Through hard work, great things are achieved

BirminghamUniversityCrestPer Ardua Ad Alta

That’s the motto of The University of Birmingham, and ‘these sentiments sum up the spirit of Birmingham and illustrate the attitude of the people who have shaped both the city and the University.’

Almost 50 years ago, I had no inkling that I would have more than half a lifetime’s association with this university. Receiving its royal charter in 1900 (although the university was a successor to several institutions founded in the 19th century as early as 1828), Birmingham is the archetypal ‘redbrick university‘, located on its own campus in Edgbaston, about 3 miles southwest of Birmingham city center.

First encounter in 1967

My first visit to the university was in May or June 1967—to sit an exam. Biology was one of the four subjects (with Geography, English Literature, and General Studies) I was studying for my Joint Matriculation Board Advanced Level high school certificate (essentially the university entrance requirement) here in the UK. We were only four or five biology students at my high school, St Joseph’s College in Trent Vale, Stoke-on-Trent (motto: Fideliter et Fortiter).

Now, I don’t remember (maybe I never knew) whether we were too few in number to sit our biology practical exam at the school, or all students everywhere had to attend an examination venue, but we set off by train from Stoke to Birmingham, and ended up at the School of Biological Sciences building. It was a new building then, and the (federal) School had only recently been formed from the four departments of Botany, Zoology & Comparative Physiology, Genetics, and Microbiology.

Just before 2 pm, the five of us—and about 100 other students—trooped into the main laboratory (that I subsequently came to know as the First Year Lab) on the second floor. Little did I know that just over three years later I’d be joining the Department of Botany as a graduate student, nor that 14 years later in 1981 I would join the faculty as Lecturer in Plant Biology. Nothing could have been further from my mind as I settled down to tackle a dissection of the vascular system of a rat, and the morphology of a gorse flower, among other tasks to attempt.

Birmingham was not on the list of universities to which I had applied in December 1966. I’d chosen King’s College, London (geography), Aberystwyth (zoology and geography), Southampton (botany and geography), York (biology), Queen Mary College, London (general biological sciences), and Newcastle (botany and geography). In the end, I chose Southampton, and spent three very happy if not entirely fruitful years there.

Entering the postgraduate world

Jack Hawkes

Jack Hawkes

The next time I visited Birmingham was in February 1970. I had applied to join the recently-founded postgraduate MSc Course on Conservation and Utilization of Plant Genetic Resources. I was interviewed by Course Director and Head of the Department of Botany, Professor JG Hawkes and Senior Lecturer and plant ecologist, Dr Denis Wilkins.

Despite the grilling from both of  them, I must have made an impression because I was offered a place for the following September. The only problem: no support grant. Although Hawkes had applied for recognition by one of the research councils to provide postgraduate studentships, nothing had materialized when I applied (although he was successful the following year, and for many years afterwards providing studentships to British students). So, after graduation from Southampton in July 1970 I was on tenterhooks all summer as I tried to sort out a financial solution to attend the course. Finally, around mid-August, I had a phone call from Hawkes telling me that the university would provide a small support grant. It was only £380 for the whole year, to cover all my living expenses including rent. That’s the equivalent of about £5600 today. The university would pay my fees.

All set then. I found very comfortable bed-sit accommodation a couple of miles from the university, and turned up at the department in early September to begin my course, joining four other students (from Nigeria, Pakistan, Turkey and Venezuela). It was during this one year course that I really learned how to study, and apart from my weekly Morris dancing night, I had few other distractions. It was study, study, study: and it paid off. The rest is history. I graduated in September 1971, by which time I’d been offered a one-year position at the newly-founded International Potato CenterCIP logo (CIP) in Lima, Peru, and I was all set for a career (I hoped) in the world of genetic resources and conservation. As it turned out, my travel to South America was delayed by more than a year during which time I registered for and commenced a PhD study on potatoes, finally landing in Lima in January 1973 and beginning a career in international agricultural research that lasted, on and off, until my retirement in 2010. I carried out most of my PhD research in Peru, and submitted my thesis in October 1975.

Jack Hawkes and me discussing landrace varieties of potatoes in the CIP potato germplasm collection, Huancayo, central Peru in early 1974.

Graduation December 1975. L to R: Jack Hawkes (who co-supervised my PhD), me, and Trevor Williams (who became the first Director General of the International Board for Plant Genetic Resources). Trevor supervised my MSc dissertation.

Then I returned to Lima, spending another five years with CIP in Costa Rica carrying out research on bacterial diseases of potatoes among other things.

I should add that during the academic year 1971-72, a young woman, Stephanie Tribble, joined the MSc course. A few months later we became an ‘item’.

Steph’s MSc graduation at the University of Birmingham in December 1972, just weeks before I flew to South America and join the International Potato Center in Lima, Peru.

After graduation, she joined the Scottish Plant Breeding Station just south of Edinburgh, but joined me in Lima in July 1973. We married there in October, and she also had a position with CIP for the years we remained in Lima.

A faculty position
On 1 April 1981 I joined the University of Birmingham as a lecturer in the Department of Plant Biology.

Richard Sawyer

By mid-1980, after almost five years in Costa Rica, I felt that I had achieved as much as I could there, and asked my Director General in Lima, Dr Richard Sawyer, for a transfer to a new position. In November, we moved back to Lima, and I was expecting to be posted either to Brazil or possibly to the Philippines. In the meantime, I had been alerted to a recently-established lectureship in the Department of Plant Biology (formerly Botany) at Birmingham, and had been encouraged to apply¹. With encouragement from Richard Sawyer², and having been invited for interview, I made the trek back to the UK from Lima towards the end of January 1981. The interview process then was very different from what might be expected nowadays. No departmental seminar. Just a grilling from a panel chaired by the late Professor John Jinks, FRS, Dean of the Faculty of Science and head of the Department of Genetics. There were three staff from Plant Biology (Hawkes, Dennis Wilkins, and Brian Ford-Lloyd), and the head of the Department of Biochemistry and Deputy Dean, Professor Derek Walker.

We were three candidates. Each interview lasted about 45 minutes, and we all had to wait outside the interview room to learn who would be selected. I was interviewed last. Joining the other two candidates afterwards, we sat side-by-side, hardly exchanging a word between us, nervously waiting for one of us to be called back in to meet the panel. I was the lucky one. I was offered the position, accepted immediately, and a couple of days later flew back to Lima to break the news and make plans to start a new life with Steph and our daughter Hannah (then almost three) in Birmingham.

Over the 10 years I spent at Birmingham I never had the worry (or challenge) of teaching any First Year Course – thank goodness. But I did contribute a small module on agricultural systems to the Second Year common course (and became the Second Year Chair in the School of Biological Sciences), as well as sharing teaching of flowering plant taxonomy to plant biology stream students mtj-and-bfl-book-launchin the Second Year. With my colleague Brian Ford-Lloyd (with whom I’ve published three books on genetic resources) I developed a Third Year module on genetic resources that seems to have been well-received (from some subsequent feedback I’ve received). I also contributed to a plant pathology module for Third Year students. But the bulk of my teaching was to MSc students on the graduate course on Conservation and Utilization of Plant Genetic Resources – the very course I’d attended a decade earlier. My main focus was crop evolution, germplasm collecting, and agricultural systems, among others. And of course there was supervision of PhD and MSc student research projects.

One of the responsibilities I enjoyed was tutoring undergraduate students, and always had an open door if they needed to see me. It quite shocked me in the late 1990s when my elder daughter, then a student at Swansea University, told me that her tutors had very limited and defined access hours for students. Of course you can’t be on call all day, every day, but you have to be there if a student really need to see you. And my tutees knew that if my office door was open (as it mostly was) they were free to come in and see me.

Once the four departments of the School of Biological Sciences merged into a single department in 1988, I aligned myself with and joined the Plant Genetics Group, and found a better role for myself. I also joined and became Deputy Chair of a cross-disciplinary group called Environmental Research Management (ERM) whose aim was to promote the strength of environment-related research across the university. Through ERM I became acquainted with Professor Martin Parry, and together with Brian Ford-Lloyd we published a book on genetic resources and climate change in 1990, and another in 2014 after we had retired.

Moving on
Even though the prospect of promotion to Senior Lecturer was quite good (by 1989 I’d actually moved on to the Senior Lecturer pay scale), I was becoming somewhat disillusioned with university life by that time. Margaret Thatcher and her government had consistently assaulted the higher education sector, and in any case I couldn’t see things getting any better for some years to come. In this I was unfortunately proved correct. In September 1990 a circular dropped into my post, advertising a new position at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines. This was for a germplasm specialist and first head of the Genetic Resources Center. So I applied, was interviewed in January 1991, and accepted the position with a view to joining the institute from 1 July. They actually wanted me to start on 1 April. But as I explained—and IRRI Management accepted—I had teaching and examination commitments to fulfill at the university. In February I began to teach my third year module on genetic resources for the last time, and set the exams for all students to take in May and June. Once the marking and assessments had been completed, I was free to leave.

Friday 28 June was my last day, ending with a small farewell party in the School. I flew out to the Philippines on Sunday 30 June. And, as they say, the rest is history. I never looked back. But now, retirement is sweet, as are my memories.

¹ Jack Hawkes was due to retire in September 1982 and, recognizing that his departure would leave a big hole in the MSc teaching, the university approved the recruitment of a lecturer in plant genetic resources (with a focus on crop evolution, flowering plant taxonomy, and the like) essentially covering those areas where Jack had contributed.
² Dick Sawyer told me that applying for the Birmingham position was the right thing to do at that stage of my career. However, the day before I traveled to the UK he called me to his office to wish me well, and to let me know whichever way the interview went, he would have a new five-year contract waiting on his desk for me on my return. From my point of view (and I hope CIP’s) it was a win-win situation. Thus I left for the interview at Birmingham full of confidence.


“There isn’t a tree to hang a man, water to drown a man nor soil to bury a man”.

So said – or words to that effect – an army officer named Ludlow during Oliver Cromwell’s campaign of persecution throughout Ireland between 1649 and 1653.

And what was he referring to? The Burren – located in the west of Ireland, in County Clare, and one of the most impressive – and ostensibly bleak – landscapes anywhere. I have visited Ireland three times, and each time I made a beeline for the Burren.¹

The Burren is a landscape of limestone pavement, or karst, one of the largest expanses of such in Europe, covering an area of more than 200 km². The Burren National Park – the smallest in Ireland – covers an area of only 1500 ha. Although ‘devoid of trees, water and soil’, it is nevertheless an incredibly biodiverse environment, with an impressive array of wildlife.

Dryas octopetala

Botanically, the Burren is fascinating, with Arctic-alpine plants growing alongside those more typical of the Mediterranean, as well as both lime-loving (calcicole) and acid-loving (calcifuge) species. One of the signature species of the Burren is the mountain avens (Dryas octopetala) which is found throughout the Alps and far into the north of Europe. But here on the Burren it grows almost at sea level. There is also an impressive list of orchids that have been recorded here.

The Burren attracts many tourists wishing to have a special ‘botanical experience’ to discover all manner of plants among the grikes and clints of the limestone pavement. And it was in July 1968 that I first visited the Burren, participating in an end of first year undergraduate field course from the University of Southampton. Based in the small town of Lisdoonvarna (famous for its annual matchmaking festival), the course was led by tutors Mr Leslie Watson (a plant taxonomist) and Dr Alan Myers (a plant physiologist/ biochemist). We were a small group of only about 19 students who had survived the end of year exams when several of our colleagues who had failed were required to withdraw from the university. There were no re-sits in those days! The group included four students (including me) studying for a combined degree in botany and geography, and one zoology student who would continue with botany as a subsidiary subject into his second year. The others were all ‘single honours’ students in botany.

Spending two weeks on the west coast of Ireland could have been a disaster, weather-wise. But how fortunate we were. Almost two weeks of perfect sunny and warm days. Apart from several days exploring the Burren – in clear weather and in fog! – we had day trips to the mountains of Connemara, along the beaches close to Lisdoonvarna (where I did a short project on brown algae), and a ‘free day’ to search for ‘Kerry diamonds‘ – actually quartz crystals – on the Dingle Peninsula, about 100 miles south of Lisdoonvarna.

Close to Lisdoonvarna are the spectacular Cliffs of Moher², rising over more than 120 m from the Atlantic Ocean – next stop North America! Part of our interest was to look for fossils in the shale layers that make up the cliffs.

But all work and no play makes Jack(son) a dull boy. We had plenty of opportunity of letting our hair down. Every day when we returned from the field we were pleased to see a line of pints of Guinness that had been already been poured in readiness for our arrival, around 5 pm. In the evening – besides enjoying a few more glasses of Guinness – we enjoyed dancing to a resident fiddler, Joseph Glynn, and a young barmaid who played the tin whistle. Since I had spent the previous year learning folk dancing, I organized several impromptu ceilidhs.

Joseph Glynn of Limerick, July 1968

Joseph Glynn of Limerick, July 1968

All too soon, our two weeks were over, and we headed back to Dublin via Limerick to catch the boat train from Dún Laoghaire to Holyhead and on to our homes from there. We arrived in Holyhead in the early morning, and I had to travel to Stoke-on-Trent where my parents would pick me up. Leslie Watson also came from Leek, and we were headed in the same direction together as he was taking the opportunity of visiting his parents there. I remember that we cheered ourselves up around 6 am or so on Crewe station, taking a wee dram from a ‘smuggled’ bottle of raw poteen, a traditional spirit distilled from potatoes or grain, whose production was outlawed and remained illegal until the 1990s.

¹ Landscapes photos of the Burren used from Wikipedia under its Creative Commons licences –, where all attributions are filed.
² Photos of the Cliffs of Moher used from Wikipedia under the respective Creative Commons licences –, where all attributions are filed.

Study botany and the world’s your oyster . . .

You bet!

Botany or banking? Is there really a serious choice? I saw a report last year in which botany graduates received higher initial salaries after graduation than many other professions, ranking third after medicine and dentistry, in the UK. That’s hard to believe really. Bankers might certainly reach for the giddy heights in terms of salary packages (and bonuses) but I’m sure that more botanists go to bed each night with a clearer conscience than bankers. And when was the last time you heard of a botanist being reviled by society at large? Well, perhaps if you are in the GM business . . . ?

Not convinced? Well let me tell you why. There is, however, a small caveat. It might be more appropriate to talk about ‘plant sciences’ in the widest sense, because many of the people I’ve met over the decades who do scientific research on and about plants didn’t necessarily study botany per se at university. I don’t think that diminishes my point, however. In the UK, I don’t think there’s a single botany department any longer in the university sector. They all morphed into ‘plant sciences’ or ‘plant biology’ (supposedly more appealing names) or became part of  biological sciences departments. If you were lucky there might be a ‘plants stream’. Botany appears to be in a healthier position in North America.

Plant scientists, it seems, are in great demand. And the traditional image of a botanist couldn’t be further from reality. Whether employed as molecular biologists, geneticists or biochemists (the distinctions are diminishing by the day), plant or crop physiologists, plant breeders, plant pathologists, ecologists, biodiversity and conservation specialists, or even taxonomists, there’s never been a greater need for people to study plants. After all, life on earth depends on plants. Where would we be if we could not successfully grow the crops needed for survival, to adapt to climate change, to keep one step ahead of evolving pathogens, or simply try and understand this wonderful world of ours and its glorious diversity?

Botany has been my ticket to a successful and fruitful career. It’s taken me to many countries in the Americas, Europe, Africa, Asia, and Oceania over four decades – as plant hunter, researcher, teacher, project manager, and speaker. I worked on two important plant species: potato (Solanum tuberosum) and rice (Oryza sativa) and their wild relatives as a taxonomist, germplasm expert, seed physiologist, agronomist, plant breeder, and plant pathologist. My work has been both lab and field based. What more could I have asked for? And I’ve worked with some inspiring colleagues who came to work on potatoes and rice – and other crops – through one avenue or another, not necessarily as botanists, but perhaps through an interest in and love of plants as part of agriculture.

I can’t deny that I have been fortunate – when opportunities arose I was well-placed to take advantage. I studied with some inspiring heavyweights in my chosen fields. But a love and study of plants has made me a happy person – on the whole.

I was out and about yesterday on one of my daily walks. It was a beautiful day, Spring was definitely in the air (at last), and the hedgerows were creeping back into life. In one spot, the bedstraws (Galium spp.) were in their first flush of new growth,  profusely spreading over the bank beside the road, and responding to milder days we have begun to experience recently (in any case it really has been a mild winter). And it was that sight that made me think back to my student days in the late 60s as an undergraduate at Southampton University. There were times when I did wonder if I’d ever use again some of things we were taught and how relevant they might become – like plant anatomy, for example. It’s interesting to know how important anatomy studies have become in the search for and development of a C4 rice to make its photosynthesis more efficient. Researchers at IRRI have studied the leaf anatomy of hundreds of samples of wild rice species, since C4 photosynthesis in plants is associated with the specialized Kranz anatomy.

As an undergraduate I took several plant ecology courses with Dr Joyce ‘Blossom’ Lambert who had worked on and discovered the origin of the Norfolk Broads in East Anglia, UK – not as natural lakes but flooded peat diggings abandoned by the 14th century. But once I’d discovered the ‘link’ between ecology and genetics, I was hooked, and that led to my focus on the conservation and use of plant genetic resources. The rest, as they say, is history . . . 

Proud to be a botanist

Botanist. That’s right. Not plant scientist or plant biologist. Botanist!

Call me old-fashioned, but I prefer the term ‘botany’ to ‘plant sciences’ or ‘plant biology’ that are now preferentially used to give the study of plants a more ‘modern’ image.

And I’m proud that I received my university education in botany: BSc at Southampton (combined with geography, 1970), and MSc (in genetic resources, 1971) and PhD (botany – biosystematics of potatoes, 1975) at Birmingham. By the time I returned to teach at the University of Birmingham in 1981, the Department of Botany had already become the Department of Plant Biology, a decision made in the late 1970s in the hope of attracting more undergraduates to study plant courses offered as part of the biological sciences degree.

Botany has had a bit of a bad press, I guess. For one thing there’s an image issue. It’s often seen as old-fashioned, the purview of enthusiastic Victorian amateurs like country parsons collecting and studying wild flowers, and perhaps not relevant for today’s society. And there has been a significant decline in teaching plant sciences at university level in the UK. Nothing could be further from the truth. Given that food security is dependent upon the productivity of agricultural systems – all life depends on plants in one way or another – the study of plants is essential for humanity’s survival.

In an interesting article [1], Grierson et al. (2011) ask what are the 100 most important questions for plant science research. They also propose that “We need to radically change our culture so that ‘plant scientist’ (or, if we can rehabilitate the term, ‘botanist’) can join ‘doctor’, ‘vet’ and ‘lawyer’ in the list of top professions to which our most capable young people aspire.”

I’ve had a successful career over 40 years based on botany, one way or the other. So why did I become a botanist in the first place? In high school, I didn’t study biology until I began my GCE Advanced Level courses in 1965. Biology was not taught at my school in earlier years, and only accepted a handful of students for the advanced course. I’d always had an interest in natural history, particularly bird watching, and had harbored ideas at one time of becoming a professional ornithologist. But over the two years of the biology ‘A level’, I came to realize there was likely to be a more secure future in plants, and even the possibility of getting into agriculture in some way, better still if that would take me overseas.

Southampton University was not my first choice, but once I’d attended an interview there, I knew that was where I wanted to study. As a botany-geography undergraduate, I knew that there would be a focus on plant ecology, even though we took the full honours course for two years, and selected modules in the final year. My tutor was Dr Joyce Lambert, Reader in Ecology, who had studied the origin of the Norfolk Broads in the east of England, and shown that they were actually man-made, the result of medieval peat diggings that became flooded. Just before I went to Southampton (and for the rest of her career at Southampton – she retired in 1979) she began working on multivariate methods to study plant communities (with former head of department Bill Williams, who had left Southampton in 1966 to join CSIRO in Australia). I even completed my dissertation on an assessment of vegetation sampling techniques based on quadrat size related to the height of the vegetation (not really a success). I made this study in the Back Forest area of the Roaches in the Staffordshire Moorlands. I measured quadrats along a 200 m transect from open heath to larch-oak woodland dropping steeply to the Black Brook and River Dane. I used a tape recorder with a thumb switch microphone to record the presence and absence of species in each quadrat, using a checklist of species.

As a final year student, however, my interests had already begun to turn from ecology. I took courses on plant speciation and plant breeding with geneticist Dr Joe Smartt, and a special course in flowering plant taxonomy offered by Professor Vernon Heywood of Reading University. Southampton’s own taxonomist, Leslie Watson had emigrated to Australia in 1969, and it was felt that a botany degree without any taxonomy component was not complete. Heywood travelled down from Reading once a week for 10 weeks, giving two lectures each time. This was not one of my specific elective courses for examination, but I decided to sit in and listen – and I was hooked. Linking what I heard in Heywood’s lectures with the plant speciation and plant breeding courses, and ecology was the foundation for my career-long study of plant variation, and entry into the world of plant genetic resources.

But there was one research endeavor that really fired my imagine (and others) – and it’s as good today as when it was originally published in the 1930s, 40s and 50s. In a ground-breaking series of experiments, geneticist/ecologist Jens Clausen, taxonomist David Keck, and plant physiologist William Hiesey, from the Carnegie Institute of Washington located on the campus of Stanford University, studied the adaptation of plants to their environments, the variation in plant populations, and the genetical and physiological basis of the variation they observed.

Establishing a series of experimental stations across California, they undertook transplant experiments in a range of species such as Achillea and Potentilla, to understand the nature of variation and species, and published in a series of monographs Experimental Studies on the Nature of Species.

Similar work had been carried out in Scandinavia by Turesson and in Scotland by Gregor, but the Californian group was, in my estimation, pre-eminent. Thus was the concept of the ecotype established. And the methods of experimental taxonomy and genecology which they developed are used to study the nature of variation in the genetic resources of crop plants conserved in genebanks around the world – and certainly the approach I took with my own work on lentils and grasspea (Lathryus sativus), potatoes, and rice.

Another influence was Missouri Botanical Garden geneticist Edgar Anderson. If you’ve not read his highly entertaining and readable Plants, Man & Life, then grab yourself a copy.

But the most influential concept he developed was introgressive hybridization, the merging of plant species populations through crossing and backcrossing – a phenomenon we believe to have played a major role in the evolution of many crop plants.

Joe Smartt encouraged me to follow a career in plant genetic resources. In fact he was the one who suggested I should apply for a place on the Birmingham MSc course on Conservation and Utilization of Plant Genetic Resources, founded by Jack Hawkes in 1969. Joe had studied the cytogenetics of groundnut (= peanut, Arachis spp.) under Walter C Gregory at North Carolina State University, and joined the Department of Botany at Southampton in 1967. He had also spent time in Northern Rhodesia (= Zambia) working on groundnuts in the 1950s.

And the rest is history, as they say, and I spent the rest of my career studying genetic resources and agriculture in many different countries (Peru, Costa Rica, Canary Islands, Philippines and other countries in Asia).

Some of my own interests have included the species relationships of triploid potatoes, and we have looked at the compatibility relationships between wild and cultivated forms.

These photos show the growth of pollen tubes in compatible (left) and incompatible (right) crosses between wild potato species.

In potatoes and rice we made tens of thousands of crosses to understand the biological relationships between different species.

It’s important to make many crosses when the chances of success are quite low. And we have looked at the morphological and biochemical variation in different plant populations – the ability to study species relationships at the molecular level is throwing a whole new perspective on plant speciation; applications of GIS permit easier mapping of diversity.

One of the concepts that has guided much of my work with genetic resources is the genepool concept developed by Illinois geneticists Harlan and de Wet in 1971 [2]. This allows one to assess the relationship between crops and their wild relatives based on crossability, and the accessibility of different genetic resources that can be used in crop improvement.

I’ve been very fortunate in my career choices – all because of my decision to become a botanist. Who says that botany is an old-fashioned science? Just look through the 100 science challenges I referred to earlier on and you will see just how and why it’s ever more important that we invest in the study of plants.

[1] C. S. Grierson, S. R. Barnes, M. W. Chase, M. Clarke, D. Grierson, K. J. Edwards, G. J. Jellis, J. D. Jones, S. Knapp, G. Oldroyd, G. Poppy, P. Temple, R. Williams, and R. Bastow, 2011. One hundred important questions facing plant science research. New Phytologist 192 (1): 6-12.

[2] J.R. Harlan and J.M.J. de Wet, 1971. Toward a rational classification of cultivated plants. Taxon 20: 509-517.