Student: James Stroud
Company: Sárvári Research Trust (SRT)
Academic Supervisor: Dr Katherine Steele
I am working with the Sarvari Research Trust on a project that looks at blight resistance in tomatoes. There are two strands to my project; the first part is working with molecular ecology on the pathogen. Just to explain, tomato blight is the same species as potato blight, of the Irish potato famine fame, tomato and potato are the two main hosts of the fungus, which isn’t really a fungus but a fungus-like organism. There are good reasons to believe that there are certain strains of it that infect the tomato as opposed to the potato, so my project has been trying to find out if this is the case and investigate what makes these strains prefer to infect the tomato instead of the potato.
The second more industry relevant part meant that I was working with the company to develop new types of tomato that have a resistance to late blight. We were using some material from the University and a material that we’ve sourced ourselves to try and work with the company’s breeding programme. We can hopefully map out where some of these blight resistant genes are, which will be useful when working with tomato breeding programmes.
Further research/long term
There’s a lot of blight molecular work that can be done. There are research opportunities on how pathogen hosts interact, or the mechanisms for infecting tomatoes.
In terms of the breeding work on the tomato, yes there is scope for continuing with that. One feature of plant breeding programmes is that they take a long time, taking about 6-8 years to breed a new tomato variety and release it.
Student perspective (research with a company partner)
I think certainly for me, doing more applied real world orientated research has been more stimulating than something a bit drier and more pure, which would have been the case if I was not interacting with a company. Therefore, working with a company which has to develop tomato cultivars for release has been much more interesting to me.
In working with the company they have indicated that they are very interested in expanding their engagement on collaborative research projects with the University. It may well be that more Masters or PhD projects come out of this collaboration, so there will be other industry collaborations with the University.
The first benefit to the company I think is the access to all of the resources that the University has to offer, access to staff expertise and university equipment has been a clear advantage of being involved in the programme.
Another long term benefit for the company is the potential of the creation of a marketable product, a product that will grow well outdoors in Wales and that will enable farmers and other growers to grow a high value crop here in Wales.
A different PhD model
For me KESS has been a fantastic opportunity, being able to work on a project linked to a company that has real world objectives means that the research I am doing can be applied and is actually doing useful things in the real world, which has suited me quite well.
Skills and employability
In working on my PhD I have found that I have been lucky in having the opportunity to develop a number of skills, the primary ones being that of improving my organisational and project management skills. I am responsible for my own experiments and the subsequent results so I have learned quickly what is needed to run an experiment effectively. In doing these experiments I have also developed technical skills, in terms of the biology work in the lab. and the actual design of experiments, so I’ve had to develop a lot of practical skills in that sense. Another bonus is my deeper understanding of the software that is needed, and I am now able to work with this on a higher level.
The added responsibility of knowing that my work is going to be published, and going to be used by real people for doing real things has been an incentive to make sure that I’m looking at a higher level and doing things properly.
In terms of my future employability, I think that this project has been excellent; the project management and the time management skills that I’ve developed will be applicable to a wide range
of possible employment opportunities. I think that without a doubt what I have done during this project will increase my employability.
Although the project has been company linked, on a day to day basis I work on my own; it’s my project and my responsibility so I sit down and get on with it. Unfortunately this does mean a lack of human interaction, and this is one of the things that I have found hardest during the project. The supervision has been great, but on a day to day basis I am working on my own. I can certainly see the value in a job where I spend less time in front of a computer and more time working with people, this could mean collaborative projects or going into industry.
I’ve been quite lucky in this sense, because I have been speaking about the project from when I started my placement; the company partner Sarvari Trust hold open days every year and I have spoken at these over the past two years. I’m quite excited about this year because I have some results that I’ll be able to share.
Another instance where I have been able to speak was at the Euroblight conference this May, where I presented a poster of my findings to date; I was quite nervous to see people in front of me I have so often quoted in my work. It was the first time I’d presented at a real research conference and had my research under scrutiny by other scientists. I got quite a lot of feedback on my project and how to improve it along with positive feedback, which was useful and will help me to move forward in my research.
In terms of community engagement, I have been invited by the Friends of Treborth and the Womens’ Institute to give presentations of my work and the significance that it could have on their growing. I’ve been very lucky to be able to talk about my PhD findings to such a variety of audiences.
So far it would have to be having the opportunity to attend the Euroblight conference; because that was the first time I’d presented real original research that I’d done to an audience of other scientists. I also think generally getting my first results out of my trial and these actually being used by the company that I’m working with to inform what they are doing in their breeding programme; it was good to see my research actually being used.