Why can’t we just talk about it?

Agri-Tech East’s mission to get farmers and researchers communicating

Getting two groups of diverse people talking is always difficult, even more so when they are both driven by different goals. Farmers and agriculturalists focus on innovative technology in order to achieve good harvests to try to maximise their returns. Plant scientists however want to understand the underlying biology of their research of interest. So these two groups have different driving factors of profits and principles. Working together is therefore immensely challenging. One way to tackle this is to improve the dialogue between the two groups by identifying the common ground.

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International Undergraduate Summer School

From working with top researchers in the field of plant biology to living with other students of such fun, character and like-mindedness, the John Innes Centre International Undergraduate Summer School was an unforgettable experience. Not only did it confirm my desire to study beyond my degree to PhD level, it has opened my eyes to how research teams run and has given me experience of working in a world-leading lab.

The first day began with settling in to halls on the UEA campus, where all JIC summer students were placed together. After finding the rooms and meeting and greeting, the friendly PhD students met me and the others for the first night’s event. An evening of pizza making and lots of drink meant everyone bonded well from the start. The initial days on the programme involved me meeting my research team and supervisor, as well as establishing the project on which I was about to embark over the next eight weeks. I focused on flowering time in Arabidopsis thaliana with Caroline Dean, whose lab was truly great. I learned new techniques and protocols with state-of-the-art equipment that would only be available at a centre such as JIC.

Making pizza

Making pizza in the evening at the International Undergraduate Summer School. Photograph: John Innes Centre.

Over the weeks, my knowledge of my project grew, and enabled me to work more independently. Alongside this I learned what a great environment JIC is, not only in terms of research, but also the running of the centre. There was always someone at hand willing to help, be it for potting my plants or fixing my bike. In my free time, I often visited local areas around Norwich, and made full use of the heated outdoor pool at JIC! Many activities took place throughout the summer, meaning I met people from across the site. I realised how enthusiastic and loyal all the workers there are.

To finalise the programme, all summer school students took part in a retreat to Cromer. This involved presenting work and raising encouraging questions to one another in a relaxed setting, whilst also getting a feel for how a typical conference would be run. Ending with a quick dip in the sea, it was a great way to conclude the programme.

Students on the 2015 International Undergraduate Summer School. Photograph: John Innes Centre.

Students on the 2015 International Undergraduate Summer School. Photograph: John Innes Centre.

All in all, it was a fantastic experience and has been a truly unforgettable summer. I recommend anyone interested in entering the botanical world of research or academia to apply, not only for the science, but also for the great and interesting people you will meet.

Olivia took part in the 2015 International Undergraduate Summer School, a programme that takes place every year. She tweets as @oliviatasker.

Applications for the 2016 International Undergraduate Summer School will open on Monday 19 October 2015 here.

11 things every new PhD student should know

I started my PhD nearly a year ago now, and the time has absolutely flown by. With many people setting out to start a PhD in September and October it made me think about what I have learned this year, and the top tips I would tell anyone about to embark on a PhD in Science:

1 Don’t be afraid to ask questions

Don't be afraid to ask questions during your PhD.

Don’t be afraid to ask questions during your PhD.

No one minds. It’s better to ask how to do something if you don’t understand than waste your time doing it wrong. Everyone in the lab has been in your position before. We don’t bite!

2 Write down EVERYTHING

And I mean everything. At the beginning of your PhD, you’re excited, you’re in a new lab, doing new things, and sometimes you may not write everything down. It happens. But in a few months’ time when you look back at that crucial PCR – the one where everything amplified beautifully – and you realise you forgot to write down the annealing temperature, you will kick yourself.


Only last week I came a cropper when I realised I had mislabelled one of my early glycerol stocks, which meant I had to redo the previous stage of my experiment. Labelling really well may take you a few extra minutes, but it will be well worth it in the future.

4 Plan your day

Plan your daily activities: it can be hard to keep track of what you're doing otherwise.

Plan your daily activities: it can be hard to keep track of what you’re doing otherwise.

When you have several experiments on the go it can be pretty hectic, and hard to keep track of everything. It can useful to make a list at the beginning of the day, or the evening before, of everything you need to do. That way you won’t end up on Friday realising that you can’t do that experiment because you forgot to prepare the overnight cultures.

5 Make time for yourself

Yes, the PhD is really important, and yes, it’s good to get excited about it and take a huge interest in it, but don’t let it take up all your time. It’s important to have a healthy work-life balance. Personally, I find that taking that extra break, and having that evening off, helps me be more productive and make fewer mistakes. A PhD is a long time, and you should make that time as enjoyable as you can – both inside and outside the lab.

6 Take the time to get to know your lab

This one is easy – just chat to everyone! Go to lunch together, have a tea break, make sure you go to the lab meetings. And if the lab doesn’t do these things you could always suggest it. A lab that has great communication is the best sort of lab, and will make your days at work all the better. A friendly and fun working environment makes everything so much nicer.

7 Get involved

Conferences are a great way to meet new people.

Conferences are a great way to meet new people.

Go to seminars, departmental meetings and conferences, both at home and away. They are a great way to find out what others are doing both in your department, and across the institute. It helps you build those connections up – you never know, they could be crucial in the future. And don’t be afraid to mingle! It’s a big thing at first to get out of your comfort zone, step away from your friends, and talk to someone about their work, but it’s well worth it.

8 Try not to eat at your desk

If you are doing a lot of experiments in a day, and are really rushed off your feet, you may decide to just eat your lunch at your desk. But, this can often leave you feeling dissatisfied. Even if it’s only a 15 minute break, having your lunch away from your desk and lab can be really beneficial. It takes you away from the lab and work completely, and you will return feeling refreshed.

9 Just because you had a bad day today doesn’t mean it will be a bad day tomorrow

Everyone has bad days, the day when your RNA extraction just won’t work, or you run your DNA off your gel. It happens. Take a breath and start over.  Don’t let it get you down.

10 If you are having problems with your PhD speak to someone about it

The first few months can be a bit rocky: settling in to a new city, a new lab, making new friends, learning new things. If you are finding something hard in your project, or are feeling unsatisfied, out of your depth, or just stressed out, chat to your supervisor about it. Or if you feel you don’t want to talk directly to your supervisor, try another PhD student or lab member. It is normal to have periods throughout your PhD where you feel a bit down or stressed. When things aren’t working, it can be demoralising, but having someone you can talk it out with can help.

11 Enjoy!

A PhD can at times be frustrating and hard work but it’s extremely enjoyable and one of the most rewarding things you will ever do.

Erica is a PhD student at the John Innes Centre. She tweets as @EricaHawkins16.

Six things I learned at my first conference

Last month I had the opportunity, together with some of my MSc classmates, to attend the annual meeting of Monogram, a network of UK-based researchers and breeders of small grain cereals and grasses. The 2015 event took place at Rothamsted Research, a leading research centre in plant and soil science.

First, I should say that this wasn’t really my first conference. When I was an undergraduate I went to a plant physiology conference in Argentina. But that was only vaguely related to what I did, so I didn’t really feel like I was an active part of the meeting. The good thing was that I saw a lecture from Cathie Martin and her purple tomatoes. Who would have guessed I would now be working at the same institute as her? A small world, I guess.

So here are six things I found out at Monogram this year.

1 Presenting a poster is a great way of meeting new people

When my supervisor suggested that I present a poster, he said this would be a great way of meeting new people – and he was right.


Gabi and her poster at Monogram 2015.

Gabi and her poster at Monogram 2015.

I got the chance to meet several scientists from Rothamsted, many of whom remembered presentations from members of my research group at previous conferences. This meant they were familiar with our research and had very good questions about my project.

I even met fellow Brazilian researchers who were working there, which was a great way to feel closer to home (most of our conversations were about how we missed the sunny weather though, so not very academic!).

I also got to do some networking with breeders and researchers from the private sector. I’m very interested in going into industry after my master’s, so this was this was a great opportunity. Everyone was really approachable and I was able to ask a lot of questions about their work. It was definitely worth getting over my shyness for this!

2 People are actually interested in your research

This probably sounds very naive, but as I had never presented a poster in a conference before, I half-expected nobody to show up to hear about it during the poster session. But I was pleasantly surprised. Several people came to talk to me about it – both researchers and breeders. I even met a breeder who had been involved in the development of one of the lines I was using!

3 Bringing research and industry together is a great idea

One of the things that sets Monogram apart, I think, is the involvement of different stakeholders interested in wheat. The conference was attended by scientists working in fundamental and applied research, biostatisticians, molecular breeders, industry scientists, pre-breeders and breeders. And because everyone had a common interest, the conversations were really engaging – at the presentations and especially during the breaks.

Several projects presented in the conference were actually a result of joint efforts from cereal researchers and industry players, which really impressed me. Plants form such an important part of our diet, and it’s great to see how work in academia can have an impact on people’s lives through links with industry. This is what appeals to me so much in crop science.

4 Early career scientists are getting more attention

As well as two presentations from the winners of the Early Career Excellence Awards, several other PhD students presented their work at Monogram. This meant they could get feedback from experienced researchers, interact with industry workers and inspire other early career scientists.

Seeing fellow students presenting so well in such an important meeting was definitely an incentive. I don’t expect they knew they were acting as role models, but they definitely were. I think this is one of the reasons why including early career scientists and giving them a chance to present is so important in a conference.

5 I knew half the people there.

Maybe not quite half, but there were a lot of people from the John Innes Centre at Monogram this year. It was great to socialise with people I see in work every day but never really get the chance to talk to. I got to know many people from my department better, and this has had a good impact on my social interactions here. Conferences are great places to learn new things, but they are also an opportunity to form ties with your colleagues.

6 You shouldn’t wait too long to go to one!

Going to Monogram was one of the highlights of my year. We were the only master’s students there – and that brings me to my final point: don’t wait until you’re a PhD student before going to a conference! Going as an undergraduate or MSc student is really useful. You learn a lot and get to know many people who share your interests. It can help you decide what you want to study in your PhD – and you may even meet project leaders you later end up working with.

Gabi is a master’s student at the John Innes Centre. She tweets as @gabiieverett.