That’s not a fair question . . .

I worked overseas for much of my career—just over 27 years—in three countries. For those who are new to my blog, I’m from the UK, and I worked in agricultural research (on potatoes and rice) in Peru, Costa Rica, and the Philippines, besides spending a decade in the UK in between teaching plant sciences at the University of Birmingham.

I have been asked, from time to time, which of the three countries Steph and I enjoyed the most. That’s not really a fair question.

Each country was a totally different experience, reflecting to a large extent that stage of our lives. We were young and newly-married in Peru in the early 1970s, our first time abroad. We raised our elder daughter Hannah in Costa Rica in the late 1970s, and were already in our early 40s when we moved to the Philippines in 1991, with two growing daughters: Hannah was 13, and Philippa just nine (born in Worcestershire in the UK). I got to learn a second language, Spanish, and became quite fluent by the time we left the Americas in 1981.

Now that I’ve been retired for over a decade, it’s a good opportunity to reflect on those years spent abroad.


laurent_amerique_du_sud_politiqueI won’t deny that I have a particular soft-spot for Peru. It was a country I’d wanted to visit since I was a small boy, when I often spent hours poring over maps of South America, imagining what those distant countries and cities would be like to visit. 

I don’t know why I was particularly drawn to the map of South America. I guess it’s the iconic shape for one thing. But, when I first moved up to high school in 1960, just before my 12th birthday, our geography lessons focused on several South American countries. I wrote to a number of embassies in London asking for information packs, and was rewarded over the following weeks with a host of brochures, maps, and the like.

Anyway, to cut a long story short (I have posted several stories elsewhere about my early days in Lima), I was offered, in February 1971, the opportunity to work in Peru, initially for just a year from September that year. Things didn’t go to plan, and it wasn’t until January 1973 that I actually landed in Lima, which became my home for the next three years.

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13 October 1973

Steph joined me in July, and we married the following October in the Miraflores suburb where we rented an apartment. Working at the International Potato Center (known as CIP through its Spanish acronym) we both traveled frequently to the center’s research station in Huancayo, an important town in the central Andes of Peru, in the broad and fertile Mantaro valley, a 300 km journey that often took six hours or more. The highway, the Carretera Central, crossed the Andes at a highest point of 4,843 metres (15,890 ft) at Ticlio (around Km 120).

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In my own work collecting indigenous varieties of potatoes, I traveled to many parts of northern Peru, in the Departments of Ancash, La Libertad, and Cajamarca in 1973 and 1974.

And to the south around Lake Titicaca in the Department of Puno and near Cuzco, where I continued my research towards a PhD.

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Collecting potato flower buds for chromosome counts, from a farmer’s field near Cuzco, in February 1974.

Steph and I also took great pleasure in taking our Volkswagen deep into the mountains, and on long trips down the coast to Arequipa and up to Lake Titicaca. And north to the Callejón de Huaylas in Ancash, below Peru’s highest mountain Huascarán, and on to Cajamarca further north.

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Looking north to the Callejon de Huaylas, and Nevado Huascarán, Peru’s highest mountain.

I visited Cuzco and Machu Picchu just a week after I arrived in Peru, and had great pleasure taking Steph there in December the same year. In fact we delayed our honeymoon so we could book a stay at the tourist hotel at Machu Picchu (a hotel that closed many years ago).

Enjoying Machu Picchu in December 1973.

Our years in Lima were special. As I said, it was the first time Steph and I had worked abroad. CIP was a young organization, founded just over a year before I joined. There was a small group of staff, pioneers in a way, and there weren’t the layers of bureaucracy and procedures that bedevil much larger and longer-established organizations.

Peru is a stunningly beautiful country, and lived up to all my expectations. I was not disappointed. It had everything: culture, history, archaeology, landscapes. And wonderful food. You name it, Peru had it. 


But, after three years, it was time to move on, and that’s when we began a new chapter in Costa Rica from April 1976 a new chapter. Professionally, for me it was a significant move. I’d turned 27 a few months earlier. CIP’s Director General Richard Sawyer asked me to set up a research program to adapt potatoes to hot and humid conditions, so-called ‘tropical potatoes’. I was on my own; I had to rely on my own resources to a large extent. It was a steep learning curve, but so worthwhile and stood me in good stead for the rest of my career.

We remained in Costa Rica for almost five years, based at a regional agricultural research institute, CATIE, in the small town of Turrialba, some 70 km east of San José, the capital city.

The CATIE administration building

We enjoyed trips to the volcanoes nearby: Turrialba, Irazú, and Poás, to the beaches of northwest Costa Rica, just south of the frontier with Nicaragua on the Guanacaste Peninsula.  Also to the north of Panama where potatoes were the main crop in the volcanic region just south of the international border.

Hannah was born in Costa Rica in April 1978. It was a great place to raise a small child. In 1980 we took her the Monteverde National Biological Reserve in the northwest of the country (and many hours drive from Turrialba) in search of the Resplendent Quetzal.

Professionally, I learnt a lot about potatoes as a crop, about the management of potato diseases, and seed production, and contributed to setting up one of the first multi-country programs among any of the CGIAR centers. PRECODEPA as it was known set the standard for multilateral cooperation between national programs for many years to come.

I had a great team, albeit small, working with me: Jorge, Moisés, and Leda, and I wrote about them and catching up again after 40 years in a recent blog post.

Costa Rica is such a beautiful, green country, a tropical paradise, with about 25% of its land area set aside for national parks and the like. It’s one of the most biodiverse countries in the world, and I spent many hours sitting on the doorstep at home, sipping a super ice-cold beer (Cerveza Tropical was my beverage of choice) watching the multitude of birds that visited our garden. On one Christmas bird survey in the Turrialba valley, me and my birding partner spotted around 100 different species in half a day! And mammals as well: skunks, armadillos, and coatimundi among those found in the garden, not to mention some of the world’s most poisonous snakes.

After almost five years there, it was time to move on, with the expectation of a posting with CIP to the Philippines. Instead we returned to the UK in 1981, and didn’t actually make it to the Philippines until a decade later. An archipelago of more than 7600 islands; the Land of Smiles.


By the end of the 1980s I was much less enamored of academic life, and had begun to look out for new opportunities. One particularly interesting one came along in September 1990 when I applied for the position of Head of the Genetic Resources Center (GRC) at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in Los Baños, about 65 km south of Manila.

Having been interviewed at the beginning of January 1991, I was offered the position a couple of weeks later, and I moved to the Philippines (without the family) on 1 July that year. Steph and the girls joined me just after Christmas.

We had a comfortable single storey residence at IRRI Staff Housing, a gated community that nestled under a dormant volcano, Mt Makiling.

Mt Makiling, from the IRRI research farm.

The IRRI research center was about ten minutes from home, and an institute bus took us to and fro over the course of the day. Staff Housing had tennis courts and a swimming pool, as well as basketball and volleyball courts, all in regular use by my colleagues and their families. Lilia was our full-time, live-in helper for almost the whole 19 years we lived in the Philippines.

In the early 1990s there was also a large group of children the same age as Hannah and Philippa, and Staff Housing was a safe environment for them to play, although I have since learned that they all got up to some daring escapades at night. Like climbing the water tower!

Steph kept herself busy with her daily swim, and a range of hobbies, including her small orchid collection, and beading (one hobby that has grown and grown!) I had a busy time at work, and less time for leisure at home. I enjoyed a barbecue whenever we could, and for many years I kept a small aviary of budgerigars. Just after I arrived in the Philippines I adopted a Siamese cat, Pusa, who finally succumbed to the ripe old age of 20 in 1998, when we acquired another Siamese, Tara. I wrote about our feline companions in this post.

But one thing Steph and I shared in common, though not to the same degree in one respect, was our love of the beach and sea. Before moving to the Philippines, I had never even snorkeled. That all changed in February 1992 when we made our first (and only) visit to Puerto Galera on the island of Mindoro. Shortly afterwards, Hannah learned to scuba dive, and I followed a year later in 1993 eventually completing more than 360 dives, all at Anilao south of Los Baños. Philippa learned a few years later when she was old enough (you had to be 13), but Steph never did take to scuba diving, being content with snorkeling the stretch of beach in front of our favorite beach resort, Arthur’s Place.

Road travel in the Philippines was always a bit of a nightmare. Inadequate roads, too many vehicles, and not enough road discipline, especially among the jeepney and tricycle drivers.

The drive to Manila could take a couple of hours, often more, and it wasn’t until just before we left the Philippines in 2010 that the main highway to Manila, the South Luzon Expressway or SLEX was finally upgraded significantly. Likewise the road connecting SLEX to the south coast where we went to the beach.

Hannah and Philippa attended the International School Manila (ISM) that was, in those days, located in the heart of Makati, the main business district of Manila. The school day started at 07:15 which meant they had to be on the road by 06:00 in those fist years. By the time Philippa graduated from high school in 1999, the buses were leaving for Manila by 04:30, and not returning home until about 16:00 or so (the school day finishing around 14:00). Phil would often go for a swim, have her dinner, and in her final two years at ISM, when she was studying for the International Baccalaureate Diploma (IB), she would have homework until about midnight. Then she snatched a few hours sleep before heading off early the next morning to school once again. All the children took blankets and pillows on the bus and caught with what sleep they could.

For both Hannah and Philippa these were stressful, but ultimately fulfilling, school years. The system was very different from the English system, the academic side very demanding and competitive, especially the IB curriculum. However, both girls did flourish and the hard work and discipline required to get through saw them in good stead later on in their university careers, with both earning a PhD degree in psychology!

Professionally, my years at IRRI were very rewarding. As Head of GRC, one of my most important responsibilities was to manage the world’s largest and genetically most-diverse collection of rice varieties and wild species (with more than 130,000 different seed samples) in the International Rice Genebank. I had a staff of about 75 researchers and assistants. I learnt a lot about people management. However, my task were made so much easier by having so many dedicated professionals to support me.

After a decade genebanking, I moved to IRRI’s senior management team as Director for Program Planning & Communications (DPPC), and set up an office to handle the institute’s interactions with its donors and fund-raising. And I remained as DPPC until my retirement in 2010.

Much as I had enjoyed my years with GRC, setting up the DPPC Office with hand-picked staff was very rewarding. I had a great team: Corinta, Zeny, Sol, Yeyet, Vhel, and Eric, and they never (well, hardly ever) let me—or IRRI—down.

Christmas 2004 at Antonio’s in Tagaytay. L-R: me, Sol, Eric, Corinta, Vhel, and Zeny.

30 April 2010, and my last day at IRRI. L-R: Eric, Corinta, Zeny, me, Vhel, and Yeyet.

We had such a lot of fun together. There was a lot of laughter in the DPPC Office. We even played badminton together once a week.

But we took our work seriously enough, and helped raise the institute’s annual budget to USD60 million.

In 2009, Steph and I had the opportunity of our first and only long road trip in the Philippines. We always took our annual leave in one block and returned to the UK each summer, so spent little time exploring the Philippines, something I now regret. Anyway, me and my DPPC team decided that we’d take a few days off (with Steph joining us) to visit the world famous (and World Heritage Site) rice terraces in the north of Luzon. That was a fantastic trip, which I wrote about here.

The rice terraces above Banaue.

Enjoying a beer together after a long day in the sun. L-R: Corinta, Zeny, our driver, Vhel, Yeyet, Eric, and me.

At the Batad rice terraces, after a long walk down the mountain. L-R: Yeyet, Steph, Eric, Vhel, and Corinta.


So there we have it: a short trip down memory lane. I have been very fortunate, blessed even, to have worked in three remarkable countries and alongside some of the best professionals I could have hoped for. I have no regrets about making that decision, in early 1973 to move abroad. It has been a fulfilling career in international agricultural research, and I’ve certainly been able to explore this wonderful world of ours, as you will have discovered if you ever perused my blog to any depth.

Genetic resources – the impact of the University of Birmingham

The University of Birmingham, a major English university, received its royal charter in 1900, although a predecessor medical college was founded in Birmingham in 1825.

Although strong in the various biological sciences – with leading botany, zoology, microbiology, and genetics departments (now combined into a School of Biosciences), Birmingham never had an agriculture faculty. Yet its impact on agriculture worldwide has been significant.

For decades it had one of the strongest genetics departments in the world, with luminaries such as Professor Sir Kenneth Mather FRS* and Professor John Jinks FRS**, leading the way in cytology, and population and quantitative genetics.

In fact, genetics at Birmingham was renowned for its focus on quantitative genetics and applications to plant breeding. For many years it ran a one-year MSc course in Applied Genetics.

The head of the department of botany and Mason Professor of Botany during the 1960s was Jack Heslop-Harrison FRS*** whose research and reviews on genecology would make such valuable contributions to the field of plant genetics resources.

Professor Jack Hawkes OBE succeeded Heslop-Harrison as Mason Professor of Botany in 1967, although he’d been in the department since 1952. Jack was a leading taxonomist of the tuber-bearings Solanums – potatoes! Since 1938 he had made several collecting expeditions to the Americas (often with his Danish colleague JP Hjerting) to collect and study wild potatoes. And it was through his work on potatoes that Jack became involved with the newly-founded plant genetic resources movement under the leadership of Sir Otto Frankel. Jack joined a Panel of Experts at FAO, and through the work of that committee plans were laid at the end of the 1960s to collect and conserve the diversity of crop plants and their wild relatives worldwide, and establish an international network of genebanks.

The culmination of that initiative – four decades later – was the opening in 2008 of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault by the Global Crop Diversity Trust).

Jack wondered how a university might contribute effectively to the various genetic resources initiatives, and decided that a one-year training course leading to a masters degree (MSc) would be the best approach. With support from the university, the course on Conservation and Utilization of Plant Genetic Resources took its first intake of four students (from Australia, Brazil, Candada, and the UK) in September 1969. I joined the course in September 1970, alongside Ayla Sencer from Izmir, Turkey, Altaf Rao from Pakistan, Folu Dania Ogbe from Nigeria, and Felix Taborda-Romero from Venezuela. Jack invited many of the people he worked with worldwide in genetic resources to come to Birmingham to give guest lectures. And we were treated to several sessions with the likes of Dr Erna Bennett from FAO and Professor Jack Harlan from the University of Illinois.

From the outset, Frankel thought within 20 years everyone who needed training would have passed through the course. He was mistaken by about 20 years. The course remained the only formal training course of its kind in the world, and by 2008 had trained over 1400 MSc and 3-month short course students from more than 100 countries, many becoming genetic conservation leaders in their own countries. Although the course, as such, is no longer offered, the School of Biosciences still offers PhD opportunities related to the conservation, evaluation and use of genetic resources.

The first external examiner (for the first three years) was Professor Hugh Bunting, Professor of Agricultural Botany at the University of Reading. Other examiners over the years have included Professor Eric Roberts (Reading) and Professor John Cooper FRS (Aberystwyth) and directors of Kew, Professor Sir Arthur Bell and Professor Sir Peter Crane FRS. Students were also able to carry out their dissertation research over the years at other institutions, such as Kew-Wakehurst Place (home of the Millennium Seed Bank) and the Genetic Resources Unit, Warwick Crop Centre (formerly the National Vegetable Genebank at Wellesbourne) where the manager for many years was Dr Dave Astley, a Birmingham graduate from the 1971 intake.

And what has been the impact of training so many people? Most students returned to their countries and began work in research – collecting and conserving. In 1996, FAO presented a report, The State of the World’s Plant Genetic Resources, to the Fourth International Technical Conference on Plant Genetic Resources held in Leipzig, Germany, in June 1996, and published in 1998. Many Birmingham graduates attended that conference as members of national delegations, and some even headed their delegations. In the photo below, everyone is a Birmingham graduate, with the exception of Dr Geoff Hawtin, Director General (fourth from the right, at the back) and Dr Lyndsey Withers, Tissue Culture Specialist (seventh from the right, front row) from IPGRI (now Bioversity International) that provided scholarships to students from developing countries, and guest lectures. Two other delegates, Raul Castillo (Ecuador) and Zofia Bulinska-Radomska (Poland), are not in the photo, since they were occupied in delicate negotiations at the time.

In 1969, two new members of staff were recruited to support the new MSc course. Dr J Trevor Williams (shown on the right in this photo taken at the 20th anniversary meeting at Birmingham in November 1989) acted as the course tutor, and lectured about plant variation.

Dr Richard Lester (who died in 2006) was a chemotaxonomist and Solanaceae expert. Trevor left Birmingham at the end of the 70s to become Executive Secretary, then Director General of the International Board for Plant Genetic Resources (which in turn became IPGRI, then Bioversity International).

Brian Ford-Lloyd (now Professor of Conservation Genetics and Director of the university Graduate School) joined the department in 1979 and was the course tutor for many years, and contributing lectures in data management, among others.

With the pending retirement of Jack Hawkes in September 1982, I was appointed in April 1981 as a lecturer to teach evolution of crop plants, agroecology, and germplasm collecting among others, and to supervise dissertation research. I eventually supervised more than 25 MSc students in 10 years, some of whom continued for a PhD under my supervision (Susan Juned, Denise Clugston, Ghani Yunus, Javier Francisco-Ortega) as well as former students from Peru (René Chavez and Carlos Arbizú) who completed their PhD on potatoes working at CIP while registered at Birmingham. I was also the short course tutor for most of that decade.

IBPGR provided funding not only for students, but supported the appointment of a seed physiologist, Dr Pauline Mumford until 1990. This was my first group of students who commenced their studies in September 1981. Standing are (l to r): Reiner Freund (Germany), Pauline Mumford, and two students from Bangladesh. Seated (l to r) are: Ghani Yunus (Malaysia), student from Brazil, Ayfer Tan (Turkey), Margarida Texeira (Portugal), student from Indonesia. Missing from that photo is Yen-Yuk Lo from Malaysia.

MSc students from Malaysia, Germany, Uruguay, Turkey, Portugal, Indonesia and Bangladesh. Dr Pauline Mumford, seed physiologist, stands in the second row.

The course celebrated its 20th anniversary in November 1989, and a group of ex-students were invited to Birmingham for a special workshop, sponsored by IBPGR. In the photo below are (l to r): Elizabeth Acheampong (Ghana), Indonesia, Trevor Williams, Yugoslavia, Zofia Bulinska-Radomska (Poland), India, Carlos Arbizu (Peru), Philippines, ??, Andrea Clausen (Argentina), Songkran Chitrakon (Thailand), ??.

We also planted a medlar tree (Mespilus germanica); this photo was taken at the tree planting, and shows staff, past and current students.

After I resigned from the university to join IRRI in 1991, Dr Nigel Maxted was appointed as a lecturer, and has continued his work on wild relatives of crop plants and in situ conservation. He has also taken students on field courses to the Mediterranean several times.

I was privileged to attend Birmingham as a graduate student (I went on to complete a PhD under Jack Hawkes’ supervision) and become a member of the faculty. The University of Birmingham has made a very significant contribution to the conservation and use of plant genetic resources around the world.

Graduation December 1975
L to r: ?, Bryn ?, me, Trevor Williams, Jacks Hawkes, Jean Hanson, ?, Jane Toll, Steve Smith

Today, hundreds of Birmingham graduates are involved daily in genetic conservation or helping to establish policy concerning access to and use of genetic resources around the world. Their work has ensured the survival of agrobiodiversity and its use to increase the productivity of crops upon which the world’s population depends.

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* Mather was Vice Chancellor (= CEO) of the University of Southampton when I was an undergraduate there from 1967-1970. After retirement from Southampton, Mather returned to Birmingham and had an office in the Department of Genetics. In the late 1980s when I was teaching at Birmingham, and a member of the Genetics Group, I moved my office close-by Mather’s office, and we would frequently meet to discuss issues relating to genetic resources conservation and use. He often told me that a lot of what I mentioned was new to him – especially the genepool concept of Harlan and de Wet, which had been the basis of a Genetics Group seminar by one of my PhD students, Ghani Yunus from Malaysia, who was working on Lathyrus sativus, the grasspea. Mather and I agreed to meet a few days later, but unfortunately we never met since he died of a heart attack in the interim.

** John Jinks was head of department when Nobel Laureate Sir Paul Nurse applied to the university in 1967. Without a foreign language qualification it looked like he would not be offered a place. Until Jinks intervened. Paul Nurse often states that had it not been for John Jinks, he would not have made it to university. Jinks was the head of the Agricultural Research Council when he died in 1987. He was chair of the interview panel when I was appointed to a lectureship in plant biology at Birmingham in April 1981.

*** Heslop-Harrison became Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, 1970-1976.