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.

Completing a PhD – was it worth the effort?

A topical story in the Lima press
Overnight, there was an interesting and topical post (as far as I’m concerned) on the Facebook page of one of my ‘friends’—the son of one of my graduate students when I was a faculty member at The University of Birmingham in the 1980s. He hails from Peru. Carlos Arbizu Jr. is studying for his PhD at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and, as far as I can determine, he’s working on carrot genetics under the supervision of my friend and former potato scientist David Spooner.

Carlos had posted a link to an article published on the website of the Lima-based Newspaper Perú21: ¿Por qué estudiar un doctorado?  (Why study for a PhD?). To which Carlos had added the byline: PhD = Permanent Head Damage.

Maybe he’s going through a difficult patch right now. I’ve seen from several of his posts that he’s immersed in some pretty ‘heavy’ molecular genetic analysis. It’s beyond my comprehension.

But all PhD students go through peaks and troughs. I know I did. Some days nothing can go wrong, progress is swift. The world is your oyster, and there really is a light at the end of the tunnel. On other days, you just wish the earth would open up and swallow you.

And for many PhD students, the most trying time often comes when they begin to draft their thesis and eventually prepare to defend it. Unfortunately many science graduates have received very little formal training in how to write clear and concise prose. Writing just doesn’t come naturally. So what should be one of the most important aspects of completing a PhD can become a long and tedious chore. And before submission regulations were tightened up at UK universities, some students could take a couple of years or more to write up and submit their thesis for examination.

40 years ago today
Well, this Perú21 article was published yesterday. And today, 23 October (if memory serves me right) is exactly 40 years since I defended my PhD thesis: The Evolutionary Significance of the Triploid Cultivated Potato, Solanum x chaucha Juz. et Buk. I was almost 27 (old by UK standards, average or maybe young compared to many US graduate students), and had been working on my degree for four years. I’d completed a one-year MSc degree in genetic resources at Birmingham in September 1971 (having graduated from the University of Southampton with a BSc in botany and geography in July 1970), and then been offered the opportunity to work in Peru for a year at the newly-established International Potato Center (CIP). Well, for various reasons, and to cut a long story short, That opportunity didn’t materialize in September 1971 so my head of department, Professor Jack Hawkes (who went on to supervise my PhD) persuaded the Overseas Development Administration (now Department for International Development, DfID) to cough up some support until the funding for my position at CIP was guaranteed. Thus I began my study in Birmingham, and finally moved to Lima in January 1973, working as an Associate Taxonomist and conducting research that went towards my PhD thesis. And since I was employed and having a regular income, I took another three years to complete all the experimental work I had planned. In any case, when I joined CIP in 1973 the institute was still establishing and developing its own infrastructure. That was also one of the exciting aspects to my work. It was a real opportunity to build up and curate a large collection of Andean potato varieties and wild species, and study them in their native environment.

CIP collection

The CIP field collection of potato varieties planted in the Mantaro Valley near Huancayo in central Peru.

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The diversity of Andean potato varieties.

The next couple of photos show some of the field work I carried out in various parts of Peru.

Mike Jackson and Jack Hawkes in the CIP potato germplasm collection, Huancayo, central Peru in early 1974

Learning from my supervisor, Professor Jack Hawkes, during one of his visits to Peru while I was carrying out my study.

MTJ in CIP

With CIP taxonomist, Professor Carlos Ochoa, a renowned Peruvian expert on potatoes and their wild relatives.

I was looking at the relationship between potato varieties with different chromosome numbers, so-called diploids and tetraploids, with 24 and 48 chromosomes respectively. If you can cross these two types you expect to produce some with an intermediate chromosome number. So, 48 x 24 = 36, the triploids. For the first years at CIP we didn’t have any glasshouses where we could work. Instead we had rather rustic polytunnels right in the field next to the germplasm collection, where I would make all those pollinations using the so-called cut-stem technique.

Experimental data from other parts of the world had shown that triploids were formed only rarely in such crosses. Yet triploid varieties were quite common and highly prized by potato farmers in the Andes. I was trying to determine if the crossability relationships of these native potatoes might be different in their indigenous environment. So I went on to make hundreds of crosses (and thousands of pollinations), as well as study indigenous farming systems in the south of Peru. This next gallery show some of the triploids potatoes grown by farmers. One of the most prized was the variety Huayro, and there were two forms, one round and the other elongated (and quite large). Both had red skins and yellow flesh.

Back to Birmingham
In May 1975, Steph and I headed back to the UK. But not directly. On the assumption that I would successfully defend my PhD thesis, CIP’s Director General had offered me a new position in the Outreach Department, and with the possibility of moving to Central America. So we headed for Costa Rica (where I’d eventually move to in April 1976) to see the lie of the land, so to speak. And from there we went on to Mexico for a few days to visit our old friends, and former CIP colleagues, John and Marion Vessey who had moved to maize and wheat center, CIMMYT, near Mexico City. From Mexico we headed to New York (first flight on a wide-bodied jet, an Eastern Airlines L-1011 Tristar) for a connection with British Airways to Manchester where my parents met us. We spent a further week looking for somewhere to live in Birmingham, and were fortunate to find an apartment very convenient to the university and only a few minutes walk from the Department of Botany (as it was then) Winterbourne Gardens where I had been assigned some lab space and a desk.

A nightmare waiting to happen
Now remember, there were no PCs or laptops, cloud computing, USB sticks or floppy disks in 1975. All my thesis data was available in hard copy only, and I carried a briefcase with four years of work with me from Lima to the UK on that journey I just related. The briefcase was hardly ever out of my sight! In those days it was not unknown for a graduate student to have lost a briefcase on a journey containing a complete draft of a thesis. No backup!

Getting into a routine
Once settled in Birmingham, I planned out my work for the coming months, with a deadline of 1 October. That was the final day of submission if I wanted to have my thesis examines and (if approved) have the degree awarded at the next congregation or commencement in early December that same year. But by the beginning of June I had not even begun to write, never mind complete the last minute field experiment I had planned (checking the ploidy of a set of hybrids produced earlier in the year) or create the figures I would include. Again, there was no digital technology available. I had to hand draw all my maps and other figures (my geography training in cartography at Southampton finally came in useful). While the department’s chief technician actually photographed all of these, I had to print all my own photographs (again, the experience I’d gained from my father, a professional photographer all his life, came in handy).

Working to a regular schedule every day, from around 7:30 am until 5 pm with a break for lunch, and spending another couple of hours after dinner, I soon began to make progress, although I didn’t actually start putting pen to paper until the beginning of July. It took me only six weeks to draft my thesis. Once I’d completed a chapter I’d hand it over to Jack Hawkes for review and revision. And to give him credit, he usually handed me back my draft with his comments within a couple of days only (and this was an approach I adopted with all my graduate students during the 1980s).

So, by mid-August or so I had a completed text, I’d checked the chromosome numbers of the hundred or so plants in the field, and set about the figures. I found someone who would type my thesis, but at the last moment he had to use a manual typewriter since the electric one he’d wanted to rent was no longer available. In 1975 The University of Birmingham changed the thesis submission regulations and it was no longer necessary to submit a thesis fully bound in a hard cover. I was able to submit in temporary binding, and this in fact saved perhaps three weeks from my tight schedule. I hit the 1 October deadline with about twenty minutes to spare just before 5 pm.

Thesis defence
I was quite surprised when my external examiner planned the defence of my thesis just three weeks later. All went to plan. In those days, the exam consisted of the graduate student, the external examiner and an internal examiner (usually the thesis supervisor). Today things might have changed, and even when I worked at Birmingham in the 80s the supervisor was no longer permitted to act as the internal examiner. I believe there may now also be a third panel member, to see fair play.

From the outset it was apparent that my thesis would pass muster, since the external examiner told me that he’d enjoyed reading the thesis. But we then went on to have a thorough discussion over the next three hours about many of the details, and the implications for potato genetic conservation and breeding. Phew!

And in early December, the 12th actually, I was able to celebrate with others from the department as we were awarded our degrees at the mid-year congregation.

19 Ed & Mike

L to R: Pam Haigh, Brenig Garrett,  me, Prof Trevor Williams, Prof Jack Hawkes, Dr Jean Hanson, Margaret Yarwood, Jane Toll, Stephen Smith

20 Ed & Mike

With my PhD supervisor, Prof. Jack Hawkes on my right, and MSc supervisor, Prof. Trevor Williams on my left; 12 December 1975.

PhD congregation, 12 December 1975 - with Mum and Dad

With my Mum and Dad.

bluedivider-hi

Was it worth it?
So let me come back to the question I posed in the title of this post. Was it worth it? Unequivocally Yes! Would I want to do it again? No!

Actually completing a PhD is probably the most selfish piece of research that a scientist will ever get to do. There’s one aim: complete a thesis and have the doctorate awarded. PhD research does not have to be ground-breaking at all. In fact much of it is pretty mundane, and that’s one of the down sides when things are not going so well. For Birmingham at least, the PhD regulations stated that the thesis had to represent a piece of original research, completed under supervision. And it’s the ‘under supervision’ that is critical. A PhD student is still maturing, so to speak. The work is guided by a mentor. Of course there can be breakthroughs that lead to the most prestigious prizes. I believe that Sir Paul Nurse’s PhD research set him off on the path that eventually led to his Nobel prize.

I have encouraged others to research for a PhD, and I hope I was able to give them the support and advice that my supervisors gave me. In that respect my PhD was a positive experience. It’s not always the case, and when student-supervisor relationships break down, every one suffers. It does not necessarily have to take many, many months (or years even) to write a thesis. It takes self-discipline but also support from the supervisor.

Without a PhD I would not have enjoyed the career in international agricultural research and academia that I did. My PhD was like a ‘union card’. It enabled me to seek opportunities that would probably have been closed without a PhD. But I also acknowledge that I was lucky. I moved into a field—genetic resources—that was just expanding, as were the international centers of the CGIAR. And I had mentors who were prepared to back me.

Forty years on I can look back to those days in 1975 with a fair degree of nostalgia. And then reflect on the benefits that accrued from that intense but disciplined period in the summer of 1975 (when there was a heat wave, and Arthur Ashe won the men’s title at Wimbledon), and which allow me now to enjoy the retirement I started five years ago.

Both of our daughters, Hannah and Philippa, went on to complete a PhD (in 2006 and 2010, respectively) in their chosen field: psychology! So I can’t have passed on so many negative vibes about graduate study, although their choice of psychology does make a profound statement, perhaps.

Peer-reviewed papers
Incidentally, I finally got around to publishing three papers from my thesis. When I returned to CIP just before New Year 1976, I moved into a new role and responsibilities. And even though I eventually found time to draft manuscripts, these took some time to appear in print after peer review, revision and acceptance. One of the papers—on the field work at Cuyo Cuyo—was originally submitted to the journal Economic Botany. And there it languished for over two years. I received an invitation from the editor of Euphytica to submit a paper on the same topic, so I withdrew my manuscript from Economic Botany. About that same time I received a letter from that journal’s interim editor in chief that manuscripts had been discovered unpublished up to 20 years after they had been submitted, and what did I want to happen to mine. It was published in Euphytica in 1980.

Jackson, M.T., J.G. Hawkes & P.R. Rowe, 1977. The nature of Solanumchaucha Juz. et Buk., a triploid cultivated potato of the South American Andes. Euphytica 26, 775-783. PDF

Jackson, M.T., J.G. Hawkes & P.R. Rowe, 1980. An ethnobotanical field study of primitive potato varieties in Peru. Euphytica 29, 107-113. PDF

Jackson, M.T., P.R. Rowe & J.G. Hawkes, 1978. Crossability relationships of Andean potato varieties of three ploidy levels. Euphytica 27, 541-551.PDF