Soil science. A man’s world?

This piece was written by Franciska de Vries, owner of Frantecologist. I think this is a very enlightening and well-written piece, one that really highlights the gender problem we have in science. I am a fellow soil/plant scientist (PhD student), and it concerns me that in the next few years it could be hard for me to pursue an academic career or even gain momentum to get to the top of my field (be that academia or industry). We cannot let this problem just be swept under the rug; we need to keep talking about it, and making a big deal out of it.

Read on, soldier on, and let’s fight for science equality.


I am a female soil scientist (a soil ecologist, more specifically). And while traditionally the field of soil science has been dominated by men, I’d like to think that women are catching up. Certainly in the labs where I have worked in the last 10 years, women have dominated the postdoc and PhD positions, although this trend yet has to reach the more senior, permanent academic posts. (Unfortunately, there are many reasons why it might not.)

And I couldn’t help but notice that in a recent NERC strategic call for soil science grants (within the larger Soil Security and SARISA programmes), all eight grants that were awarded had male principal investigators. (And that is on top of the fact that all other projects in these two programmes, which were funded about two years ago, are also led by men.)

And because of this traditional male domination of soil…

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New Year Musings

Hello everyone!

I have been a bit lapse in writing regularly on this blog, and now is the time to start making amends.

A bit of an update for you: I have moved into my third year of my PhD (where did the time go..?), and now I only have 2 years left until I submit! Well actually 1 year, 8 months, and 19 days, but who needs that much specificity in their life… Anway, I have spent the last (almost) 2 years living in Australia, and working at the University of Adelaide, but in 2 and half months I will be moving back to my birthland – the UK to undertake the last year and a half of my PhD at the University of Nottingham. Because I am a joint PhD student, I spend roughly equal amounts of time at two universities, and as a result, I get a jointly awarded PhD at the end of it. Plus a tonne of international experience. Win-win.

So now it’s dawning on me that I need to turn on the engines after a relaxed Christmas break, knuckle down and do the work. But before I do that, I want to share how I’d like to develop this blog over the next year. When I first started, this blog was a platform to share cool, new and exciting things that are going on in the research world. And I’d still like to carry on with that. Now in addition to that, I want to share more stories about women in Science, and particularly about the roles they play in Soil and Plant Science (fields close to my heart). I also want to talk more about the types of jobs available for a PhD student, like me, like you, like whoever. People say the only options for a scientist (who wants to stay in science) are academia or industry. But I say, let’s prove them wrong.

So cheers to a new year and cheers to more blogging! And to top off my musings, here is a picture of me chilling on holiday, with no thoughts of science swirling through my head.




Diving in Gili Trawangan (O.Cousins)



Feature image: farmers planting rice on Christmas Day (O.Cousins)


Communication – the art of science

I’m back! It’s been an interesting few months, but work is ever so slowly ticking away, but it’s now nearly Christmas so I can start winding down.

Last month, I decided to test my video-making skills and make a 3-minute video detailing my PhD research. I submitted it to my school as part of our Research Day video competition. The synopsis is that wheat is an important source of food, but climate change is impacting rainfall, which in turn affects the solubility of nitrogen and efficiency of its uptake. Both water and nitrogen are important for healthy plant growth, so the goal is to find a way in which we can maximise yields despite the unpredictability of rainfall and lower nitrogen application rates.

Unfortunately, it didn’t win, but I learnt a lot in the whole process. Like don’t leave it until the last week to make it. Or stay up late. You will end up making mistakes and having to re-do it… Oh the joys.

That aside, definitely keen to continue making videos alongside my blog! If you have any ideas, give me a shout. I love hearing from fellow scientists and also the non-scientists among you.

I’ll leave you with some inspirational quotes:

We must have perseverance and above all confidence in ourselves. We must believe that we are gifted for something and that this thing must be attained. ~ Marie Curie

Science and everyday life cannot and should not be separated. ~ Rosalind Franklin

Science and art belong to the whole world, and before them vanish the barriers of nationality. ~ Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Enjoy! 🙂


Community-driven change

With the increasing pace of modern-day agriculture, often the health of the environment and consumers’ well-being is overlooked. This is evident across the globe, with many farmers opting for high-intensity farming to maximize crop and meat yields to meet consumer demands.

However, some groups of people are working towards more sustainable agriculture, through development of community-based projects and indigenous-based technology. By adopting indigenous knowledge, technology can be adapted to harness local resources better. The outcome of these projects look a little different, depending on whether it is for a developed or developing country. I want to share two case studies from the UK and Indonesia, both of which use the local community to develop and build technology that are environmentally-friendly, sustainable and educational. As someone who is both Indonesian and British, I have seen a few of these examples first-hand, engaged in conversations with project leaders and played a minor role in setting up similar projects.

A UK-based case study which has helped to demonstrate community-based agriculture is Riverford Organic Farmers Ltd. In the late 1980s, Guy Watson turned to organic farming and started distributing his locally-grown produce to family and friends via a weekly vegetable box scheme. Quickly, the network of box-scheme deliveries expanded, now with more than 47,000 boxes delivered a week to customers around the country. The focus of this scheme is to grow varieties for their flavor rather than their appearance, avoiding the use of pesticides, instead adopting integrated pest management. The boxes’ contents range from root vegetables to soft vegetables and salads, to fruit and meats. In order to deliver high quantities of boxes across the country, Riverford has formed a mutual co-operation of British farmers who are committed to organic, sustainable farming, and together they produce, pack and supply the boxes. They pride themselves in the quick turnaround of supply, with food taking no more than 2 days from harvesting to delivery.


Guy Watson with one of the various Riverford veg boxes.

Another case study, this time from Indonesia, involves Rus Alit from the Bali Appropriate Technology Institute (BATI). I have personally met him and stayed with him. Born and raised in Bali, Indonesia, he noticed the difficulties elderly people in his village faced collecting water. Villagers were unable to access the nearby spring, meaning they had to hike long distances and rough terrain to access clean water. Although the village spring was inaccessible, the rate at which it pumped water – 38 drums every 24 hours – was perfect for a technology boost. Rus designed a prototype of a hydraulic ram pump, which enables water to be powered from a source that is lower than the desired outsource. Village leaders were skeptical about the technology, but once they saw the prototype in action, it was enough to encourage them to adopt the system and build it, along with Rus’ guidance. The villagers now had a pump that delivered water from the once-inaccessible spring into a holding tank in the village. Soon enough each house had piping which delivered clean water. Not only was the pump easy and cheap to install, it also instilled a desire in Rus to develop more sustainable, cheap and simple technology for communities around Indonesia that would otherwise struggle to get hold of this technology. As a result, BATI was born. Rus spends time developing technology alongside rural indigenous communities, working with their resources and knowledge. The mandate is that once a community has learned how to use a particular technology, they teach and help nearby communities. Twice a year, BATI runs week-long courses for eager learners from across Asia. They come away with new knowledge of building water pumps, roads and bridges, learning sustainable agriculture, irrigation and animal husbandry. These skills, no longer taught in our modern society, have helped shape the future of many rural and indigenous communities not only in Indonesia, but across Asia. All because of one man and BATI.

The development of community and indigenous-based technology for sustainable development has helped to create a more resilient society, a society that knows how to use their environment to their advantage, ensuring they always have enough food and water. However, there is a difference between the technology and projects showcased here. With countries like Indonesia, there is a greater focus on developing technology and agriculture systems that are not only sustainable, but will increase community health, either through increased yields of staple crops from smallholdings or the provision of clean water. The technology needs to be appropriate for the local indigenous community, utilizing local resources and requiring no or little outside energy sources, reducing environmental footprint. With countries like the UK, communities lean towards developing a more organic way of farming, with preferences for produce taste rather than appearance. The price of food is no longer the main driver for growing food; if foods are produced in an organic or sustainable way, consumers will pay.

The factor that binds these countries together is the desire to make agriculture more sustainable, for the sake of the environment and well-being of consumers. There is an urgent need to peel back the principles of farming (terrestrial or aquaculture) to highlight sustainable farming practices which are accessible to all communities whether they are developed or developing. Inventors can be made anywhere; it is essential that the next generation is taught the importance of the environment and sustainable agriculture, and the skills to develop appropriate technology to meet the requirements of each community. Only then can communities shift towards creating a self-preserving society.

Now I just have to play my part.



Feature image: rice fields in the early morning in a small village in Bali, Indonesia (O.Cousins).

Community, technology, sustainability

Three important words. Community. Technology. Sustainability. In this day and age it is absolutely crucial that our scientific advances become more sustainable if we are to maintain and grow our agriculture communities and develop better technology for feeding and taking care of the world.


Last week I attended the AC21 International Graduate School 2017 at Universitas Gadjah Mada (UGM) in Yogyakarta, Indonesia. Around 45 students attended the week-long summer school, with Indonesia, South Africa, Australia, Americas, Europe, Thailand, Japan and China represented. The title of the summer school was ‘Community and indigenous-based technology for sustainable development towards resilient society’. This topic was given to us in a variety of different ways, through lectures, workshops, community service, internship and excursions. It was highlighted that universities need to become a bridge between the work they do (whether it is science or humanities) and the surrounding communities. By doing this, it creates an awareness in the students towards problems faced by their surrounding communities. In turn it can create a healthy relationship between university and community and aid in developing research-based community service.

The two lectures that stuck with me the most were presented by lecturers from UGM. Dr. Murtiningrum not only highlighted the importance of soil in agriculture, but how water plays a role in soil physics and behaviour. She got us to think about how the area of arable soil available in Indonesia affects how the people farm. She got us into groups of 7, and told us stand on a piece of newspaper; at first, only one person was allowed on the newspaper, then 3, then all 7 group members. She made us think strategically in how to maximise space yet still fit all of our group on that newspaper sheet. This is how the Indonesian farmers must think, they must be strategic in their farming practices, otherwise they cannot maximise crop yields or economic yield.

Prof. Irfan Dwidya Prijambada gave a very energetic seminar on community empowerment for sustainable technology transfer. He is a key helper in developing community service projects between communities and undergraduate students from UGM. He talked about projects he has helped to set up through UGM. Community service is compulsory for final year students. These students spend a few months usually in a local village getting to know the community. Whilst there, they share their knowledge to help set up a project that will benefit the community; in return they learn a lot more from their village hosts – interpersonal skills, life skills, communication skills, cultural skills. I saw firsthand some of the work Prof. Prijambada has done with local communities and villages to create sustainable farming practices and economic ventures. We visited a local cacao plantation, where they grow and graft their own cacao trees, harvest the pods and process them. Once processed, they get turned into delectable chocolate!


In addition to seminars, we visited UGM’s own agriculture school, and had a tour around the facilities. It has everything from livestock, to tropical fruit and veg crops, to biogas production to composting factory. It was encouraging to see how passionate the people were about the environment and recycling.



We also participated in making traditional herbal medicine. Jamu is traditional Indonesian medicine, made from different herbs and spices to treat an assortment of illnesses or to improve vitality. We visited Merapi Farma Herbal where they turned jamu-making into a successful business. With the help of some of the workers, we made crystallised ginger. It was really tasty and did not taste like medicine at all!


The week-long program reiterated how fast our world is changing, and how important it is to for communities to be able to keep up with these changes. Visiting the different communities showed me that people can be very resilient and adaptable to changing climates, both environmental, and socio-economical. This resilience is key to developing technologies that will improve community sustainability; in turn, the sustainable development of a community will improve its resilience.

It was fascinating to meet so many people from so many different countries and cultures, many of whom came from totally different backgrounds to me. This program gave me the opportunity to mingle and interact with people across disciplines. And I can’t stress how important that is. Sometimes we get so tied down and stressed by focusing on one small aspect of the global picture, that we forget what our bigger picture is. Occasionally we need to come up for air, we need to get out of our bubble or comfort zone once in awhile and venture into the world of ‘that’s-not-my-field’. Who knows what knowledge we can gain by talking to people from another discipline. Who knows what collaborations are possible. You just have to get out there.

AC21 IGS 2017, it’s been a pleasure.



Community ❤


Feature image: 2017 AC21 grad students. All images unless otherwise stated taken by O.Cousins. 

The Hanging Gardens of the World

Smog is something that impacts many cities around the world, especially those that are heavily built-up. Major cities in central and northern China, like Beijing, welcomed in the New Year with orange and red alerts for smog. Red alerts are the highest on the air pollution scale, usually resulting in schools and factories to close. And China’s air pollution is not a new problem, but is steadily getting worse.

Solutions? Build vertical gardens. This is not a new concept, but it is brilliantly shown by Singapore’s exquisite Gardens by the Bay. The 18 Supertrees, concrete towers encased in a steel frame, are covered with over 162,900 tropical plants originating from all over the world. These plants were chosen based on 7 different criteria, including tolerance to vertical planting, lack of soil, hardiness, and easy maintenance. Not only are these plant-clad structures highly visually-stimulating, but they also connect to some of the cooled conservatories resulting in air being recycled between conservatory and Supertree.


Singapore’s Supertrees in the Gardens by the Bay (O.Cousins)

With Singapore aiming to cut its carbon emissions by 10% by 2020, it is hoped that the construction of these monolithic trees will raise more public awareness of the environment and how our actions can affect it.

Hanging gardens have been trialed all around the world, but covering an entire skyscraper or residential building block in lush green plants is not that easy. But that hasn’t stopped Stefano Boeri and his big leafy dreams. An architect from Milan, he owns Boeri Studio, and is already part of several projects that are taking the importance of biodiversity, climate change, urban design, and European culture into architectural design. The threat of climate change is no longer a threat, it is happening. Vertical ForestING is a concept Stefano started in 2014 when Boeri Studio designed, constructed and completed the first vertical forest in Milan.

Trees have been planted on each level, as many as can fit in one hectare of forest. The idea was to improve residential living, but ensure that urban planning did not come at a cost to the environment. By building up, it helps to eliminate urban sprawl. By adding hundreds of plants from flowering plants to small trees, not only is it creating something artistically beautiful, but it also adds biological diversity in a heavily populated urban area. The trees and shrubs provide shade, attract small wildlife, and help contribute to cleaner air.

Now, Stefano has set his sights on building more vertical cities, this time in Nanjing, China. The project aims to replicate Bosco Verticale, with 2 residential towers covered from head to toe in trees, shrubbery and hanging plants. But it also becomes part of a bigger project: Forest City. The concept of the vertical forests has been up-scaled, with a whole city designed with multiple skyscrapers covered in hanging gardens and surrounded by parks. Shijiazhuang will be the site of a new kind of city, housing 100,000 people comprising of 225 hectares. Instead of a city sprawling outwards, this city will sprawl upwards, leaving more land for natural preservation and agriculture. Due to the sheer number of trees and shrubs on one building, one square metre is anticipated to absorb 0.4 kg of CO2 a year. The green facade also helps to maintain cooler temperatures within the buildings.

The concept of vertical gardens is certainly not new, but over the last few years it has developed further. The idea of architecture being sustainable and using renewable energy sources is exciting. Constructing more vertical forests could certainly play a part in combating heavy smog and pollution in cities, and hopefully help to mitigate climate change.

I mean who wouldn’t want to wake up to green every day?




Top feature image credit: Stefano Boeri Architetti

Year 1 to Year 2: hop, skip and a jump

So before I knew it the time had come for me to dust off my presentation skills and present my research to my seniors and peers. Awesome if you relish in designing powerpoint slides and presenting them, but me? Not so keen on the whole standing in front of 30 odd people…

Nevertheless, I did it, and I can happily say that I can progress with my PhD! Hello next 3 years, we’re going to get very well acquainted.

So although I am not even halfway through my research, this year has taught me a lot and I thought this could be useful for those just starting, or about to progress from probation period to full candidature. First things first…

  • Communicate

The cool thing about my project is that it’s a jointly awarded program between two different universities. So for me actually one of the biggest challenges has been communicating between everyone, across different timezones despite busy schedules. Thankfully, my supervisors have all been good at dealing with answering my random, badly-worded questions at whatever hour, as well as taking the time to skype when the question can’t be answered in an email.

  • Communicate some more. Learn to brief your supervisors about your work – not wait for them to ask you (if they’re really busy they may forget).

When you start collecting results from your experiment, it’s up to you to schedule meetings with supervisors to discuss your results and experiment. Generally in the first few weeks of your candidature, supervisors are a little more ‘hands-on’ in explaining literature, experiments, equipment, but once you’ve started to piece together your experimental design and started executing it, then the roles reverse. It’s not like undergrad where you’re guided every step of the way. This time you have to take some initiative. Sounds a little daunting, but actually it forces you to be creative with your time and your ideas. It’s now your turn to tell them what you’ve been doing. Don’t be afraid to not understand everything you see, they may not understand everything either. By bringing your ideas and theories to the table, you don’t have to try to understand everything before you decide to have that monthly supervisory meeting.


Excited with my first experiment set-up (O.Cousins)

  • Don’t panic

Easier said than done, I know. I’ve been there. And I am only in my first year. But everyone goes through ups and downs. It’s about finding strategies that help you manage that stress. Doing a joint PhD means I get the best of what both universities offer me in terms of research facilities, equipment, and knowledgeable academics. However, it can also mean I get the worst of both – and that is admin. Not that the people who work in admin are stupid but if you are ever considering a joint PhD or co-tutelle program, just remember that you may have to send a few of the same emails reminding admin from both institutes where you are currently studying and that no, you will only be examined by one institute at a time. And yes, sometimes you will have to sign documents even though you are pretty sure you signed the exact same form a month before. Just laugh, grab a pen and keep signing those forms. The paperwork will subside.

In addition, because a joint PhD between my 2 universities was new, I found it funny that most people (both admin and supervisors) didn’t have a clue about how this joint PhD was going to play out. The theory behind it is excellent, and I can’t recommend it enough. However, when it comes to reviewing the student’s progress, questions were raised on multiple occasions: ‘But who reviews me?’ ‘Does I have to repeat my review seminar twice?’ ‘How long do I stay at each institute?’ ‘How does funding work?’ … you get the picture. This meant it was both a learning curve for me and for everyone else involved in my exciting new project. in the end, all that really matters is your research. Focus on what brought you to do a PhD in the first place, and the admin can follow on behind you.


First time analysing my experiment plants (O.Cousins)

  • Blogging

For me, this is where I can unwind. I get ideas from everyday situations, places I’ve visited, or the news. I currently manage 3 blogs (because one is never enough), but my most updated one is Meristem Journeys. The essence of it is to convey cool interesting facts about science in a way that everyone can understand, from professors in the field to the inquisitive child. So it gives me a chance to learn science communication skills. On the other hand Dare To Adventure and The Literary Road are different, more travel-based or fictional. They provide another outlet for me to be creative. This time I don’t have to stick to a theme, I write where my fancy takes me. It’s my ‘me-time’.

  • And last but not least, go forth and explore!

Whether you’re in a new city or not, take the time to go on excursions – from afternoon trips to extended weekends. Find interesting, quirky things in the city and beyond. Some of my best memories come from exploring Sydney or a roadtrip to Ayers Rock (Uluru). These breaks gave me time to recuperate from intense harvesting weeks, and I felt better about coming back and knuckling down to data analysis. Even if you are in a familiar city, I’m certain there are new things to be found – make it a fun challenge. Or pick up a new hobby; set yourself a goal that’s fun and completely non-work related. Someone once suggested that I take part in ironing competitions…there are some good hobbies out there! Whatever it is, your brain will thank you.

I may be 1 year wiser but there’s plenty more learning to come. And that’s exciting. If you don’t want to work hard, be criticised and are scared of an experiment failing on you every now and then, a PhD is not for you. But if you enjoy discovering things, communicating with a wide range of audiences, like a challenge, and can learn to find cool things in the midst of trying times, welcome to the world of PhDs.



Featured image: A card I once received, which has a lot of meaning (O.Cousins).