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.

 

I don’t need a ‘world-beater’ system

My take on and with credit to the creator, ‘Radcliffe’, of a WW2 poster, probably post-1940.

Nor do I need weasel words.

Frankly, I’m sick to death of politicians on both sides of the Atlantic not taking leadership seriously.

This Covid-19 pandemic seems to have brought out the worst in Boris Johnson and his sycophantic cohorts. And what can I say about the biggest liar in politics today, POTUS 45, Donald J. Trump? I certainly don’t want to hear his dangerous ‘advice’.

And that’s before I turn my attention to the latest Westminster comings and goings. No apologies for the ‘deliberate’ pun.

What has got my particular goat this time? Well, during Prime Minister’s Questions in the House of Commons last Wednesday (20 May), Boris Johnson was asked about the government’s response to the Covid-19 crisis by the Leader of the Opposition, Sir Keir Starmer. Johnson replied that a ‘world-beating test, track and trace system’ would be in place by 1 June. That’s now less than a week away, and there’s little evidence that delivery of this system is on track at the same pace as Johnson’s hyperbole.

World-beating system? For expletive deleted’s sake! What a typical fatuous answer to a reasonable question to a government that has, so far, made a real hash of responding to the Covid-19 pandemic, including (but by no means limited to) lack of testing, shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) and, until forced into a memorable U-turn last week, insistence that foreign workers in the National Health Service (NHS) would still be required to pay a surcharge for the very service they help to keep running.

Anyway, returning to Johnson’s ‘world-beating’ system. Just think about those meaningless words. What do they bring to mind? What, in reality, do they mean, and under the present circumstances what relevance do they have to anything that is taking place as we struggle to bring this pandemic under control. It’s a typical politician response (like ‘ramping up the efforts’, or ‘working around the clock’) to make it appear that things are moving faster and better than they really are.

I don’t need to be world beating [1]. I need to believe that the measures the government has or is putting in place are fit for purpose. I’ve blogged about this ‘fit for purpose’ fixation of mine before.

It’s interesting to note that until recently the government was keen on trumpeting (in its daily press conferences) about how well the UK was doing compared to other countries in terms of the number of deaths reported. Until, that is, the UK move to the top of the league table. Suddenly that statistic was no longer welcome.

From the outset, the government’s message seemed to be clear. We had to work together to defeat the virus by staying at home. This was the message, repeated almost ad nauseam at every opportunity . . .

Being over 70, my wife and I have self isolated since mid-March, taking just one permitted short period of exercise outside each day and, in my case, doing a weekly shop at our nearest supermarket. I would have preferred home deliveries to protect myself from the risk of infection while shopping. We could never get a delivery slot.

It seems that the government’s focus at the beginning of the pandemic was to protect the National Health Service (NHS) so that it was not overwhelmed. However, care homes have been hit hard during the pandemic, with a disproportionately high number of Covid-19 related deaths among residents.

Anyway, ‘stay at home’ was the message being pushed by the government.

Until it no longer was. Then we were asked to stay alert and control the virus. Whatever that ambiguous message meant . . .

Until this change in emphasis in government message, the guidelines were clear: break the rules and everyone would suffer the consequences.

Unless, of course, your name happens to be Dominic Cummings (below), Senior Adviser to Boris Johnson in No 10 Downing St.

On Friday evening last, the news broke that Cummings had, at the beginning of lockdown in March (and before the government’s message changed), driven more than 250 miles north of London to ‘self isolate’ at a property in Durham owned by his parents, taking his wife (who had Covid-19 symptoms) and his four year old son. Furthermore, and this point is disputed (‘palpably false’, according to Johnson), is that Cummings was seen at Barnard Castle, about 30 miles from Durham, during his self-professed isolation.

One rule for them, and one for us? Just when the government has begun to plot a course to bring the country out of lockdown, while still encouraging everyone to obey the ‘stay at home’ rules if showing Covid-19 symptoms, the actions taken by his Senior Adviser have, according to public opinion, undermined the very policy that Cummings himself (it is believed) helped to put together.

And, in response to the inevitable backlash from a tired public that had faithfully stuck to the guidelines under circumstances far more challenging than those that prompted Cummings to up sticks and head north, several senior politicians (Cabinet Minister Michael Gove, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, and Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak) tweeted support (now deleted it seems) of Cummings, at the behest it is reported of government whips, and promptly had their faces covered in egg . . .

Yet more weasel words, only added to by Johnson himself at a car crash of a press conference yesterday, Sunday evening, claiming that Cummings had acted responsibly, legally and with integrity, adding disingenuously that he followed the instincts of every father and every parent, and I do not mark him down for that.

Even as Johnson was responding to questions from journalists, Twitter was alive with condemnation, including some choice comments from me . . .

Almost immediately I tweeted this . . .

Followed shortly after by . . .

I thought I’d contact my local Bromsgrove MP, former Chancellor of the Exchequer, Sajid Javid, who famously resigned on 13 February this year . . .

It’s remarkable how quickly the condemnation of both Johnson and Cummings spread on social media, including from some Conservative MPs. And an anonymous civil servant who, having access to the Civil Service’s official Twitter account, posted this . . .

The tweet was quickly deleted after ten minutes, but not before it had been seen and retweeted more than 32,000 times, and even broadcast on the BBC’s afternoon Covid-19 news special.

Undoubtedly it will be career end for this (so far) anonymous civil servant, whose action was widely praised, even leading Harry Potter author JK Rowling to tweet . . .

Today (25 May) the newspapers are full of the Cummings debacle. Almost. Tory-supporting The Sun decided to focus on the back-to-school policy that the government is pushing, and which was re-emphasised shortly after Johnson’s disastrous press conference.

While two other right wing rags, The Daily Telegraph and the Daily Express published headlines supporting Johnson, surprisingly the Daily Mail (that is so far right it meets itself coming the other way) came out against the Prime Minister’s stance. Click on the image below to enlarge.

After three days, Cummmings has become the story. I suspect he’ll be gone by the end of the week. Johnson also, perhaps? One can hope. While our system of government depends on collective cabinet responsibility, being at the helm the buck stops with Johnson. I wonder when collective responsibility will begin to fracture?

At the onset of the pandemic, Johnson had just won his Brexit vote in Parliament, and the UK formally left the European Union on 31 January. His long-awaited Brexit agenda was about to be fulfilled, even though we are in a transition arrangement until the end of the year. Unless there’s an extension. I have the strong opinion that, obsessed by Brexit, Johnson simply took his eye off the pandemic ball.

He is reportedly not a details person. A characteristic, along with constant bad hair days, he has in common with Donald Trump.

Covid-19 could be the nemesis for both despicable individuals. This Cummings affair could see the demise of Johnson sooner rather than later, but with so many mediocre politicians surrounding him, I worry about who might replace him.

Hopefully the US electorate will vote overwhelmingly blue come the November election, and oust DJT, only the third president to be impeached, and also to have won an election by losing the popular poll by more than 3 million votes.

We demand better leadership to beat this insidious virus. That’s not something that Johnson and Trump are interested in, it seems, or even understand.  Time to say bye-bye.


But to finish on a lighter note . . .

Last Friday, as the Cummings story broke, this Song for Dominic Cummings video was released by Dillie Keane, a member of the trio Fascinating Aïda. Enjoy, but watch out for some ‘serious’ language (especially in any other of their videos that might follow on).


[1] Since I wrote this piece a few days ago (it’s now Saturday 30 May), the so-called ‘world beating system’ was launched last Thursday. From all accounts the launch has been a shambles, and indeed there are calls for lockdown to remain in place much longer.

This appeared in today’s The Guardian from one of the ‘tracers’ about the launch of the track and trace system. Damning!


 

How much of a game-changer will Covid-19 be?

Let me take you back more than a decade, to the mid-2000s if memory serves me correctly. The world was facing a threat from the H5N1 strain of avian flu. Although the disease did not materialize as a global pandemic, not having the high level of human-to-human transmission that was initially feared, avian flu has not gone away. Its appearance, however, spurred many governments and organizations to plan for a world under lockdown. Did we learn any lessons? It seems not.

I was working in the Philippines at the time, as Director for Program Planning and Communications at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) based in Los Baños, about 65 km south of Manila. One of my briefs was risk management, and so leading the institute’s response to the H5N1 threat fell to me. I formed a task force that proposed a series of measures to protect staff and their families, and developed health and safety guidelines (with input from local health officials in Los Baños) for self isolation or quarantine, or if access to food and services became limited. These included for example recommendations as simple as keeping an appropriate amount of cash in the home should ATMs cease to function.

The institute also acquired a significant stock of the antiviral medication oseltamivir (sold as Tamiflu), and offered seasonal flu vaccinations to all staff and their closest family members (at a cost in excess of US$200,000). Should anyone vaccinated show flu symptoms then they might well be a candidate for avian flu. Anyway we had contingency plans for a significant period of disruption to everyday life.

How naïve we were!

I have been surprised—shocked even—how quickly life has changed for everyone under the Covid-19 pandemic. The shutdown of economic activity and everyday life has been far more rapid and extensive than anything IRRI’s avian flu task force envisaged.

The question surely on everyone’s lips is when will society return to normal. And perhaps more importantly, what will that ‘new normal’ (a term I dislike) look like?

There’s been much in the press and social media about not wanting to return to how things were. This pandemic has given society an opportunity—if we choose to take it—to reassess our values, and decide which aspects should return to pre-Covid levels, or even at all. And how we should work, for example, with working from home probably here to stay for some businesses (as Twitter has recently announced).

Economic activity has been hit so hard in such a short time that pundits are forecasting an economic downturn far more severe than the Great Depression between 1929 and 1933. The Bank of England has even warned that this could be the worst economic decline for 300 years. That’s some decline!


One of the industries hardest hit is aviation. I don’t think we have ever seen images like this one.

When was the last time you looked up into the sky and saw a contrail? Over the past couple of days I’ve seen more, but in general, they are almost a novelty right now. Nevertheless, airlines are clearly itching to take to the skies once again. But will they and how many?

I think it’s pretty certain that some airlines will not return to their pre-Covid-19 configuration, and some may not return at all or may be absorbed through mergers or acquisitions into airlines that better weather the Covid-19 storm. Some airlines were already on the ropes before the pandemic.

Will the public have the same pre-Covid-19 appetite for air travel, since the virus is not going away soon, and given the social distancing and on-arrival quarantine measures that are being contemplated? This pandemic is already catalyzing a rethink about our love affair with aviation and seeing this as an opportunity to redress the balance in terms of global warming. Only time will tell if we change our aviation habits.


Last night, thinking about how Covid-19 was affecting everybody’s lives, I began wondering when Steph and I might be able to travel again to the USA to visit our elder daughter Hannah and her family (husband Michael, and grandchildren Callum and Zoë) in Minnesota. We stepped off our last flight in October 2019, from Minneapolis-St Paul (MSP) to Birmingham, UK (BHX) via Amsterdam (AMS) on Delta Airlines and KLM.

When the time finally comes to travel again, which airline might fly us to Minnesota? Airlines (and their lovely insignia, branding – see below) that do not survive the Covid-19 lockdown will be consigned to the annals of aviation history. As so many have, I realised, over the 54 years since I took my first flight in the summer of 1966 (from Glasgow to Benbecula, a small island in the Outer Hebrides off the west coast of Scotland). How many unnecessary air miles have I travelled over these past five and half decades? Too many to count, I guess.

Covid-19 will become the final nail in the coffin for some airlines. Several are already looking to reconfigure their fleets, decommissioning large and inefficient aircraft, in the hope that will keep them solvent and able to return to full operations when permitted. Even before the lockdown most airlines had already disposed of their Boeing 747 aircraft. It had a great run nevertheless since it first took to the air on 9 February 1969, and entering into service with its launch airline, Pan Am, on 22 January 1970 from New York to London. I wonder how many of Emirates’ huge fleet of superjumbo A380 aircraft will fare in a post-Covid world?

Pan Am was an airline I knew well. When I was working in Central America during the second half of the 1970s I used to fly the airline frequently (on its Boeing 707 aircraft) through its hub in Guatemala City. Sadly, Pan Am is no more, collapsing in December 1991. There again, quite a number of the airlines I have travelled with are also no more. These airline insignia images were sourced through Wikipedia.

Here’s a list, with an asterisk indicating which are no longer operating (or at least no longer operating under that particular brand), and the date on which they ceased operations.

North America
Aeroméxico
American
Braniff International Airways* 1982
Canadian Pacific Air Lines* 1987
Delta Air Lines
Eastern Air Lines* 1991
Mexicana de Aviación* 2010
National Airlines* 1980
Northwest Airlines* 2010
Pan American* 1991
Southwest Airlines
Trans World Airlines (TWA)* 2001
United Airlines

Central and South America
AeroPerú* 1999
Air Jamaica* 2015
Avianca
Aviateca* 1989
British West Indies Airways* 2006
Copa Airlines
Cruzeiro* 1993
Faucett Perú* 1997
LACSA* 2013
LAN Airlines* 2012
LIAT
SAHSA* 1994
TACA* 2013
Varig* 2006

Africa and Middle East
Air Ivoire* 2011
Air Madagascar
Emirates
Ethiopian Airways
Kenya Airways
LAM Mozambique Airlines
South African Airways
Turkish Airlines

Asia and Oceania
Air China
Cathay Pacific
China Eastern Airlines
China Southern Airlines
Dragonair 2006
Garuda Indonesia
Korean Air
Lao Airlines
Malaysia Airlines
Philippine Airlines
Qantas
Silk Airlines
Singapore Airlines
Thai Airways
Vietnam Airlines

Europe
Air France
Alitalia
Austrian Airlines
BOAC* 1974
British Airways
British Caledonian* 1988
British European Airways* 1974
Brussels Airlines
easyJet
Flybe* 2020
Iberia
KLM
Laker Airways* 1982
LOT Polish Airlines
Lufthansa
Paramount Airways* 1989
Sabena* 2001
Swissair* 2002
TAP Air Portugal

These are the airlines I remember.

They have fared less well in North and Central America, where mergers have brought different airlines together. A good example is the dominant role today in Central America of Avianca (from Colombia) and its Central American subsidiaries, the successors to the national airlines of Costa Rica, Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua.

I’m sure the effects of Covid-19 will see further consolidation in the North American market. But until intercontinental travel is fully restored, airlines like Emirates that have built their business model on hub distribution to multiple destinations using large aircraft (like the A380 and the Boeing 777) are likely to come out of lockdown (recession even) more slowly than smaller and perhaps more nimble airlines that can focus on their domestic markets.


 

Living the life in Costa Rica . . . 1970s style

For almost five years, from April 1976 until the end of November 1980, Steph and I had the great good fortune to live in Costa Rica in Central America (it’s that small country with Nicaragua to the north and Panamá to the south). I was working for the Peru-based International Potato Center (CIP) in its regional program for Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean. How the years have flown by since then.

We lived in Turrialba, a small town around 70 km east of Costa Rica’s capital, San José, on the campus of The Tropical Agricultural Research and Higher Education Center (known by its Spanish acronym as CATIE). Although many features of CATIE’s 900 ha campus have changed since our time there, this recent official video simply highlights its beauty. Surrounded by lush tropical forest, with the Reventazón River snaking around the campus on the east side, it is a haven for the most incredible wildlife (particularly birds), and made it a special place to raise our elder daughter Hannah who was born there in April 1978.

We occupied a single storey, two bedroom residence on the south side of the campus, next door to the International School. Since our time, the school has been expanded, and our house is now part of the school.

Water apples in a San Jose market

Our garden was full of fruit trees, some of which (like lemons and papayas) we planted ourselves. Just beside the house entrance there was a mature and very tall water apple tree (manzana de agua, Syzygium malaccense, Myrtaceae) that produced abundant fruit each year. Loved by the locals, I never really did acquire a taste for them. If taste is the right word. I just found them bland and watery.

Common animal visitors to our garden included white-nosed coatimundis (known locally as pizotes), skunks, the marsupial opossums (which often made themselves noisily at home in the roof of our house), and armadillos. Snakes were also quite common, and fierce; Costa Rica is home to many different snake species. In fact one of the world’s most venomous snakes, the fer-de-lance (terciopelo in Spanish), was quite common on the CATIE campus. Poisonous coral snakes sometimes found their way inside the house and we had to call someone in to rescue them. Not something I was ever up for!

The bird life in Costa Rica is extraordinary. Something to write home about! One year, I took part in the annual Christmas Bird Count (number of different species, and their abundance) organized by the National Audubon Society. We set off in pairs, counting all the birds we observed over a six hour period, in our assigned area of the Turrialba valley. Altogether the spotters observed more than 100 species.

And around our house, on the edges of the Reventazón ravine, and behind my office we saw so many different species. The sunbirds and hummingbirds were always amazing. As were the motmots with their swinging pendulum-like tails, and several migrant species that stopped off in Turrialba on their travels between North and South America. Like the summer tanager (Piranga rubra) below, one of the brightest birds that showed up each year in the garden.

However, two of the most flamboyant—and vocal—birds, seen in abundance high up the trees around the campus were the keel-billed toucan (Ramphastos sulfuratus) and Montezuma’s oropendola (Psarocolius montezuma) [1].

My work took me away frequently from Turrialba, to meetings every couple of weeks or so at the University of Costa Rica or the Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock in San José, to the potato-growing areas on the slopes of the Irazú Volcano, or outside the country to work with colleagues in government potato programs in the region.

Potatoes at Llano Grande, Cartago Province, on the slopes of the Irazu Volcano.

In the 1970s (until just a year or so before we left) the road between Turrialba and Cartago (about half the way to San José) was unpaved, and rather tricky to navigate. Steph and I didn’t travel around the country much, exploring the Caribbean coast for instance near the port city of Limón just once.


On our first visit to Costa Rica in April 1975 (on our way back to the UK from Lima) we drove to the summit of the Irazú Volcano (at over 3400 m or 11,200 ft), looking down into the deep turquoise lake that fills the crater. Since potatoes are grown on the slopes very close to the summit, I would often take visitors to the summit while in the field.

On another occasion, a CATIE entomologist colleague and his wife, Andrew and Heather King, and I ascended to the summit of the Turrialba Volcano.

The Turrialba Volcano from CATIE’s experimental field plots.

It was quiet in those days, just some steaming vents around the large crater into which you could descend.

Inside the Turrialba crater.

Occasionally we felt an earth tremor that was probably associated with rumblings inside the volcano. But Turrialba started to show signs of activity in 2001, and became explosively active after 2014 (video), although it’s quiet again now.


For the first three years, we traveled around in our white VW Brasilia, even taking it south to Boquete, a small town in the heart of the potato-growing region of north Panamá, just south of the border with Costa Rica. The Inter-American Highway heading south crosses the Talamanca Range of mountains. Its highest point, Cerro de la Muerte (Summit of Death) is notorious for catching out careless drivers who pay the ultimate price. The road is winding, and often covered in cloud. [2]


We enjoyed short breaks on the northwest coast in the province of Guanacaste at Playa Tamarindo, more than 350 km from Turrialba, and a journey of more than eight hours. There was a gorgeous stretch of beach, and on both occasions (in March 1977 and 1979) we were the only residents at our chosen hotel. During our second time there, Hannah was a toddler, her first time at the beach. It’s much more developed now, and I’m sure the highway between Liberia (where there’s now an international airport to accommodate all the ‘snowbirds’ from the USA) and Tamarindo beach (almost 80 km) is now paved. Back in the day, it was a haven of tranquillity.

Apart from one evening that is, in March 1979. We’d enjoyed dinner, and getting Hannah ready for bed. We had chosen a suite with two rooms, so Hannah could sleep alone. I was reading her a story, when my foot accidentally tipped over an open bottle of Coca Cola. It was ice cold. I don’t know whether it was the temperature, or how the bottle made contact with the tile floor. The bottle simply exploded, and we found ourselves covered not only in frothing Coca Cola but shattered glass fragments. Everywhere! Hannah’s bed was full of glass. And soaking wet. There was no alternative but to ask the hotel management to quickly change our suite for another.


Besides the Irazú and Turrialba volcanoes, there’s another, Poás, northwest of San José. In 1978/79 when we visited, it was at least a four hour road trip from Turrialba to the summit, even though it was only 116 km or so. Poás has one of the largest craters (in diameter) in the world. When we arrived there it was smothered in cloud and we didn’t see anything!

Steph and Hannah on the summit of Poas.


Closer to Turrialba is the archaeological site of Guayabo, just 20 km north of CATIE but, in the 1970s, the road was completely unpaved, deep mud in places. I have written about our visit to that national monument here.

Exploring Guayabo.


Perhaps the most spectacular (if that’s the right word)—and saddest—trip was the one we made to the Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Reserve in the northwest of Costa Rica, in April 1980. Spectacular, because of the location and wildlife. Saddest, because we heard from home that my father had passed away from a heart attack the very day (29 April) we went into the Reserve. Hannah had just celebrated her second birthday five days earlier.

We hired horses to take us from our guesthouse into the reserve; it was several kilometers, and too far a two-year old to walk.

Although Hannah did decide, once we were in the forest, to explore on foot or ride on Dad’s back as well.

Why is Monteverde so special?

  • Monteverde houses 2.5% of worldwide biodiversity;
  • 10% of its flora is endemic; and
  • 50% of flora and fauna of Costa Rica is in this paradise.

Monteverde is home to some large mammals like jaguar and tapir. We didn’t see them.

We actually went in search of the Resplendent Quetzal (Pharomachrus mocinno). It’s the national bird of Guatemala and also the name of its currency.

But there’s a larger population of quetzals apparently in Costa Rica. And Monteverde is a quetzal hotspot. And did we find it? You bet we did!

If you are lucky to come across a quetzal, as we did, it’s not hard to identify with its brilliant emerald green plumage, bright red breast, and tail streamers (on the males) as long as 26 in (65 cm). This is the best image I could take. But at least we saw this magnificent bird.

Another bird that is heard more than it’s seen in the dense forest is the three-wattled bellbird. Its call is unmistakable. We did however see it flying among the trees. Its plumage is quite distinctive.

Because of my father’s death, we had to cut short our visit to Monteverde and head back to Turrialba the next day, a journey of more than 200 km, and over six hours in those days.


Among its neighbors Costa Rica was a peaceful haven. While these countries had insurgencies (Guatemala) or civil war (Nicaragua), Costa Rica was not affected until the end of the 1970s, when refugees from the Nicaraguan civil war started to spill south over the border. This put pressure on the civil and social authorities, especially in San José, and there were reports that crime was increasing there. We saw, for the first time, armed police on the streets. Costa Rica suffered a civil war in 1948 that lasted just 44 days. In the aftermath, its armed forces were abolished. Investment in social welfare programs and education became the norm in the country, making Costa Rica an enlightened outlier among its neighbors. When we first arrived in Costa Rica traffic police were ‘armed’ with screwdrivers, to remove the licence plates from any vehicle infringing traffic regulations.

Clinica Santa Rita

Being a small town, Turrialba did not have access to many of the extended commercial and health facilities available in San José. I guess we took time off every fortnight or so to do a big shop there, and fit in any other appointments as necessary. Hannah was born in the Hospital Clínica Santa Rita in San José.

While I had a badly sprained ankle attended to and put in a cast at the hospital in Turrialba, I checked myself into a clinic in San José when I had a tonsillectomy (just a few weeks before Hannah was born).

So, on reflection, these were five good years, in a beautiful country. After all, there can’t be much wrong with a country that dedicates 25% of its land area to 29 national parks. Although, back in the day, it was definitely a slower pace of life. In 1976, the population of San José was around 456,000. Today, it’s closer to 1.4 million. One sign of that slower pace were the typical ox-carts used on farms all over the country. I wonder how many are used today on a regular basis?

I’ve been back to Costa Rica just once since we left, in 1997, when I joined a group of scientists from the University of Costa Rica and the National Biodiversity Institute (INBio) to collect wild rices in the Palo Verde National Park in Guanacaste.

Collecting seeds of Oryza latifolia with Alejandro Zamora.

Will I go back to Costa Rica? Perhaps. It would be great to see my old CIP team with whom I’m still in contact. But since there are so many other places I would like explore (Covid-19 permitting), it may be just a pipe dream. So many good memories.


[1] This YouTube video was actually filmed in Guatemala. However, it’s the same species as in Costa Rica, and I chose this particular video because it shows to perfection the display and call of Montezuma’s oropendola.

[2] Just one species of wild potatoes is found in Costa Rica: Solanum oxycarpum Schiede. We came across this species on the Cerro de la Muerte.

What’s on your mind?

Isn’t it strange how random memories come to the surface when you least expect them. Especially when you wake in the middle of the night, and your mind seems to race away.

I’ve not been sleeping particularly well in recent weeks. I’m not sure if this is due to Covid-19 anxiety or what. Whatever the cause, it’s increasingly annoying to wake up around 1 or 2 am, then lying awake for an hour or so, while your thoughts are whirling round and round. That’s what happened a couple of nights ago.

All of a sudden I found myself thinking about the cinemas in the town where I grew up. Leek, in North Staffordshire. My family had moved there (from Congleton in Cheshire, 12 miles away) in April 1956 when I was seven.

I have no idea what sparked these memories, because none of this had crossed my mind before I went to bed. In fact, I can’t remember ever thinking about this topic. And this is all the more strange because I have very little interest in film. I watch the occasional movie on TV (I like a good Western), but I can’t remember the last time I went to the cinema. Might be 35 years ago when my daughters were small.


Anyway, let me fill in some details. In 1956, Leek boasted three cinemas: The Grand Theatre (on the corner of High St and Field St); The Palace (at the end of High St on the corner with Salisbury St); and The Majestic (on the corner of Union St and Horton St, off Stockwell St). Leek doesn’t have any stand-alone cinema today. [1]

The Majestic was destroyed in a fire around 1961. Part of the Buxton and Leek College has since been built on that site. The Grand closed its doors in 1986 and was demolished and replaced by housing in 2003. The Palace (later renamed the Regal) converted to a bingo club in 1963. After the bingo club was closed down in 1987, it became a Kingdom Hall of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. It was also demolished in 2003 and replaced, like The Grand, by housing.

The photos below show (clockwise from top left): an aerial view of High St with The Grand in the center (you can just see the curved roof of The Palace on the right); The Grand Theatre; The Palace; and The Majestic after the fire in 1961. These photos were originally posted by members [2] of the Facebook group, The History & Heritage of Leek and the Staffordshire Moorlands.

The Grand also had a stage, and each year a local amateur operatic society, The Leekensians, staged a production there, generally one of the Gilbert and Sullivan comic operas.

The Majestic was somewhat of a ‘fleapit’, rather run down. I don’t think it was much of a loss to the town when it burnt down.


Anyway, there I was, still lying awake around 3 am or so, wondering why on earth memories of cinemas back in the day were coming to the surface. I haven’t lived in Leek since October 1967 when I moved away to university—apart from short visits to my parents.

To complicate my ‘insomnia’, I then wondered what ‘memorable’ films I had seen at each cinema. And, as if by magic, the titles of three films spontaneously popped into my mind, films that were released in 1956 and 1957: High Society, Old Yeller, and The Mountain. While Old Yeller was a ‘children’s film’, I’m not so sure why I was allowed to see the other two.

No wonder I wasn’t able to sleep. The films are quite different genres (musical, family adventure, action), none regarded as blockbusters in their heyday. But there they were, emerging from the deep recesses of my mind.


Cole Porter in the 1930s

I watched High Society, starring Bing Crosby, Grace Kelly, and Frank Sinatra at The Grand. It is a romantic musical comedy, and was directed by Charles Walters. This was the last film that Grace Kelly made before she gave up this kind of stardom and married Prince Rainier of Monaco.

The film features many classic songs penned by Cole Porter, but among the most memorable are Who Wants To Be A Millionaire performed by Sinatra and Celeste Holm, and the duet between Crosby and Sinatra, Well, Did You Evah!, (originally written by Porter in 1939 for another musical, and adapted for High Society). The film also featured Louis ‘Satchmo’ Armstrong and his Band (as themselves).

High Society was a commercial success, and is revived on TV from time to time. But I’ve never seen the next two films again since the 1950s.


Old Yeller, a ‘family picture’ directed by Robert Stevenson, was released in 1957 by the Walt Disney studio. It starred Fess Parker (of the Davy Crockett miniseries fame) Dorothy McGuire, and a young Tommy Kirk. The film is based on the 1956 book by Fred Gipson. I watched this at The Palace, with my elder brother Ed, and I think with my Mum and Dad.

The film tells the tale ‘about a boy [Travis] and a stray dog in post-Civil War Texas.’ The dog, Old Yeller, is a labrador-retriever cross.

The bond is strong between Travis and the dog that, in the course of the film, is attacked by feral hogs while out hunting. Old Yeller develops rabies, becoming aggressive. Towards the end of the film, Travis takes it upon himself to shoot his dog. You can watch that scene on YouTube.

Quite a powerful message for a young audience. Typical Disney.

In 2019, the film was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.


Now the third film, The Mountain (directed by Edward Dmytryk) is quite dark. I know I went to watch it with my mother at The Majestic. But on reflection it probably wasn’t altogether suitable for a boy of eight or nine.

Set in the french Alps and starring Spencer Tracy and a young Robert Wagner, The Mountain was based on the novel La neige en deuil, a 1952 French novel by Henri Troyat. This novel was inspired by the crash of an Air India flight in 1950.

Spencer Tracy (in 1948) and Robert Wagner (in 1967).

A plane crashes on Mont Blanc and is reputed to be carrying gold bullion. Christopher Teller (Wagner) persuades his reluctant elder brother and skilled mountaineer, Zachary (played by Tracy) to take him to the crash site so he can rob the dead passengers.

When they arrive at the crash site, they encounter one of the passengers, a young Indian woman, still alive in the wrecked fuselage. Despite greedy Christopher’s insistence that they should leave her to die, Zachary prevails and they begin the long climb back down the mountain with the injured woman. Christopher attempts to cross a snow bridge (against the advice of his experienced brother), and falls to his death.

For some reason this film has always had a ‘hold’ on me. The moment when Zachary and Christopher discover the injured woman (probably the first time I’d seen an Indian woman) has stayed with me. It’s strange how these things can have an impact although not dramatic.

The Mountain was not a box office success. Maybe it was the implausibility of Tracy playing an older brother to Wagner. He was, in fact, thirty years old than Wagner.


Since this bout of ‘cinema insomnia’ I’ve actually been sleeping somewhat better. Having brought these remote memories to the surface they are no longer niggling away in the background, so to speak. I wonder if others have this same problem?


[1] Local Leek historian Neil Collingwood recently published a couple of articles about the town’s cinemas in the town’s Post & Times newspaper, and he has kindly shared them with me here.

[2] Matthew Adams; Jason Brown; Neil Collingwood (x3)

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?

 

Potatoes or rice?

I graduated in July 1970 from the University of Southampton (a university on England’s south coast) with a BSc Hons degree in botany and geography. ‘Environmental botany’ actually, whatever that meant. The powers that be changed the degree title half way through my final (i.e. senior) year.

Anyway, there I was with my degree, and not sure what the future held in store. It was however the beginning of a fruitful 40 year career in international agricultural research and academia at three institutions over three continents, in a number of roles: research scientist, principal investigator (PI), program leader, teacher, and senior research manager, working primarily on potatoes (Solanum tuberosum) and rice (Oryza sativa), with diversions into some legume species such as the grasspea, an edible form of Lathyrus.

Potatoes on the lower slopes of the Irazu volcano in Costa Rica, and rice in Bhutan

I spent the 1970s in South and Central America with the International Potato Center (CIP), the 1980s at the University of Birmingham as a Lecturer in the School of Biological Sciences (Plant Biology), and almost 19 years from July 1991 (until my retirement on 30 April 2010) at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines¹.

I divided my research time during those 40 years more or less equally between potatoes and rice (not counting the legume ‘diversions’), and over a range of disciplines: biosystematics and pre-breeding, genetic conservation, crop agronomy and production, plant pathology, plant breeding, and biotechnology. I was a bit of a ‘jack-of-all-trades’, getting involved when and where needs must.

However, I haven’t been a ‘hands-on’ researcher since the late 1970s. At both Birmingham and IRRI, I had active research teams, with some working towards their MSc or PhD, others as full time researchers. You can see our research output over many years in this list of publications.

Richard Sawyer

Very early on in my career I became involved in research management at one level or another. Having completed my PhD at Birmingham in December 1975 (and just turned 27), CIP’s Director General Richard Sawyer asked me to set up a research program in Costa Rica. I moved there in April 1976 and stayed there until November 1980.


In these Covid-19 lockdown days, I’m having ample time to reflect on times past. And today, 30 April, it’s exactly 10 years since I retired.

Just recently there was a Twitter exchange between some of my friends about the focus of their research, and the species they had most enjoyed working on.

And that got me thinking. If I had to choose between potatoes and rice, which one would it be? A hard decision. Even harder, perhaps, is the role I most enjoyed (or gave me the most satisfaction) or, from another perspective, in which I felt I’d accomplished most. I’m not even going to hazard a comparison between living and working in Peru (and Costa Rica) versus the Philippines. However, Peru has the majesty of its mountain landscapes and its incredible cultural history and archaeological record (notwithstanding I’d had an ambition from a small boy to visit Peru one day). Costa Rica has its incredible natural world, a real biodiversity hotspot, especially for the brilliant bird life. And the Philippines I’ll always remember for all wonderful, smiling faces of hard-working Filipinos.

And the scuba diving, of course.

Anyway, back to potatoes and rice. Both are vitally important for world food security. The potato is, by far, the world’s most important ‘root’ crop (it’s actually a tuber, a modified underground stem), by tonnage at least, and grown worldwide. Rice is the world’s most important crop. Period! Most rice is grown and consumed in Asia. It feeds more people on a daily basis, half the world’s population, than any other staple. Nothing comes close, except wheat or maize perhaps, but much of those grains is processed into other products (bread and pasta) or fed to animals. Rice is consumed directly as the grain.


Just 24 when I joined CIP as a taxonomist in January 1973, one of my main responsibilities was to collect potato varieties in various parts of the Peruvian Andes to add to the growing germplasm collection of native varieties and wild species. I made three trips during my three years in Peru: in May 1973 to the departments of Ancash and La Libertad (with my colleague, Zósimo Huamán); in May 1974 to Cajamarca (accompanied by my driver Octavio); and in January/February 1974 to Cuyo-Cuyo in Puno and near Cuzco, with University of St Andrews lecturer, Dr Peter Gibbs.

Top: with Octavio in Cajamarca, checking potato varieties with a farmer. Bottom: ready for the field, near Cuzco.

My own biosystematics/pre-breeding PhD research on potatoes looked at the breeding relationships between cultivated forms with different chromosome numbers (multiples of 12) that don’t naturally intercross freely, as well as diversity within one form with 36 chromosomes, Solanum x chaucha. In the image below, some of that diversity is shown, as well as examples of how we made crosses (pollinations) between different varieties, using the so-called ‘cut stem method’ in bottles.

Several PhD students of mine at Birmingham studied resistance to pests and diseases in the myriad of more than 100 wild species of potato that are found from the southern USA to southern Chile. We even looked at the possibility of protoplast fusion (essentially fusion of ‘naked’ cells) between different species, but not successfully.

I developed a range of biosystematics projects when taking over leadership of the International Rice Genebank at IRRI, publishing extensively about the relationships among the handful (about 20 or so) wild rice species and cultivated rice. One of the genebank staff, Elizabeth Ma. ‘Yvette’ Naredo (pointing in the image below) completed her MS degree under my supervision.

Although this research had a ‘taxonomic’ focus in one sense (figuring out the limits of species to one another), it also had the practical focus of demonstrating how easily species might be used in plant breeding, according to their breeding relationships, based on the genepool concept of Harlan and de Wet, 1971 [1], illustrated diagrammatically below.


When I transferred to Costa Rica in 1976, I was asked to look into the possibility of growing potatoes under hot, humid conditions. At that time CIP was looking to expand potato production into areas and regions not normally associated with potato cultivation. One of the things I did learn was how to grow a crop of potatoes.

I was based in Turrialba (at the regional institute CATIE), at around 650 masl, with an average temperature of around 23°C (as high as 30°C and never much lower than about 15°C; annual rainfall averages more than 2800 mm). Although we did identify several varieties that could thrive under these conditions, particularly during the cooler months of the year, we actually faced a more insidious problem, and one that kept me busy throughout my time in Costa Rica.

Shortly after we planted the first field trials on CATIE’s experiment station, we noticed that some plants were showing signs of wilting but we didn’t know the cause.

With my research assistant Jorge Aguilar checking on wilted plants in one of the field trials.

Luis Carlos González

Fortunately, I established a very good relationship with Dr Luis Carlos González Umaña, a plant pathologist in the University of Costa Rica, who quickly identified the culprit: a bacterium then known as Pseudomonas solanacearum (now Ralstonia solanacearum) that causes the disease known as bacterial wilt.

I spent over three years looking into several ways of controlling bacterial wilt that affects potato production in many parts of the world. An account of that work was one of the first posts I published in this blog way back in 2012.

The other aspect of potato production which gave me great satisfaction is the work that my colleague and dear friend Jim Bryan and I did on rapid multiplication systems for seed potatoes.

Being a vegetatively-propagated crop, potatoes are affected by many diseases. Beginning with healthy stock is essential. The multiplication rate with potatoes is low compared to crops that reproduce through seeds, like rice and wheat. In order to bulk up varieties quickly, we developed a set of multiplication techniques that have revolutionised potato seed production systems ever since around the world.

AS CIP’s Regional Representative for Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean (known as CIP’s Region II), I also contributed to various potato production training courses held each year in Mexico. But one of our signature achievements was the launch of a six nation research network or consortium in 1978, known as PRECODEPA (Programa REgional COoperativo DE PApa), one of the first among the CGIAR centers. It was funded by the Swiss Government.

Shortly after I left Costa Rica in November 1980, heading back to Lima (and unsure where my next posting would be) PRECODEPA was well-established, and leadership was assumed by the head of one of the national potato program members of the network. PRECODEPA expanded to include more countries in the region (in Spanish, French, and English), and was supported continually by the Swiss for more than 25 years. I have written here about how PRECODEPA was founded and what it achieved in the early years.

I resigned from CIP in March 1981 and returned to the UK, spending a decade teaching at the University of Birmingham.


Did I enjoy my time at Birmingham? I have mixed feelings.

I had quite a heavy teaching load, and took on several administrative roles, becoming Chair of the Biological Sciences Second Year Common Course (to which I contributed a module of about six lectures on agricultural ecosystems). I had no first teaching commitments whatsoever, thank goodness. I taught a second year module with my colleague Richard Lester on flowering plant taxonomy, contributing lectures about understanding species relationships through experimentation.

Brian Ford-Lloyd

With my close friend and colleague Dr Brian Ford-Lloyd (later Professor), I taught a final year module on plant genetic resources, the most enjoyable component of my undergraduate teaching.

One aspect of my undergraduate responsibilities that I really did enjoy (and took seriously, I believe—and recently confirmed by a former tutee!) was the role of personal tutor to 1st, 2nd and 3rd year students. I would meet with them about once a week to discuss their work, give advice, set assignments, and generally be a sounding board for any issues they wanted to raise with me. My door was always open.

Most of my teaching—on crop diversity and evolution, germplasm collecting, agricultural systems, among others—was a contribution to the one year (and international) MSc Course on Conservation and Utilization of Plant Genetic Resources on which I had studied a decade earlier. In my travels around the world after I joined IRRI in 1991, I would often bump into my former students, and several also contributed to a major rice biodiversity project that I managed for five years from 1995. I’m still in contact with some of those students, some of whom have found me through this blog. And I’m still in contact with two of my classmates from 1970-71.

Research on potatoes during the 1980s at Birmingham was not straightforward. On the one hand I would have liked to continue the work on wild species that had been the focus of Professor Jack Hawkes’ research over many decades.

With Jack Hawkes, collecting Solanum multidissectum in the central Andes north of Lima in early 1981 just before I left CIP to return to the UK. This was the only time I collected with Hawkes. What knowledge he had!

He had built up an important collection of wild species that he collected throughout the Americas. I was unable to attract much funding to support any research projects. It wasn’t a research council priority. Furthermore, there were restrictions on how we could grow these species, because of strict quarantine regulations. In the end I decided that the Hawkes Collection would be better housed in Scotland at the Commonwealth Potato Collection (or CPC, that had been set up after the Empire Potato Collecting Expedition in 1938-39 in which Jack participated). In 1987, the Hawkes Collection was acquired by the CPC and remains there to this day.

Dave Downing was the department technician who looked after the potato collection at Birmingham. He did a great job coaxing many different species to flower.

Having said that, one MSc student, Susan Juned, investigated morphological and enzyme diversity in the wild species Solanum chacoense. After graduating Susan joined another project on potato somaclones that was managed by myself and Brian Ford-Lloyd (see below). Another student, Ian Gubb, continued our work on the lack of enzymic blackening in Solanum hjertingii, a species from Mexico, in collaboration with the Food Research Institute in Norwich, where he grew his research materials under special quarantine licence. A couple of Peruvian students completed their degrees while working at CIP, so I had the opportunity of visiting CIP a couple of times while each was doing field work, and renew my contacts with former colleagues. In 1988, I was asked by CIP to join a panel for a three week review of a major seed production project at several locations around Peru.

With funding of the UK’s Overseas Development Administration (ODA, or whatever it was then), and now the Department for International Development (DFID), and in collaboration with the Plant Breeding Institute (PBI) in Cambridge and CIP, in 1983/84 we began an ambitious (and ultimately unsuccessful) project on true potato seed (TPS) using single seed descent (SSD) in diploid potatoes (having 24 chromosomes). Because of the potato quarantine situation at Birmingham, we established this TPS project at PBI, and over the first three years made sufficient progress for ODA to renew our grant for a second three year period.

We hit two snags, one biological, the other administrative/financial that led to us closing the project after five years. On reflection I also regret hiring the researcher we did. I’ve not had the same recruitment problem since.

Working with diploid potatoes was always going to be a challenge. They are self incompatible, meaning that the pollen from a flower ‘cannot’ fertilize the same flower. Nowadays mutant forms have been developed that overcome this incompatibility and it would be possible to undertake SSD as we envisaged. Eventually we hit a biological brick wall, and we decided the effort to pursue our goal would take more resources than we could muster. In addition, the PBI was privatized in 1987 and we had to relocate the project to Birmingham (another reason for handing over the Hawkes Collection to the CPC). We lost valuable research impetus in that move, building new facilities and the like. I think it was the right decision to pull the plug when we did, admit our lack of success, and move on.

We wrote about the philosophy and aims of this TPS project in 1984 [2], but I don’t have a copy of that publication. Later, in 1987, I wrote this review of TPS breeding [3].

Susan Juned

As I mentioned above, Brian Ford-Lloyd and I received a commercial grant to look into producing tissue-culture induced variants, or somaclones, of the crisping potato variety Record with reduced low temperature sweetening that leads to ‘blackened’ crisps (or chips in the USA) on frying. We hired Susan Juned as the researcher, and she eventually received her PhD in 1994 for this work. Since we kept the identity of each separate Record tuber from the outset of the project, over 150 tubers, and all the somaclone lines derived from each, we also showed that there were consequences for potato seed production and maintenance of healthy stocks as tissue cultures. We published that work in 1991. We also produced a few promising lines of Record for our commercial sponsor.

One funny aspect to this project is that we made it on to Page 3 of the tabloid newspaper The Sun, notorious in those days for a daily image of a well-endowed and naked young lady. Some journalist or other picked up a short research note in a university bulletin, and published an extremely short paragraph at the bottom of Page 3 (Crunch time for boffins) as if our project did not have a serious objective. In fact, I was even invited to go on the BBC breakfast show before I explained that the project had a serious objective. We weren’t just investigating ‘black bits in crisp packets’.

Brian and I (with a colleague, Martin Parry, in the Department of Geography) organized a workshop on climate change in 1989, when there was still a great deal of skepticism. We published a book in 1990 from that meeting (and followed up in 2013 with another).

Despite some successes while at Birmingham, and about to be promoted to Senior Lecturer, I had started to become disillusioned with academic life by the end of the 1980s, and began to look for new opportunities. That’s when I heard about a new position at IRRI in the Philippines: Head of the newly-established Genetic Resources Center, with responsibility for the world renowned and largest international rice genebank. I applied. The rest is history,


Klaus Lampe

I was appointed by Director General Klaus Lampe even though I’d never actually run a genebank before. Taking on a genebank as prestigious as the International Rice Genebank was rather daunting. But help was on the way.

I knew I had a good team of staff. All they needed was better direction to run a genebank efficiently, and bring the genebank’s operations up to a higher standard.

Staff of the International Rice Genebank on a visit to PhilRice in 1996.

There was hardly an aspect of the operations that we didn’t overhaul. Not that I had the genebank team on my side from the outset. It took a few months for them to appreciate that my vision for the genebank was viable. Once on board, they took ownership of and responsibility for the individual operations while I kept an overview of the genebank’s operation as a whole.

With Pola de Guzman inside the Active Collection store room at +4C. Pola was my right hand in the genebank, and I asked her to take on the role of genebank manager, a position she holds to this day.

I’ve written extensively in this blog about the genebank and genetic resources of rice, and in this post I gave an overview of what we achieved.

You can find more detailed stories of the issues we faced with data management and germplasm characterization, or seed conservation and regeneration (in collaboration with my good friend Professor Richard Ellis of the University of Reading). We also set about making sure that germplasm from around Asia (and Africa and the Americas) was safe in genebanks and duplicated in the International Rice Genebank. We embarked on an ambitious five year project (funded by the Swiss government) to collect rice varieties mainly (and some wild samples as well), thereby increasing the size of the genebank collection by more than 25% to around 100,000 samples or accessions. The work in Laos was particularly productive.

My colleague, Dr Seepana Appa Rao (left) and Lao colleagues interviewing a farmer in Khammouane Province about the rice varieties she was growing.

We did a lot of training in data management and germplasm collecting, and successfully studied how farmers manage rice varieties (for in situ or on farm conservation) in the Philippines, Vietnam, and India.

One of IRRI’s main donors is the UK government through DFID. In the early 1990s, not long after I joined IRRI, DFID launched a new initiative known as ‘Holdback’ through which some of the funding that would, under normal circumstances, have gone directly to IRRI and its sister CGIAR centers was held back to encourage collaboration between dneters and scientists in the UK.

Whenever I returned on annual home leave, I would spend some time in the lab at Birmingham. John Newbury is on the far left, Parminder Virk is third from left, and Brian Ford-Lloyd on the right (next to me). One of my GRC staff, the late Amy Juliano spent a couple of months at Birmingham learning new molecular techniques. She is on the front row, fourth from right.

With my former colleagues at the University of Birmingham (Brian Ford-Lloyd, Dr John  Newbury, and Dr Parminder Virk) and a group at the John Innes Centre in Norwich (the late Professor Mike Gale and Dr Glenn Bryan) we set about investigating how molecular markers (somewhat in their infancy back in the day) could be used describe diversity in the rice collection or identify duplicate accessions.

Not only was this successful, but we published some of the first research in plants showing the predictive value of molecular markers for quantitative traits. Dismissed at the time by some in the scientific community, the study of  associations between molecular markers and traits is now mainstream.

In January 1993, I was elected Chair while attending my first meeting of the Inter-Center Working Group on Genetic Resources (ICWG-GR) in Ethiopia (my first foray into Africa), a forum bringing expertise in genetic conservation together among the CGIAR centers.

ICWG-GR meeting held at ILCA in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia in January 1993.

Over the next three years while I was Chair, the ICWG-GR managed a review of genetic resources in the CGIAR, and a review of center genebanks. We also set up the System-Wide Genetic Resources Program, that has now become the Genebank Platform.


I never expected to remain at IRRI as long as I did, almost nineteen years. I thought maybe ten years at most, and towards the end of the 1990s I began to look around for other opportunities.

Then, in early 2001, my career took another course, and I left genetic resources behind, so to speak, and moved into senior management at IRRI as Director for Program Planning and Coordination (later Communications, DPPC). And I stayed in that role until retiring from the institute ten years ago.

Top: after our Christmas lunch together at Antonio’s restaurant in Tagaytay, one of the best in the Philippines. To my left are: Sol, Eric, Corints, Vel, and Zeny. Below: this was my last day at IRRI, with Eric, Zeny, Corints, Vel, and Yeyet (who replaced Sol in 2008).

Ron Cantrell

The Director General, Ron Cantrell, asked me to beef up IRRI’s resource mobilization and project management. IRRI’s reputation with its donors had slipped. It wasn’t reporting adequately, or on time, on the various projects funded at the institute. Furthermore, management was not sure just what projects were being funded, by which donor, for what period, and what commitments had been set at the beginning of each. What an indictment!

I wrote about how DPPC came into being in this blog post. One of the first tasks was to align information about projects across the institute, particularly with the Finance Office. It wasn’t rocket science. We just gave every project (from concept paper to completion) a unique ID that had to be used by everyone. We also developed a corporate brand for our project reporting so that any donor could immediately recognise a report from IRRI.

So we set about developing a comprehensive project management system, restoring IRRI’s reputation in less than a year, and helping to increase the annual budget to around US$60 million. We also took on a role in risk management, performance appraisal, and the development of IRRI’s Medium Term Plans and its Strategy.

Bob Zeigler

Then under Ron’s successor, Bob Zeigler, DPPC went from strength to strength. Looking back on it, I think those nine years in DPPC were the most productive and satisfying of my whole career. In that senior management role I’d finally found my niche. There’s no doubt that the success of DPPC was due to the great team I brought together, particularly Corinta who I plucked out of the research program where she was working as a soil chemist.

Around 2005, after Bob became the DG, I also took on line management responsibility for a number of support units: Communication and Publications Services (CPS), Library and Documentation Services (LDS), Information Technology Service (ITS), and the Development Office (DO). Corinta took over day-to-day management of IRRI’s project portfolio.

With my unit heads, L-R: Gene Hettel (CPS), Mila Ramos (LDS), Marco van den Berg (ITS), Duncan Macintosh (DO), and Corinta Guerta (DPPC).


So, ten years on, what memories I have to keep my mind ticking over during these quiet days. When I began this post (which has turned out much longer than I ever anticipated) my aim was to decide between potatoes and rice. Having worked my way through forty years of wonderful experiences, I find I cannot choose one over the other. There’s no doubt however that I made a greater contribution to research and development during my rice days.

Nevertheless, I can’t help thinking about my South American potato days with great affection, and knowing that, given the chance, I’d be back up in the Andes at a moment’s notice. Potatoes are part of me, in a way that rice never became.

Farmer varieties of potatoes commonly found throughout the Andes of Peru.


Everyone needs good mentors. I hope I was a good mentor to the folks who worked with me. I was fortunate to have had great mentors. I’ve already mentioned a number of the people who had an influence on my career.

I can’t finish this overview of my forty years in international agriculture and academia without mentioning five others: Joe Smartt (University of Southampton); Trevor Williams (University of Birmingham); Roger Rowe (CIP); John Niederhauser (1990 World Food Prize Laureate); and Ken Brown (CIP)

L-R: Joe Smartt, Trevor Williams, Roger Rowe, and John Niederhauser.

  • Joe, a lecturer in genetics, encouraged me to apply for the MSc Course at Birmingham in early 1970. I guess without his encouragement (and Jack Hawkes accepting me on to the course) I never would have embarked on a career in genetic conservation and international agriculture. I kept in regular touch with Joe until he passed away in 2013.
  • At Birmingham, Trevor supervised my MSc dissertation on lentils. He was an inspirational teacher who went on to become the Director General of the International Board for Plant Genetic Resources (IBPGR) in Rome. The last time I spoke with Trevor was in 2012 when he phoned me one evening to congratulate me on being awarded an OBE. He passed away in 2015.
  • Roger joined CIP in July 1973 as Head of the Breeding and Genetics Department, from the USDA Potato Collection in Wisconsin. He was my first boss in the CGIAR, and I learnt a lot from him about research and project management. We are still in touch.
  • John was an eminent plant pathologist whose work on late blight of potatoes in Mexico led to important discoveries about the pathogen and the nature of resistance in wild potato species. John and I worked closely from 1978 to set up PRECODEPA. He had one of the sharpest (and wittiest) minds I’ve come across. John passed away in 2005.
  • Ken Brown

    Ken was a fantastic person to work with—he knew just how to manage people, was very supportive, and the last thing he ever tried to do was micromanage other people’s work. I learnt a great deal about program and people management from him.


[1] Harlan, JR and JMJ de Wet, 1971. Toward a rational classification of cultivated plants. Taxon 20, 509-517.

[2] Jackson, MT. L Taylor and AJ Thomson 1985. Inbreeding and true potato seed production. In: Report of a Planning Conference on Innovative Methods for Propagating Potatoes, held at Lima, Peru, December 10-14,1984, pp. 169-79.

[3] Jackson, MT, 1987. Breeding strategies for true potato seed. In: GJ Jellis & DE Richardson (eds), The Production of New Potato Varieties: Technological Advances. Cambridge University Press, pp. 248-261.