Written by: Dion Garrett – My experiences of working with an industry partner and taking advantage of the opportunities they have to offer
As part of the Waitrose Collaborative Training Partnership (CTP), I am in a unique situation to gain insight into how a business operates and how research directly feeds into it. Now in my final year of a 4-year PhD, I can reflect on my experiences of working directly with my industry partner and how my research and skillset have benefitted both myself and my industry partner.
I am based at Rothamsted Research (Harpenden, UK), registered at the University of Warwick and my industry partner is G’s Fresh (Cambridgeshire).
In the midst of a pandemic, my options for an engaging Professional Internships for PhD students (PIPS) was somewhat restricted. These PIPS allow students to gain work experience in any professional environment and offer a huge degree of flexibility. There were a few PIPS opportunities that came up during the months I was deciding, but nothing of real interest, and the thought of working in an office really did not appeal to me. Plus, it was likely that I would have had to undertake the role from my own home, which would limit my experience. Fortunately, I am in a good position in my career, as I am set on pursuing a role within entomology and therefore knew it would be beneficial to gain some additional experience in that area. I approached my supervisor at G’s Fresh and discussed the opportunity to conduct my PIPS with them with this aim in mind. So last summer I assumed the role of an Innovation and Trials Coordinator at G’s Fresh, based at the Cambridgeshire site.
Figure 1: One of the water reservoirs up at the Norfolk G’s Fresh site which I always enjoyed going past during my PIPS. This was heavily planted with a diverse wildflower mix and always full of beneficial insects from Spring-Autumn.
G’s Fresh undergo a variety of trials within their groups and I was part of the pest monitoring and team. My role included the design of trials to improve the management of agricultural pests and aid in the various pest monitoring programs in operation. Due to the nature of the work, I was given ‘key worker’ status and permitted to travel between trial sites and do the necessary field work. I was involved with a few trials during my PIPS but my favourite one was testing the efficacy of a nematode at controlling capsid bugs, which can cause serious crop losses to celery. For the success of this trial, I needed to coordinate with a number of growers, farm operators and outside companies. Assisting on other trials hosted by my group gave me awareness of many aspects of agricultural research outside of entomology. What I enjoyed in particular was the fast-paced nature of some of the trials, which made the planning and design key for success. This included timing of pest migrations, critical sampling points and occasionally chasing farmers (not literally). It was especially satisfying to present and disseminate my work to growers, agronomists and farm staff who expressed real interest in the work being conducted and were always willing to provide support both in the office and in the field.
Figure 2: Left: A capsid (tarnished plant bug, Lygus rugulipennis) caught in the act, with fresh feeding damage on celery. Right: Once a capsid has fed, the celery continues to grow and forms dark blemishes and hard lesions which can cause significant crop losses.
Another way that I have worked with my industry partner to build both my experience and their own expertise is to assist with their monitoring protocols. G’s Fresh monitor a variety of insects important to agriculture and include silver-y moth, turnip moth, diamond-back moth, capsid bugs, carrot fly, cabbage root fly and various aphids (amongst others). To monitor these insects over hundreds of fields and across counties, traps are set up in field (or near as possible) to monitor when pest numbers are likely to reach threshold levels and become a problem. These traps act as an early warning to growers and enable targeted and more specific control measures to be implemented.
Part of my PhD project research involved trying to improve the monitoring strategies of a severe pest of lettuce, the currant-lettuce aphid (Nasonovia ribisnigri). During my first and second year of the PhD, I incorporated pop-up suction traps at different heights at the G’s Fresh Cambridgeshire site. These traps passively sample the air column and are especially good at capturing small flying insects (such as aphids). The pop-up suction traps replicate their larger cousins that are used in the suction trap network run by Rothamsted Research Insect Survey to produce pest bulletins. I collected samples from the traps installed at G’s twice a week and identified all pest aphids down to a species-level. This information was disseminated via a pest bulletin to growers at G’s Fresh and provided species-level accuracy on their farms.
Figure 3: Left: Me looking for aphids in prickly lettuce situated in one of the field margins in Cambridgeshire. Right: One of the pop-up suction traps used by G’s Fresh designed by Rothamsted Insect Survey.
As a result of my research, G’s Fresh procured some of these pop-up suction traps from the Rothamsted Research Insect Survey and incorporated them into their pest monitoring strategies to create a mini network of suction traps on their farms. Identifying aphid to species-level is tricky but I selected a handful of species, particularly relevant to G’s Fresh, and trained a member of the team to identify them for themselves, so the knowledge won’t be lost.
This opportunity has provided me with many industry contacts and ties that I would not have had otherwise. It was also great to have an input and see improvements to the science of my industry partner as a result of my actions. I also developed my team working, teaching and management skills, whilst working in the area I value. Finally, the success of my work during my PIPS has provided me with a part-time job during the pest monitoring season this summer.
For anyone who is reading this who thinking of going down the PhD route, and unsure whether a Waitrose CTP PhD is right for you, I would give it high consideration. If you like multidisciplinary work, working with people in diverse environments, travelling, acquiring transferrable skills, and tailoring your research which can have real world impacts, then this is a perfect fit for you.