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.


Around the world in 40 years . . . Part 3. Guatemala

In April 1976, my wife and I moved to Turrialba, Costa Rica where I set up an office for the International Potato Center at CATIE – Centro Agronómico Tropical de Investigación y Enseñanza. My principal remit was to develop a research program on adaptation of potatoes to warm and humid environments – the so-called tropical potato, as well as supporting the regional activities that were led at that time by my colleague Oscar Hidalgo from the regional office in Toluca, Mexico.

Very soon the focus of my work became the bacterial wilt pathogen (Ralstonia solanacearum), and this led to the identification of some interesting sources of resistance to the disease and development of agronomic practices to reduce the severity of attack in the field. And when Oscar moved (in late 1977) to North Carolina to begin his studies for a PhD in plant pathology, I became CIP’s regional leader for Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean, and we transferred the regional office to Turrialba. And in early 1978 we began to develop the concept of what became PRECODEPA, a cooperative regional potato program funded in large part by the Swiss government. Through PRECODEPA I visited Guatemala many times. The potato scientists there took responsibility for postharvest storage technologies.

In the south of the country the mountains stretch from the frontier with Mexico in the west to El Salvador and Honduras in the west. And it’s in the mountains to the west of Guatemala City, in the region of Quetzaltenango that most potatoes are grown. Much of the country, stretching way to the north is low-lying tropical rainforest – the home of the Mayans, and where we visited Tikal in 1977.

There are many volcanoes in Guatemala, some active. To the west of Guatemala City lies the old city of Antigua, and further west still the Lago de Atitlán, with a ring of villages on its shores, each named after one of the Twelve Apostles. The highly picturesque town of Sololá lies close by to the north.

27-1977-07 Solola 09Unlike Costa Rica, which has a very small indigenous community, Guatemala is ethnically and culturally very rich, and reminded us of our years in Peru. The beautiful weavings and typical costumes can be seen everywhere, and on an every day basis.

Guatemalan agriculture is quite interesting based as it is on multicropping or milpa systems of maize, beans and squashes. In fact, multi- or intercropping is extremely common in Guatemala, and I’ve even seen potatoes intercropped with maize and other crops there – something that is quite uncommon in other countries.

06-1977-07 Comalapa 0102-1977-07 Lago de Atitlan 02

During one of our visits we met with representatives of an NGO (with several US citizens involved) in a small community, Comalapa, about 67 km west of Guatemala City and north of the provincial capital of Chimaltenango. I must have been very naive. It’s only quite recently that I became aware of the civil war that was ongoing in Guatemala at that time, and I’ve often asked myself whether we were lucky not to have come across either right-wing or left-wing groups that made people ‘disappear’.

Here are some photos that I took around Lago de Atitlán and Sololá.

Tikal – may the force be with you

July/August 1977 (so long ago I don’t remember exactly). Destination: Guatemala.

My work with the International Potato Center (CIP) in Central America took me to Guatemala quite frequently between 1976 and 1980. We supported the Instituto de Ciencia y Tecnología Agrícolas – ICTA in seed production and post harvest storage of potatoes.

Guatemala is a beautiful and fascinating country, and has a large indigenous population (unlike Costa Rica where we lived at the time). However, more of that to come in another story.

Steph travelled with me only occasionally, but in 1997 I’d planned a trip to Guatemala (visiting Quetzaltenango) and Mexico, and returning to Costa Rica with a short stop in San Pedro Sula in Honduras to stay with John and Marion Vessey (who were the witnesses at our wedding in Lima in 1973). After leaving CIP in 1974, John had joined CIMMYT in Mexico for a couple of years, before moving on to United Fruit and carrying out research on banana diseases.

And during this work visit to Guatemala it was too good an opportunity not to miss out on a visit to the Mayan ruins of Tikal, deep in the jungle of the Department of El Petén, about 190 miles by air due north of Guatemala City.

We decided on a two-day visit to Tikal, arriving early the first day, and departing in the middle of the afternoon on the second. I guess the flight (on an old Aviateca DC3 or similar) took less than an hour, landing on the rough strip not far from the Tikal ruins park.

Buses took us to the Jungle Inn where we would stay – basically bamboo huts, rather rudimentary, but adequate for just one night (but has certainly gone up-market in recent years). From there it was a short walk through the forest into the ruins.

1977-07 Tikal 01

At first there was not a lot to see, but as the forest opened up somewhat there were tantalizing views of masonry among the trees, and walls disappearing off into the distance. And all of a sudden, there they were in all their magnificence, the tall temples that the Mayans had constructed centuries earlier.

There’s so much to see, and a huge number of pyramids and other buildings that (in 1977 at least) were still hidden under swathes of vegetation. But the principal temples have been uncovered, the central plaza and surrounding sites opened up to reveal the true majesty of this important Mayan site. No doubt, however, that the two pyramids facing each other across the main plaza are truly impressive – and steep!

And the views from the top are particularly striking, with tops of other ruined temples peeking above the trees into the distance.

All around are the reminders of what a sophisticated civilization the Mayans had. There’s even a ‘football pitch’ – well, a court for playing a game with a rubber ball made from the latex of local plant (but not the rubber tree – that’s from South America).

There’s so much to see and explore that time passes quickly. One advantage of an overnight stay is that you can visit the ruins very early in the morning, as we did on the second day. I don’t remember too much about our night there, except for the constant hum of mosquitoes.

All too soon our visit was over, and our DC3 was lumbering down the airstrip and lifting off into the late afternoon sun towards Guatemala City.

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And of course, Tikal was featured as the rebels’ headquarters in George Lucas’ first Star Wars movie (Episode IV) released in 1977 — just before we went there!

We’ve been fortunate to visit several other iconic sites in our travels: Machu Picchu, of course, in southern Peru; the Pyramids of the Sun and Moon at Teotihuacán, just northeast of Mexico City; and Angkor Wat in Cambodia. We’ve seen some of the most impressive native American sites in Arizona and New Mexico, and would love to visit all the sites of ancient Egypt, and Petra in Jordan – if only the political situation would settle down and permit safe travel. One day . . .

PRECODEPA – one of the CGIAR’s first research networks

Establishing a regional program
In April 1976, CIP opened an office in Turrialba, Costa Rica, hosted by the Centro Agronómico Tropical de Investigación y Enseñanza (CATIE). My role there was to support the regional office based in Toluca, Mexico, and to carry out research on breeding potatoes to tropical conditions, and once we’d realized the problem of bacterial wilt, searching for resistance to this insidious disease.

In July 1997, the regional leader, Ing. Oscar Hidalgo (a Peruvian bacteriologist) departed for his PhD studies in the USA, and instead of transferring me to Toluca, the Turrialba office became the regional headquarters. And in doing so, my responsibilities changed considerably; I became CIP’s primary link with the national potato programs in Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean.

I was supported by my boss in Lima, Dr Ken Brown, who had joined CIP in early 1976 to support the Outreach Program, and soon becoming the head of the Regional Research Program, replacing Dick Wurster. Ken was a cotton physiologist, and had spent most of his career in various parts of Africa, especially Nigeria, and just before joining CIP had headed a cotton research project in Pakistan. Ken was a fantastic person to work with – he knew just how to manage people, was very supportive, and the last thing he ever tried to do was micromanage other people’s work. I learnt a great deal about program and people management from Ken.

Towards the end of 1977, Dr John Niederhauser, proposed the idea of a cooperative regional network among several countries. I worked closely with John over about six months developing and refining ideas, and travelling together to meet program leaders (and even ministers and vice ministers of agriculture) in six countries: Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Costa Rica, Panama, and the Dominican Republic. In April 1978 a meeting was held in Guatemala City to launch the Programa Regional Cooperativa de Papa – PRECODEPA, with funding from the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC).


The inaugural meeting of PRECODEPA in Guatemala City, April 1978. L to R (sitting): Ken Brown, me, Richard Sawyer, John Niederhauser (CIP), Carlos Crisostomo (ICTA-Guatemala), unknown. I don’t recognise/remember the two gentlemen standing in the rear.

The SDC was just the right donor agency – one with a long-term commitment. Although I’m not able to determine the current status of PRECODEPA, it was supported by the SDC for more than 25 years, and expanded from the initial six countries to 10 or more, with French and English-speaking countries participating. Of course the original members were all Spanish-speaking – one of the major advantages of this regional program in its early years.

For the next three years, much of my time as CIP’s regional leader was spent supporting PRECODEPA and contributing my own work on bacterial wilt and seed production. However, I have to say that my role during this period – especially during the inception design and development phase – has essentially been removed from the record. And for reasons I could never understand, John Niederhauser chose not to recognize the important contributions that CIP (and me) made to the overall success of PRECODEPA.

Why was PRECODEPA needed, and what did it achieve?
While potato was an important commodity in most of the countries of the region, it was never in the same league as other staples such as maize and beans. Mexico had (and still has) the largest area of potato cultivation in the region, but even this pales into insignificance compared to maize. While agriculture ministries supported potato production, this crop was not a top priority, nor did the countries have the resources (both finance and staff) to support and maintain a fully-rounded potato program. Thus the principal idea behind PRECODEPA was a distributed research effort among the member countries, with each taking leadership in one or more areas of potato research and production which had a high national priority, and sharing that expertise with the other members of the network. This also facilitated support from CIP in that CIP specialists were able to meet with their counterparts from one or two countries in the region rather than all of them, and then the national programs supporting each other, as explained earlier.

Thus, Mexico took a lead in seed potato production and late blight research (Phytophthora infestans; some of the pioneer research funded by the Rockefeller Foundation was carried out in the Toluca valley); Guatemala concentrated on post harvest storage, Costa Rica on bacterial wilt (Ralstonia solanacearum), and Panama on potato cyst nematode (Globodera spp.) After 40 years I cannot remember the lead activities for Honduras and the Dominican Republic. With support from the SDC and back stopping from CIP each country developed its capabilities in its lead area, offered training and technical support to the other members, and in turn received support from the others in those areas where it was ‘weaker’.

Among the first national members of PRECODEPA were Ing. Manuel Villareal (Mexico), who had once served as CIP’s regional leader for Region II, Ing. Alberto Vargas (Vice Minister) and Ing. Fernando Cartín from the agriculture ministry in Costa Rica, Ing. Roberto Rodriguez (IDIAP) from Panama, and Ing. Polibio Vargas from the Dominican Republic. Unfortunately, after 38 years, I am unable to remember the names of the Guatemala (ICTA) and Honduras representatives. In 1979, I think it was, Peruvian scientist Dr Jorge Christiansen was appointed to PRECODEPA and based in Guatemala.

The fact that all original members spoke Spanish was a huge advantage. This greatly facilitated all the nitty-gritty discussions needed to achieve consensus among the members about the advantages of working together – as equals. The fact that the SDC supported PRECODEPA for so many years is one indication of its success. On the SDC website there is this succinct assessment: PRECODEPA’s achievements include increases in yields, output and profitability; substantial reduction in the use of pesticides – representing savings for Central American farmers and reducing the impact on the environment and consumers; the beginnings of a processing industry (French fries, crisps) – meaning regional products entered a market previously dominated by their powerful northern neighbours; production of quality potato seed and the development of a regional potato seed market; and training for thousands of farmers and technicians.

I’m proud to have been part of this innovative program – one of the first such research networks or regional programs established by the centers of the CGIAR.

CIP’s direct involvement
CIP contributed specifically in a couple of areas. In an earlier post I have described the work we did on resistance to bacterial wilt. Some of those resistant materials found their way into the Costarrican seed potato program.

Seed production through rapid multiplication techniques was another important area, and I supported in this by seed production specialist Jim Bryan who spent a sabbatical year with me in 1979-80. We developed further (from Jim’s initial work in Lima) the techniques of stem, sprout and single-node cuttings [1], bringing these to the field to produce disease-free seed potatoes, and help establish a vibrant seed potato industry in Costa Rica.

Since I left CIP (in March 1981) PRECODEPA increased in size, and the members continued to share the coordination of the program among the members. As the information on the SDC website indicates, PRECODEPA was indeed the blueprint for other regional programs on maize and beans, and for other collaborative programs around the world. It was a model for the various consortia that have developed among the centers of the CGIAR and national program partners.

[1] Bryan, J.E., M.T. Jackson & N. Melendez, 1981. Rapid Multiplication Techniques for Potatoes. International Potato Center, Lima, Peru.