BSPP News Autumn 2001 - Online Edition

The Newsletter of the British Society for Plant Pathology
Number 40, Autumn 2001 

A Week in the Life of Steve Parker, ADAS High Mowthorpe

Monday morning and I drive to work wondering why my wife and boss are suddenly in cahoots.  Breakfast, not my favourite part of the day, was enlivened by a barrage of questions about progress on 'the tolerance paper'.  This is an increasingly frequent topic at work - where I am equally evasive!  Perhaps Karen is worried that failure to complete this gem will damage the outcome of my next performance review.  But I immediately dismiss this on grounds of the riotous laughter that accompanied news of last year's paltry bonus payment.  More likely is impatience with the manuscript having been scattered across the study floor (a benefit of living in Yorkshire) for the past eight weeks.

Steve working on that manuscript...

The day does not improve.  On arrival at work I am called to the team manager's office.  The scientific officer responsible for the measurements on my experiments at High Mowthorpe has resigned in favour of a new job at the Pesticide Safety Directorate.  I am disappointed, but not surprised.  In common with most other research organisations, I do not think we offer a particularly attractive career structure for graduates.  At least we have the advantage of offering permanent contracts, but career ambitions cannot be defined so simply.  What frustrates me more than anything is the fact that I have been listening to complaints, explanations and excuses around this sorry state of affairs for more than a decade. 

Despite a resolution to drink only fruit teas after 9.00am, I collect a cup of coffee and head back to my office.   A song by the Boom Town Rats seems appropriate; 'Tell me why I don't like Mondays'.  But at all costs I must avoid whistling or humming the tune, because my colleague in the next office will pick up the rhythm and beat it out incessantly on his desk for the rest of the day.  I suspect this may be a displacement activity caused by exile from Devon and his beloved Exeter City FC.  Alternatively it may be because he's an entomologist! 

And so to work.  I check my long list of things to do.  Addition of 'Tolerance paper' is unnecessary; it is sat at the top of the list mocking me.  However, first job is to amend a grant proposal for DEFRA.   It is a collaborative bid with Rothamsted and Nottingham University.  The Chief Scientists Group had put it out to referees who were mostly supportive, but suggested that certain objectives would be better addressed through LINK (gulp!).  Fortunately, it is not as big a job as I thought; mainly deleting later milestones.  My main worry is that the collaborators will be unhappy with the new arrangements.  We will need to deliver some work earlier than planned and also get a LINK proposal up and running within 18 months.  Reading through the new proposal I begin to feel more confident about its chances.  I email it out for comment. 

Opening email was a big mistake.  A list of ne'er-do-wells who have failed to submit final reports has arrived.  I guess that I must be on the list.  Checking through I discover one of my projects; this is the icing on the cake. I finished the report months ago, as a bonus from presenting the work in the proceedings of a BCPC conference.  It is at home on my PC, complete even to the extent of having been through the official ADAS editing procedure in April.  I decide against any attempt at explanation and send back a promise to deliver the report before Friday.  Home early and tidy-up the offending manuscript and retrieve my overdue report. 

A better start to Tuesday:  signing and dumping the final report into my out-tray.  The report contains some really interesting results.  At face value it was a rather mundane study, which set out to quantify the control of septoria leaf blotch of wheat by a seed treatment.  However, as hoped, we gained some new insights to the importance and role of the winter epidemic.  I begin to read some instructions about the new financial system, which will apparently make contract management easier.  My will to live is ebbing away, so on health grounds I file the document for later.  Instead I decide to spend the time thinking about how to progress the analysis of a data set collected for isogenic lines of wheat that differ for photoperiod sensitivity; I think the data might help improve our understanding of disease weather interactions. 

I can hardly believe it, Wednesday before my first conversation with Darren Lovell at Long Ashton.  We have worked on and off together since my days as a scruffy student of David Royle and Mike Shaw.  Darren acknowledges no progress in my career!  Since I joined ADAS we have worked closely on a large programme of research on the epidemiology of septoria.  Over the past couple of months we have had a heated debate about definitions crucial to the way we describe and untangle the effects of disease resistance and escape (due to canopy architecture).  At last I am beginning to understand why he has such a problem with my concept of resistance.  But I am certain I am right.  Probably.  Yet again at an impasse, we agree to discuss this again when we meet with the modellers collaborating on the study.  I promise to think about the field experiments for the coming season.  After the nightmare of weather that accompanied last years drilling period, I am keen to have our seed requirements on farm promptly.  I spend the rest of the day reviewing the experiment files and thinking about future priorities. 

I would have no hesitation about working with children or animals, but prototype software - never again!  Over the past three years an enormous amount of my life (working and private) has been taken up by a new decision support system (DSS) for wheat disease management.  Although this continues to cause me sleepless nights they are now fewer and more infrequent.  It is Thursday before I need to think about the system. During its development I have become increasingly convinced that good training support for growers and consultants will be crucial to uptake and success.  I have been working on a proposal to the Vocational Training Scheme of the England Rural Development programme for this purpose.  Most of the document was completed back in March.  However, due to the Foot and Mouth crisis, we decided to delay submission.  I spend the day restructuring the milestones and costs. 

Friday, and as usual I wonder what happened to the week.  Since my first post-doc contract I have been making resolutions to use Friday afternoons to keep up with the literature.  Fat chance!  I leave home at 6.00am and travel to Boxworth near Cambridge.  The meeting has been scheduled to discuss performance of the DSS in validation experiments that I am managing.  I missed the Geography lesson at school that explained why travelling from Yorkshire to the south is easier and quicker than in the opposite direction.  However, this is a widely accepted fact in agricultural science.  The meeting lasts all day but is productive and, even better, the action points are dished out fairly!   I arrive home at 9.00pm exhausted and carrying a take-away curry.  The weekend is spent thinking up excuses, to explain how James Brown has managed to extract 'a week in the life' whilst the tolerance paper remains "nearly there".