BSPP News Autumn 1998 - Online Edition

The Newsletter of the British Society for Plant Pathology
Number 33, Autumn 1998

A week in the life of . . . A University Lecturer (in term-time!)

Monday Jun 29…

a.m. Available for the "group project" - ten second-year students just finishing a largish field experiment conducted as a group - on the response of woad to defoliation. Nothing to do with pathology, but very educational.

While I wait for possible phone-calls, I try to finish a report on a COST 817 modelling meeting held in April - probably no-one will read it, but the others won't get their expenses unless it is produced. The main problem is a section contributed in Word 97. How on earth can a company get away with making a new version of a programme incompatible with the old? One visit to the other side of campus to explain what the genstat output means.

Lunch in the tea room - canteen sandwiches: my own left at home again… Good discussion on bio-dynamic farming

p.m. Email the report. Meet an M.Sc. student in the experimental grounds and discuss rust and blotch disease progress on Holcus species: how do you demonstrate causal dependence as opposed to simple association?

Then to a final-year Ph.D. student seminars: weed-wheat competition. Back to the office and clear emails before returning home. As usual I carefully take a disc home to work on an article…


… and bring it back unaltered. Continue to write talk for Edinburgh, before regular weekly meetings with Ph.D. students. These are fairly OK: some really taking off, but also competent people with unexplained disasters in experiments… Keeping morale high is a challenge. In the interim I realise a calculation I should do for the talk, make a trivial modification to the control section of a complex model, and set it running. Lunch on the grass - yesterday's sandwiches and New Scientist.

p.m. Ten-minute interviews with each of the group project students: do they all understand it all? Including what they didn't do? Do they accept a joint mark? What should that be? What have they learnt etc? Remarkably, even by the end I am running only 15 minutes late. Pretty tired, but convinced the course is an excellent one. Contact applicants for a post-doctoral position to an interview at rather short notice... and realise the program on the computer has crashed.


a.m. This program has worked for 3 years. The crash is completely opaque: the entire program is just removed from memory: the debugger says it doesn't know where it stopped…and it ran for several minutes yesterday before crashing.

Subduing panic, I go to the upgrading (ie first-year oral exam to determine transfer to a Ph.D. registration) committee of one of my students. All is fairly well - and it is wonderful to see someone developing real excitement and critical ability about their work.

p.m. Several modifications later, I can produce the crash after only a few seconds. Now I can step through routines. Gradually I discover the crash occurs deep in the heart of the program, which I had thought was fine, and haven't altered for a long time.

Mounting panic - but the handouts for tomorrow's final session of first-year course on Plant Ecology have to be produced. Much glue, cutting and photocopying later, they are done. It looks quite an interesting session - perhaps I should go to it?

But now I worry about Edinburgh and my talk, and the computer model…. Eventually I discover where the crash is. My "trivial" changes elsewhere have caused the compiler to do some  optimisation which means that a sloppiness is no longer tolerated… a one line correction, and everything works. I leave the computer to run overnight and go home a happier man, only rather late.


a.m. Give plant ecology lecture. Feedback on whole course unexpectedly good - I thought they had hated it. Glow. Attend second year "presentation skills" talks to provide an informed audience, thereby missing degree ceremony. Why has the University moved degree day into teaching time? Then to Crop Protection lunch club: low-input farming and some surprising results on straw incorporation and Septoria.

p.m. Finish talk for Edinburgh. Yeah! And a bright idea (maybe) about an M.Sc. project for next year.


a.m. Clear the emails and read an article. (My library backlog is becoming very scary). Board of Studies meeting for degrees in Agricultural Botany. Lunch in the University botanic garden before…

p.m. …staff meeting: last before I become Head of Department, so I keep very quiet. Meet another of the M.Sc. students in the foyer to discuss his results - better than I had feared; maybe he will make it… Panicking about a paper I need to write I take home a pile of articles. Luckily the 40 min bike ride home will relax me enough to forget them till Sunday night, the traditional crisis night in our household!

Mike Shaw
Department of Agricultural Botany, Reading University