology: the use of an electronic digital computer for Association-Analysis. Journal of Ecology, 48: 689-710.

[2] Cadbury, DA, JG Hawkes and RC Readett, 1971. A Computer-Mapped Flora: A Study of The County of Warwickshire. Academic Press, London and New York.

[3] After I’d published this story yesterday (4 May 2020) a friend reminded me of the word processing software we used in the 1980s: WordStar, written for the CP/M operating system. It was generally replaced by WordPerfect, a package I never got to grips with. I became really quite proficient in the use of WordStar. Who can forget all those formatting tools for bold, underlining, and italics, etc?


Veni, vidi . . . conquest came later

Julius Caesar’s first British forays in 55 and 54 BC were not altogether successful. It took almost 100 years (and several Roman emperors later) before the Roman occupation of Britain took hold.

It wasn’t until AD 43 that the Roman conquest of Britain under the Emperor Claudius began in earnest and was, to all intents and purposes, completed over the next 50 years. However, Roman rule lasted only 400 years or so. Then the Romans just upped and left.

But what a profound impact Roman occupation had on the British landscape during those four centuries.

Take the road system, for instance. The Romans built 8000 miles of roads that enabled them to move armies and commerce across the country more easily. Roman roads are still exposed in many places, like the Wheeldale Roman road on the North York Moors that we visited in the summer of 1988 when Hannah and Philippa were ten and six, respectively.

However, take a look at today’s road system in the UK, and many of the most important trunk roads still follow the routes of Roman roads built 2000 years ago, such as the Fosse Way, Watling Street, and Ermine Street.

And at the same time that the conquest of Britain was underway on the far-flung northwest frontier of the Roman empire, just over 1000 miles southeast in Rome itself, the Colosseum was being built (by the Emperor Vespasian).

Aerial view of the Colosseum, with the Forum on the top right, and the Palatine Hill beyond on the top left.

The Romans founded cities all over England. There are so many fine examples of Roman settlements and architecture to be explored. Just take four examples that we have visited: the city of Wroxeter (Viroconium) near Shrewsbury, the villa at Chedworth in Gloucestershire, the lighthouse in Dover, standing high above the chalk cliffs on the south coast, or the landing stage at The Weir along the River Wye in Herefordshire.

It’s also remarkable just how far north the Romans expanded their control. In order to protect their domain, a 73 mile long wall was constructed across the north of England, just south of what is today the border with Scotland, from the west coast on the Solway Firth to Newcastle (Wallsend) on the east. This is, of course, Hadrian’s Wall, whose construction began around 122 AD under the Emperor Hadrian.

Hadrian’s Wall facing east towards Crag Lough. The rocky outcrop is the Whin Sill, of volcanic origin.

Sections of Hadrian’s Wall still remain, particularly in its hilly central sector. Little remains in lowland regions, where the Wall was previously plundered as a source of free stone for new buildings.

This fortification remained the Romans’ principal fortification against hostile tribes to the north. Here’s a short video from the Smithsonian Channel.

What I believe is less well known is that the Romans built another wall, the Antonine Wall some 100 miles further north, spanning a length of about 40 miles between the Firth of Clyde on the west coast and the Firth of Forth on the east, twenty years after construction began on Hadrian’s Wall. Unlike its counterpart to the south, the Antonine Wall was abandoned just a few years after it completion, and the Romans retreated south behind Hadrian’s Wall.

In 1998, when Steph and I spent a week touring Northumberland, we took the opportunity of exploring different sections of the Wall, near Cawfield Quarry, and at Housesteads Fort (Vercovicium; map) one of the largest settlements along the Wall. We’ve been back a couple of times since, but if I did take many more photos, I can’t lay my hands on them. That will be a project in progress once we move north.

Hadrian’s Wall and Housesteads appear to be managed jointly by the National Trust and English Heritage.

Just two miles southwest from Housesteads Fort is one of the most important Roman sites in the north of England, perhaps in the whole country: Vindolanda. It is owned and managed by The Vindolanda Trust.

Vindolanda is known for the huge quantity of Roman artefacts that have been recovered during archaeological excavations, many of which are on display in the excellent museum there. Of particular renown are the Vindolanda tablets, handwritten documents on wood detailing life on this lonely frontier of the Empire, and beautifully preserved for almost 2000 years.

Tablet 343: Letter from Octavius to Candidus concerning supplies of wheat, hides and sinews.

The tablet that is perhaps most cited, No. 291 from around 100 AD, was an invitation to a birthday party from the wife of the commander of a nearby fort.

North of Hadrian’s Wall, we also explored the site of a Roman encampment at Chew Green, overlooking the border with Scotland.

There’s not to much to see, just some raised mounds marking various buildings and the like. It’s a bleak spot, to say the least.

But there is (or at least should be) another legacy of the Roman occupation here and elsewhere. It’s not a legacy that you can observe as such. It needs the techniques of molecular genetics to reveal it. DNA!

We know, from writings left behind, that Roman soldiers from all corners of the Empire served on this northwest frontier. From as far east as Iran and Afghanistan, North Africa, and other regions of Europe. Unquestionably many will have had relationships (consenting or otherwise) with local women, and had children.

Britain is a nation built on immigration over millennia. The Roman conquest was the first major invasion of many that followed—the Germanic invasions, the Vikings, and the Normans. All left their DNA behind in the genetic melting pot. It’s just that the ‘Romans’ were the first, so to speak.

And we’re so hung up over immigration today. Ironic.





Remembering an old friend: Bent Skovmand (1945-2007)

In preparation for a house move this year (that is increasingly likely to be delayed indefinitely until the Covid-19 crisis has passed), I’ve been working through dozens of envelopes of old photos, getting rid of those out of focus or we can’t determine when or where they were taken. I have come across quite a number from the years I spent working abroad, but before I went digital in the mid-noughties.

During the decade (1991-2001) that I had responsibility for the International Rice Genebank at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines, as Head of the institute’s Genetic Resources Center, I met and collaborated with some remarkable colleagues among the genetic resources community of the international agricultural research centers supported through the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR).

These specialists met annually as the Inter-Center Working Group on Genetic Resources (ICWG-GR). But unlike other CGIAR inter-center working groups, all of the CGIAR centers were represented on the ICWG-GR, covering crops and their wild relatives, animals, forestry and agroforestry, aquatic resources, irrigation management, and food policy.

I attended my first meeting in January 1973, held at ILCA, the International Livestock Centre for Africa in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia (that merged with the International Laboratory for Research on Animal Diseases, ILRAD, in Nairobi in January 1995 to form the International Livestock Research Institute, ILRI).

The ICWG-GR at its meeting in Addis Ababa in January 1993. L-R: Brigitte L. Maass (CIAT), Geoff Hawtin (IPGRI), Ed Rege (ILCA/ILRI), Ali Golmirzaie (CIP), Jan Valkoun (ICARDA), ??, ??, Masa Iwanaga (IPGRI), Roger Rowe (CIMMYT), ?? (World Agroforestry), Melak Mengesha (ICRISAT), Mike Jackson (IRRI), Murthy Anishetty (FAO), Quat Ng (IITA), Jean Hanson (ILCA/ILRI), and Jan Engels (IPGRI).

I was elected Chair of the ICWG-GR at that Addis meeting, and remained in that role for the next three years, overseeing a major review of genetic resources roles of the centers that led to the launch of the System-wide Genetic Resources Program (SGRP) in 1994. The SGRP was active for around a couple of decades, but has now been replaced by the CGIAR Genebank Platform that . . . led by the Crop Trust, enables CGIAR genebanks to fulfill their legal obligation to conserve and make available accessions of crops and trees on behalf of the global community under the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture.

Enjoying a break in discussions in Kenya when World Agroforestry hosted the ICWG-GR in 1998. Bent Skovmand is on the far left.

I don’t remember the details of all the ICWG-GR meetings and their dates, but after 1993 we met at ICARDA in Aleppo, Syria; CIP in Lima, Peru; IITA in Ibadan, Nigeria; IFPRI in Washington, DC; CIFOR in Bogor, Indonesia; World Agroforestry in Nairobi, Kenya; and at IPGRI in Rome on at least a couple of occasions. But not necessarily in that order.

These meetings were a great opportunity to catch up with old friends, besides discussing and setting in train some important policy decisions for the centers regarding the management of and access to the important germplasm collections conserved in their genebanks.

Among the many members of the ICWG-GR, there was one with whom I struck up a particular friendship. This was Dr Bent Skovmand (above), a Danish plant pathologist in charge of the wheat genebank at CIMMYT (the International Center for Maize and Wheat Improvement) in Mexico.

Bent and me during the 1998 meeting of the ICWG-GR meeting held in Kenya.

I’m not sure why Bent and I hit it off so well. I think it was because we didn’t take ourselves too seriously. Perhaps it was our mutual love of beer!

Besides the ICWG-GR meetings, Bent and I would often meet at the annual conferences (usually in November) of the Crop Science Society of America (CSSA) held in different cities in the USA. Bent was a very active member in what was then the C8 Section of the Society, and what I think is now the Plant Preservation section or group.

Bent studied at the University of Minnesota in St Paul on the Minnesota Agricultural Student Trainee international exchange program, gaining a masters degree in 1973 and his PhD in 1976 (in plant pathology). He then joined CIMMYT and remained there for much of his career until 2003. Before heading the wheat genebank, he had also spent time with CIMMYT in Turkey.

In 2003 he was honored twice. First he received the Frank N Meyer Medal for Plant Genetic Resources from the CSSA. Then, Queen Margrethe II of Denmark awarded him the Knight’s Cross of the Order of the Dannebrog.

But, in some ways, these awards were bittersweet. CIMMYT restructured in 2003, and Bent was made redundant. Having spent so many years at a center that he loved, and based in Mexico (the home of his second wife Eugenia) it was a huge blow to have to leave. Not yet 60, he looked for other employment opportunities, and was soon appointed Director of the Nordic Gene Bank (NGB, now NordGen) in Alnarp, Sweden. In that position, he took a lead role in the establishment of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, which opened its doors in February 2008.

Entrance to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. (Courtesy of the Crop Trust).

Bent never got to see this event. Having been diagnosed with a brain tumor some months earlier and his health deteriorating rapidly, he passed away in February 2007.

There’s one particular memory I have of Bent. When in Rome together, he and I would try and eat, at least once, in the Taverna Cestia at the southern end of the Viale Aventino, near the Pyramid of Caius Cestius. Just inside the entrance, on a side-table, was a large meat slicer for carving prosciutto ham. It looked like it had been there for decades.

Every time we ate there, Bent would tell me: ‘I’m going to make them an offer for that slicer, one day.‘ He never did.

Sadly missed by his friends and colleagues in the genetic resources community, not just among the CGIAR centers, but more widely around the world, Bent left a strong and deservable legacy.

I found this obituary for Bent that was published on the website of The American Phytopathological Society (APS). But I have also downloaded it as a PDF file, accessible here.

Around the world in 40 years . . . Part 26: A sojourn in Sri Lanka

I visited Sri Lanka just the once. However, I don’t even remember which year or month. Only that it was the early 1990s, probably around 1993 or 1994. That was when I was planning a major rice conservation project at IRRI, and I wanted to determine if or how any Sri Lankan organizations would participate. As it turned out, for reasons that I’ll explain in due course, Sri Lanka did not join the project.

The Sri Lankan genebank, The Plant Genetic Resources Centre (PGRC) is based in Kandy in the island nation’s Central Province, of which it is the capital. It lies amongst the hills of the central plateau. The hills surrounding Kandy are covered in tea plantations. And, in many ways, Kandy is a magical place to visit. The scenery is outstanding.

Although I don’t remember in which hotel I stayed, I do remember it was perched on the summit of one of the hills, with views in every direction, as you can see in the gallery above. In the stillness of the dawn, I woke each morning to the sounds of birds calling to each other across the valleys. What a wonderful start to the day.

Kandy is home to a magnificent botanical garden (the Royal Botanical Gardens at Peradeniya just west of the city) and one of Buddhism’s most sacred places of worship, the Temple of the Tooth or Sri Dalada Maligawa, is located in the city center.

The Plant Genetic Resources Centre was opened in 1990. Its construction was a donation from the Government of Japan in 1989. So when I visited it had been open for just a few years—and looked like it. But, unlike one or two other genebanks whose construction Japan had supported in other Asian countries, the staff at PGRC were certainly making the most of their expanded facilities to store seeds and tissue culture or in vitro conservation.

Once again I am unable to name most of the people I met at PGRC, with one exception: Mr CN Sandanayake, who was one of my MSc students at the University of Birmingham in 1986.

CN Sandanayake talks with one of his colleagues at PGRC.

And as you can see from one of the photos in the gallery above, everything stops for tea!

When I discussed participation in the IRRI-led rice biodiversity project, it was clear that Sri Lanka had already made significant progress to collect and conserve indigenous rice varieties and wild species. My former colleague at IRRI, Dr Duncan Vaughan had visited Sri Lanka in the 1980s to help with the collection of wild rices.

Furthermore, PGRC had a cadre of excellent technical staff, and as you can see from the photos, excellent facilities for germplasm conservation. And, given the ongoing civil war there were many no-go areas in the country, especially in the north and east. However, in Kandy, there was no tangible signs of the conflict.

I made a side trip, with Sandanayake, to the Rice Research & Development Institute at Batalagoda, some 50km north of Kandy. Here are a couple of photos I took on that journey.

There I met with MS Dhanapala, a rice breeder who had also come to Birmingham in the 1980s to attend short courses on plant genetic resources, and also spend some time in the Department of Genetics.

Sitting, L-R: Dhanapala, me, Sandanayake. I don’t remember the names of those standing.

Sri Lanka has had a very successful rice breeding program, and many of its varieties have been adopted throughout Asia, after being shared and trialled through INGER, the IRRI-led International Network for the Genetic Evaluation of Rice, that I wrote about in 2015.

Now to return to Kandy tourism.

The Royal Botanic Gardens at Peradeniya cover almost 150 acres. There are wide open spaces to wander around, but also exquisite orchid houses to enjoy, with a multiplicity of species and varieties to take in.

As I mentioned, the Temple of the Tooth is a sacred shrine to Buddhists, and although not overrun with pilgrims during my visit was, nevertheless, quite busy.

One of the most impressive exhibits, in a side room, is a huge, stuffed elephant that died in 1988. This was Raja, a tusker who led ceremonial processions from the Temple for over 50 years.

All too soon my stay in Kandy was over, and I headed down to Colombo on the west coast to take my flight back to Singapore, and from there to the Philippines. It’s certainly a country I would like to return to.


Around the world in 40 years . . . Part 25: Walking the Great Wall of China

During the nineteen years I spent in the Far East, I visited China just twice. The first time was in March 1995, and this post is all about that visit. It must have been in 2009 that I was in China again, for the annual meeting of the CGIAR (Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research) held in Beijing, just across the street from the famous Beijing National Stadium (aka Bird’s Nest) built for the 2008 Olympic Games.

However, back to 1995.

Dr Bao-Rong Lu

A year earlier I had recruited Dr Bao-Rong Lu (a Chinese national from the southwest Sichuan Province) to work in IRRI’s Genetic Resources Center (GRC) on the diversity of wild rice species. Bao-Rong had just completed his PhD in Sweden at the Swedish University of Agriculture under the supervision Professor Roland von Bothmer, studying the cytogenetics of wheat species, if memory serves me correctly. He had also spent some months working at the Institute of Botany, The Chinese Academy of Sciences (IB-CAS), in Beijing prior to joining IRRI.

With a major rice biodiversity project getting underway at IRRI in 1995, I decided that a visit to China with Bao-Rong was the appropriate moment to initiate some further contacts and possible collaboration. Our visit took in three cities: Beijing, Hangzhou (in Zhejiang Province west of Shanghai), and Guangzhou (Canton) in the south.

First stop was the IB-CAS where I met with the Director (whose name I cannot recall, unfortunately) and many of the staff.

With the Director of the Institute of Botany and staff. Bao-Rong is standing on my left, and the Director on my right.

I was invited to present a seminar about the International Rice Genebank at IRRI and its role in the global conservation of rice genetic resources.

There was also some time for sightseeing around Beijing, and this was my opportunity to tick off another item on my bucket list: walking on the Great Wall of China (at Mutianyu, about 45 miles north of Beijing).

As you can see from these photos, there were few visitors, unlike scenes I have seen in the media in recent years.

We also took a tour of the Forbidden City in Beijing, and a walk around Tiananmen Square. Again not crowded! In one of the photos you can see the Great Hall of the People behind Bao-Rong. During the CGIAR meeting in Beijing that I mentioned earlier, the official dinner (and entertainment) was hosted by the Chinese in the Great Hall. It’s massive!

The photos appear hazy, because it was. It was quite cold in Beijing in March, with a stiff northwesterly breeze blowing over the city, laden with dust from the far west of China. It felt like being sand-blasted.

We also visited some Ming era tombs near Beijing, but I’m unable to find any photos of that particular visit.

On one night the Vice President of the Chinese Academy of Sciences hosted a small dinner in my honor. On another, Bao-Rong introduced me to the delights of spicy Sichuan cuisine. There was a Sichuan restaurant in our hotel where all the staff were from the province.

Trevor Williams

Later that same evening, as Bao-Rong and I were enjoying a beer in the bar overlooking the hotel reception, I saw someone who I recognised enter the dining room. I had to investigate. And, lo and behold, it was Trevor Williams who had supervised my MSc dissertation at the University of Birmingham in 1971. Around 1977, Trevor left Birmingham to become the first Director of the International Board for Plant Genetic Resources (IBPGR – now Bioversity International) in Rome. In 1995 I hadn’t seen Trevor for about six years, and so we spent the rest of the evening catching up over rather too many beers. Having left IBPGR by then, he was in Beijing setting up an organization that would become INBAR, the International Network for Bamboo and Rattan with its headquarters in Beijing.

After a few days in Beijing, we headed south to the city of Hangzhou (inland from Shanghai on the Qiantang River) in Zhejiang province. We were there to visit the China National Rice Research Institute (CNRRI) and meet with its director Professor Ying Cunshan. Professor Ying participated in the rice biodiversity project as a member of the project Steering Committee. CNRRI is the home of China’s largest rice genebank, which was modelled (inadvisedly in my opinion) on the genebank at IRRI.

With Bao-Rong and Professor Ying outside the entrance to CNRRI.

Inside the genebank with Professor Ying.

After a couple of days in Hangzhou, we headed southwest to the city of Guangzhou (Canton) and I experienced one of the most nerve-wracking flights ever.

Much as I am fascinated by aviation in general, I’m somewhat of a nervous flyer. And in the mid-1990s Chinese airlines were only just beginning to modernise their fleets with Boeing and Airbus aircraft. Many were still flying Soviet-era Russian aircraft, like the Tupolev (probably a ‘154’) that was assigned to our flight. On that morning, flights out of Hangzhou were delayed due to fog, and at the same time Guangzhou was also fogged in. Over a period of a couple hours, other flights (of mainly new aircraft) did depart, leaving just the Tupolev on the apron for our flight. Eventually the flight was called and we made our way out to the aircraft. Looking around the cabin as I made my way to my seat, it crossed my mind that this aircraft had seen better days.

Anyway, we took off and headed for Guangzhou. Approaching that city after a flight of about 90 minutes, the captain informed us that fog was still hanging over the airport but he would continue the landing. Only to abort that just before touching down, and returning to Hangzhou! My nerves were on edge. After refuelling, and a further delay, we departed again. This time we did find a gap in the fog and landed. As we were on our final approach and seconds from touch-down, a female passenger immediately in front of me decided to get out of her seat to retrieve her hand luggage from the overhead bin. That was the final straw for me, and I shouted at her, in no uncertain terms, to sit the f*** down. Not my best moment, I admit.

In Guangzhou, our destination was the Guangzhou wild rice nursery and meet with the staff (again I don’t remember who precisely). I believe the nursery was managed through the Guangzhou Academy of Agricultural Sciences. As in Beijing, I gave another seminar here.

In a 2005 paper, Bao-Rong and others has written about wild rice conservation in China.

Completing our visit to Guangzhou, I took a flight into Hong Kong (maybe under 40 minutes) to connect with another back to Manila.

Although China did not participate directly in the rice biodiversity project since the country had already invested heavily in rice collection and conservation, Professor Ying Cunshan served on the Steering Committee for the 5-year life of the project. We felt that his experience, and recognition among other rice scientists, would be an invaluable addition to the team.

I have two particular reflections on this first trip to China. First, in crowded areas the Chinese had little ‘respect’ for personal space, and I often found myself checking my pace of walking as others crossed in front of me, seemingly oblivious of the fact that I was there. And it wasn’t just me, being a foreigner. It just seemed the normal thing to do.

Secondly, I realised that I am not a very adventurous eater. Some of the dishes I was presented with did not encourage my appetite. There was certainly a lack of synchronization between my stomach, eyes and brain. I did find Sichuanese cooking delicious, however. In Guangzhou, where many ‘exotic’ dishes were prepared, I got round any difficulties by explaining to my hosts, through Bao-Rong, that I was vegetarian. And those dishes were equally delicious.

Bao-Rong remained at IRRI for two contracts, a total of six years. After he left IRRI in 2000, he returned to China and it wasn’t long before he joined Fudan University in Shanghai. He is now Professor and Chairman of the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, and Deputy Director of the Institute of Biodiversity Science. He currently serves as a Member of the Chinese National Biosafety Committee.


Around the world in 40 years . . . Part 24: A Laotian experience

Laos or the Lao PDR (the Lao People’s Democratic Republic – actually a Unitary Marxist–Leninist one-party socialist republic) is one of the few landlocked countries in Asia. But it does have a connection to the sea, down the Mekong River where, through its mighty delta in Vietnam, it disgorges into the South China Sea. For a considerable length, the Mekong is the international border between Myanmar and Laos, and Thailand and Laos.

During the 19 years I spent in Asia (with the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines) I visited Laos more than any other country, probably a couple of times a year over a five to six year period. Why? Because it was a focal country for the major rice conservation project that I managed between 1995 and 2000, funded by the Swiss government.

The Swiss, through the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC), also funded an in-country Lao-IRRI Program. So, as we were looking to strengthen the collection and conservation of indigenous rice varieties and wild rices in that country, it was a logical step to associate our rice biodiversity project administratively with the Lao-IRRI Project. The scientist who we hired for the Lao component of the project, Dr Seppana Appa Rao (originally from a sister center, ICRISAT, in Hyderabad, India) was based in the Lao capital Vientiane, and reported on a day-to-day basis to the leader of the Lao-IRRI Project, Australian agronomist Dr John Schiller (who passed away a couple of years ago).

Enjoying dinner with Appa Rao and John Schiller at John’s home in Vientiane.

In February 1997 I was joined on one of these visits to Laos by my wife Steph. IRRI had a generous travel policy. For every so many days a scientist was travelling outside the Philippines (but discounting the days of departure and arrival), his/her spouse or partner was entitled to one trip to a destination in Asia. So, we took advantage of that policy for a slightly extended visit to Laos (to take in some of the sights) as well as a weekend in Bangkok, through we had to transit in any case. A trip to Laos inevitably involved an overnight stop in Bangkok on both legs of the journey, taking a late flight out of Manila to Bangkok (about three hours) then the first flight on Thai Airways or Lao Aviation the next morning to Vientiane.

When I first visited Laos in 1995, the population of Vientiane was less than 400,000. It’s now reported at over 800,000. Back in the day it had the feel of a small town hugging the banks of the Mekong. But even then the traffic could become snarled at times. I wonder what it’s like nowadays? Looking at a satellite image the other day, the spread from the city center is clear. Even back in the 1990s, the city had begun to rapidly spread eastwards. The National Agricultural Research Center (NARC) of the National Agriculture and Forestry Research Institute (NAFRI) had its research station in this area, and where a rice genebank was constructed with financial support from the Swiss.

On this particular trip, Steph and I spent time with Appa and his Lao colleagues, Dr Chay Bounphanousay and Ms Kongphanh Kanyavong at the research center, looking at the genebank, field plots and various other facilities used to conserve the rice varieties collected throughout the country. This was also of interest for Steph as she originally trained in genetic resources, and has an MSc degree in genetic resources conservation  and use from the University of Birmingham (where we met in 1971/72).

L-R: Kongphanh Kanyavong, Appa Rao, and Chay Bounphanousay

We also visited a research site where wild rices were being monitored in a joint project with Japanese scientists. It was hoped that data from that project would inform the establishment of field or in situ conservation sites around the country.

Driving around Vientiane as tourists, we noted that two buildings dominate the skyline in the city center. The first, the Patuxai monument, is a huge war memorial that commemorates the struggle for independence from France. The other, a short distance away to the northeast, is Pha That Luang, a large, gold covered Buddhist stupa.

And after a hard day in the field, or touring the city and markets, what better way to end the day than a stroll along the banks of the Mekong.

That’s Thailand on the far bank.

On another day, Appa, his wife, Chay, and Kongphanh took us for a boat excursion round the Nam Ngum Reservoir, about 70 km north of Vientiane, and afterwards to the Lao Zoo nearby.

Steph and I were also invited to participate in a Baci Ceremony at John’s home, which involves the tying of white cotton strings around person’s wrists and the prayer saying or well wishing for the person that the ceremony is intended for. I had been to one of these ceremonies before, during my first visit to Laos. Another new IRRI staff member, agronomist Bruce Linquist and his family, were also welcomed to Laos at this particular ceremony.

But the tourist highlight of our visit was a weekend in Luang Prabang (a 40 min flight north of Vientiane), an ancient city standing on a peninsula at the confluence of the Mekong and the Nam Khan River.

In 1997 there were few tourists in the city besides ourselves. As we walked through the streets of the ‘old town’ the locals we passed would smile and say hello, and go on about their business. They paid no attention to us whatsoever. Luang Prabang has become a mecca for tourists from afar, and must be a very different place nowadays.

After checking into our hotel (I don’t remember which one—it was new and on the southwest of the city center), we set out to explore the sights.

First on our list was the sixteenth century Buddhist temple Wat Xieng Thong, or Temple of the Golden City, at the northern end of the peninsula. It is one of the most important shrines in the country.

The architecture is breathtaking, and as we wandered around the temple, there was a just a feeling of serenity.

Later in the day before sunset, we climbed 100m high Phousi Hill to enjoy the 360° panorama from the summit, looking north over the old town and the Nam Khan River.

I guess the highlight of our trip to Luang Prabang was the 25 km or so boat trip we took upstream along the Mekong to visit the shrines at the Pak Ou Caves, which are opposite the mouth of the Ou River as it flows into the Mekong.

As I already mentioned, Luang Prabang was very quiet, and we hired a river boat to ourselves. The journey took about two hours, during which we had the chance to take in, close-up, the majesty of the Mekong.

At the landing stage where we took our boat. You can see several of these boats behind Steph, looking north along the Mekong.

Approaching the landing stage at Pak-Ou, our boatman carefully positioned his boat so that we could disembark safely. While we were ashore, he turned the boat around ready for the return, but also a short diversion into the mouth of the Ou River.

There are two caves: Tham Ting is the lower; Tham Phum is the upper. Both are filled with hundreds if not thousands of Buddha sculptures.

We were the only visitors on this day, and had the site to ourselves. Nowadays, it’s rather different as this photo (copied from the website clearly shows.

After a late afternoon meal overlooking the Mekong back in Luang Prabang, our visit to this ancient city came to an end, and we flew back to Vientiane the following morning, and on to Bangkok.