years ago today (Friday 17 December 1971) I received my MSc degree in Conservation and Utilization of Plant Genetic Resources from the University of Birmingham. Half a century!
I hadn’t planned to be at the graduation (known as a congregation in UK universities). Why? I had expected to be in Peru for almost three months already. I was set to join the International Potato Center (CIP) (which has just celebrated its 50th anniversary) as an Associate Taxonomist after graduation, but didn’t actually get fly out to Lima until January 1973. Funding for my position from the British government took longer to finalize than had been envisaged. In the meantime, I’d registered for a PhD on the evolution of Andean potato varieties under Professor Jack Hawkes, a world-renowned potato and genetic resources expert.
So let’s see how everything started and progressed.
1970s – potatoes
Having graduated from the University of Southampton in July 1970 (with a BSc degree in Environmental Botany and Geography), I joined the Department of Botany at Birmingham (where Jack Hawkes was head of department) in September that year to begin the one year MSc course, the start of a 39 year career in the UK and three other countries: Peru, Costa Rica, and the Philippines. I took early retirement in 2010 (aged 61) and returned to the UK.
Back in December 1971 I was just relieved to have completed the demanding MSc course. I reckon we studied as hard during that one year as during a three year undergraduate science degree. Looking back on the graduation day itself, I had no inkling that 10 years later I would be back in Birmingham contributing to that very same course as Lecturer in Plant Biology. Anyway, I’m getting ahead of myself.
Arriving in Lima on 4 January 1973, I lived by myself until July when my fiancée Steph flew out to Peru, and join CIP as an Associate Geneticist working with the center’s germplasm collection of Andean potato varieties. She had resigned from a similar position at the Scottish Plant Breeding Station near Edinburgh where she helped conserve the Commonwealth Potato Collection.
Later that year, on 13 October, Steph and I were married in Miraflores, the coastal suburb of Lima where we rented an apartment.
My own work in Peru took me all over the Andes collecting potato varieties for the CIP genebank, and conducting field work towards my PhD.
In May 1975, we returned to Birmingham for just six months so that I could complete the university residency requirements for my PhD, and to write and successfully defend my dissertation. The degree was conferred on 12 December.
Returning to Lima just in time for the New Year celebrations, we spent another three months there before being posted to Turrialba, Costa Rica in Central America at the beginning of April 1976, where we resided until November 1980. The original focus of my research was adaptation of potatoes to hot, humid conditions. But I soon spent much of my time studying the damage done by bacterial wilt, caused by the pathogen Ralstonia solancearum (formerly Pseudomonas solanacearum).
Each year I made several trips throughout Central America, to Mexico, and various countries in the Caribbean, helping to set up a collaborative research project, PRECODEPA, which outlasted my stay in the region by more than 20 years. One important component of the project was rapid multiplication systems for potato seed production for which my Lima-based colleague, Jim Bryan, joined me in Costa Rica for one year in 1979.
There’s one very important thing I want to mention here. At the start of my career with CIP, as a young germplasm scientist, and moving to regional work in Costa Rica, I count myself extremely fortunate I was mentored through those formative years in international agricultural research by two remarkable individuals.
Dr Roger Rowe joined CIP in July 1973 as head of the Breeding and Genetics Department. He was my boss (and Steph’s), and he also co-supervised my PhD research. I’ve kept in touch with Roger ever since. I’ve always appreciated the advice he gave me. And even after I moved to IRRI in 1991, our paths crossed professionally. When Roger expressed an opinion it was wise to listen.
Dr Ken Brown joined CIP in January 1976 and became Director of the Regional Research Program. He was my boss during the years I worked in Central America. He was very supportive of my work on bacterial wilt and the development of PRECODEPA. Never micro-managing his staff, I learned a lot from Ken about people and program management that stood me in good stead in the years to come.
1980s – academia
By the middle of 1980 I was beginning to get itchy feet. I couldn’t see myself staying in Costa Rica much longer, even though Steph and I enjoyed our life there. It’s such a beautiful country. Our elder daughter Hannah was born there in April 1978.
To grow professionally I needed other challenges, so asked my Director General in Lima, Richard Sawyer, about the opportunity of moving to another region, with a similar program management and research role. Sawyer decided to send me to Southeast Asia, in the Philippines, to take over from my Australian colleague Lin Harmsworth after his retirement in 1982.
However, I never got to the Philippines. Well, not for another decade. In the meantime I had been encouraged to apply for a lectureship at the University of Birmingham. In early 1981 I successfully interviewed and took up the position there in April.
Thus my international potato decade came to an end, as did any thoughts of continuing in international agricultural research. Or so it seemed at the time.
For three months I lodged with one of my colleagues, John Dodds, who had an apartment close to the university’s Edgbaston campus while we hunted for a house to buy. Steph and Hannah stayed with her parents in Southend on Sea (east of London), and I would travel there each weekend.
It took only a couple of weeks to find a house that suited us, in the market town of Bromsgrove, Worcestershire, about 13 miles south of the university. We moved in during the first week of July, and kept the house for almost 40 years until we moved to Newcastle upon Tyne in the northeast of England almost 15 months ago. However we didn’t live there continually throughout that period as will become apparent below.
Our younger daughter Philippa was born in Bromsgrove in May 1982. How does the saying go? New house, new baby!
I threw myself into academic life with enthusiasm. Most of my teaching was for the MSc genetic conservation students, some to second year undergraduates, and a shared ten-week genetic conservation module for third year undergraduates with my close friend and colleague of more than 50 years, Brian Ford-Lloyd.
I also supervised several PhD students during my time at Birmingham, and I found that role particularly satisfying. As I did tutoring undergraduate students; I tutored five or six each year over the decade. Several tutees went on to complete a PhD, two of whom became professors and were recently elected Fellows of the Royal Society.
One milestone for Brian and me was the publication, in 1986, of our introductory text on plant genetic resources, one of the first books in this field, and which sold out within 18 months. It’s still available as a digital print on demand publication from Cambridge University Press.
This was followed in 1990 by a co-edited book (with geography professor Martin Parry) about genetic resources and climate change, a pioneering text at least a decade before climate change became widely accepted. We followed up with an updated publication in 2014.
My research interests in potatoes continued with a major project on true potato seed collaboratively with the Plant Breeding Institute in Cambridge (until Margaret Thatcher’s government sold it to the private sector) and CIP. My graduate students worked on a number of species including potatoes and legumes such as Lathyrus.
However, I fully appreciated my research limitations, and enjoyed much more the teaching and administrative work I was asked to take on. All in all, the 1980s in academia were quite satisfying. Until they weren’t. By about 1989, when Margaret Thatcher had the higher education sector firmly in her sights, I became less enthusiastic about university life.
And, in September 1990, an announcement landed in my mailbox for a senior position at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines. I applied to become head of the newly-created Genetic Resources Center (GRC, incorporating the International Rice Genebank), and joined IRRI on 1 July 1991. The rest is history.
I’ve often been asked how hard it was to resign from a tenured position at the university. Not very hard at all. Even though I was about to be promoted to Senior Lecturer. But the lure of resuming my career in the CGIAR was too great to resist.
1990s – rice genetic resources
I never expected to remain at IRRI much beyond 10 years, never mind the 19 that we actually spent there.
I spent the first six months of my assignment at IRRI on my own. Steph and the girls did not join me until just before the New Year. We’d agreed that it would be best if I spent those first months finding my feet at IRRI. I knew that IRRI’s Director General, Dr Klaus Lampe, expected me to reorganize the genebank. And I also had the challenge of bringing together in GRC two independent units: the International Rice Germplasm Center (the genebank) and the International Network for the Genetic Evaluation of Rice (INGER). No mean feat as the INGER staff were reluctant, to say the least, to ever consider themselves part of GRC. But that’s another story.
Elsewhere in this blog I’ve written about the challenges of managing the genebank, of sorting out the data clutter I’d inherited, investigating how to improve the quality of seeds stored in the genebank, collaborating with my former colleagues at Birmingham to improve the management and use of the rice collection by using molecular markers to study genetic diversity, as well as running a five year project (funded by the Swiss government) to safeguard rice biodiversity.
I was also heavily involved with the CGIAR’s Inter-Center Working Group on Genetic Resources (ICWG-GR), attending my first meeting in January 1993 in Addis Ababa, when I was elected Chair for the next three years.
In that role I oversaw the development of the System-wide Genetic Resources Program (SGRP), and visited Rome several times a year to the headquarters of the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute (IPGRI, now Bioversity International) which hosted the SGRP Secretariat.
But in early 2001 I was offered an opportunity (which I initially turned down) to advance my career in a totally different direction. I was asked to join IRRI’s senior management team in the newly-created post of Director for Program Planning and Coordination.
The 2000s – management
It must have been mid-January 2001. Sylvia, the Director General’s secretary, asked me to attend a meeting in the DG’s office just after lunch. I had no idea what to expect, and was quite surprised to find not only the DG, Dr Ron Cantrell, there but also his two deputies, Dr Willy Padolina (DDG-International Programs) and Dr Ren Wang, DDG-Research.
To cut a long story short, Cantrell asked me to leave GRC and move into a new position, as one of the institute’s directors, and take over the management of resource mobilization and donor relations, among other responsibilities (after about one year I was given line management responsibility for the Development Office [DO], the Library and Documentation Services [LDS], Communication and Publications Services [CPS], and the Information Technology Services [ITS]).
In DPPC, as it became known, we established all the protocols and tracking systems for the many research projects and donor communications essential for the efficient running of the institute. I recruited a small team of five individuals, with Corinta Guerta becoming my second in command, who herself took over the running of the unit after my retirement in 2010 and became a director. Not bad for someone who’d joined IRRI three decades earlier as a research assistant in soil chemistry. We reversed the institute’s rather dire reputation for research management and reporting (at least in the donors’ eyes), helping to increase IRRI’s budget significantly over the nine years I was in charge.
I’m not going to elaborate further as the details can be found in that earlier blog post. What I can say is that the time I spent as Director for Program Planning and Communications (the Coordination was dropped once I’d taken on the broader management responsibilities) were among the most satisfying professionally, and a high note on which to retire. 30 April 2010 was my last day in the office.
Since then, and once settled into happy retirement, I’ve kept myself busy by organizing two international rice research conferences (in Vietnam in 2010 and Thailand in 2014), co-edited the climate change book I referred to earlier, and been the lead on a major review of the CGIAR’s Genebank Program (in 2017). Once that review was completed, I decided I wouldn’t take on any more consultancy commitments, and I also stepped down from the editorial board of the Springer scientific journal Genetic Resources and Crop Evolution.
As I said from the outset of this post, it’s hard to imagine that this all kicked off half a century ago. I can say, without hesitation and unequivocally, that I couldn’t have hoped for a more rewarding career. Not only in the things we did and the many achievements, but the friendships forged with many people I met and worked with in more than 60 countries. It was a blast!