BSPP News Summer 2002 - Online Edition

The Newsletter of the British Society for Plant Pathology
Number 42, Summer 2002
A week in the life of a professor in Denmark

David Collinge, Royal Veterinary and Agricultural University, Copenhagen

After 14 years as a lecturer (or Associate Professor as the Danes officially translate the Danish, Lektor), at the Royal Veterinary and Agricultural University (KVL), I was appointed Professor from 1st April 2002, after Viggo Smedegaard-Petersen, who retired in November 2000. This gives me the academic responsibility for a section which numbers approximately 25 people. This is part of the Department of Plant Biology which comprises some 100 employees, the other sections being Plant Biochemistry and Plant Physiology and Anatomy. Plant Pathology currently comprises six permanent lecturers, eight academics on external funding (lecturer or postdoctoral grades), and five technical and administrative staff. The remainder are Ph.D. students and M.Sc. students.

I usually arrive at about 7.30 am. This is not as early as it sounds to UK ears since the normal working day in Denmark is 8 am to 4 pm. Arrival at 7.30 means that I avoid the worst of the traffic and find a parking spot without difficulty. I can make coffee, check my email and gather my thoughts for the day before most people have arrived. The main jobs today were to referee a grant for a foreign agency and to start writing my inaugural lecture to be held in a couple of weeks. But first I had some correspondence to deal with. I found a number of slides from a lecture, which I hold for visiting Gymnasium (6th form) students that introduce the subject of plant pathology. I didn't start refereeing the grant. On my way home I went to see a penduline tit's nest in a suburban park west of Copenhagen. Fascinating structure reminiscent of the African weaver's nests dangling off the end of a branch. 

Tried to get hold of a collaborator only to find that he is in St. Petersburg for a meeting. Email is a good thing, but sometimes it is better to phone someone. Will try again tomorrow. Read an application for a Nordic Ph.D. course on Epidemiology from Jonathan Yuen, Professor of Plant Pathology at Uppsala. There are only four Nordic universities teaching Plant Pathology, so we collaborate in producing a joint Ph.D. course, which circulates between the four large Nordic Countries (there is very little pathology in Iceland) with two invited foreign experts and Nordic teachers. There are usually 30 to 40 Ph.D. students. Dropped attending a seminar (M.Sc. thesis defence) after lunch to attend a presentation meeting for the E.U. 6th frame. This was presented by the new minister for "Research and innovation", the Vice Chancellor of Copenhagen University and a senior official from the E.U. commission. I had previously read the programme and was depressed by the virtual absence of the word "plant" from any of the texts. I left the meeting with no high hopes. Spent the evening helping 8 to 10 year olds to learn to light a campfire.

1st May has a curious status as a holiday. Only some people take it off, most of my colleagues prefer to "move" it to the Friday after the Ascension Day Bank Holiday. No meetings, but a number of interactions to discuss small problems, and more peace than usual, which enabled me to make progress on my inaugural lecture. This is difficult to give: it needs to be informative about the subject to the non-academic members of staff in the department, and present my visions for the future development of the subject. Also worked on the content of the teaching section of the section website (I am not responsible for the design) Most of our courses are held in English and obviously we wish to attract more students. We offer a package of courses, which fills a semester, offering 30 ECTS points. Finally, I had a couple of manuscripts to deal with for the journal "Plant Molecular Biology" where I am an associate editor. Our exciting project at the moment is a special issue on protein-protein interactions, which I am editing together with two molecular biologists, Mike Roberts ant Lancaster and Jurgen Denecke at Leeds. Now that genome sequences are available, we need to try and determine the function for all those genes. The issue contains review articles written by people, who actually understand the techniques, for people like me who would like to apply them to their biological systems. This has been my first job coordinating a collected work, and it has been tougher than I expected. Especially in getting authors to hold promised deadlines.

David Collinge takes a break from ornithology

This was a day of meetings. Starting with a group meeting where Mari-Anne Newman presented some work on the effects of bacterial lipopolysaccharide on the production of phenolic compounds in Capsicum. A meeting for the organisation for the section seminar in June followed this. I feel there is a need to take stock of the situation in the section now that we have a new Professor. After the meeting there was time to revise the programme before a lunchtime meeting with the sectional scientific staff. The main point on the agenda was the section website, which I consider something of an embarrassment. I am having great difficulty in getting the other members of staff to make the written contributions advertising their own research. During the afternoon, an email came from Canada with the proofs for the chapter of a book to check, - with the usual 24hrs deadline. I managed to complete this before going home so that the editor had a chance to check my comments and mail me again before the weekend. 

We started with a short section meeting, where points for the agenda included the departmental seminar and picnic. Continued to an all day meeting on plant microbe interactions organised by Henriette Giese, Professor of Fungal Genetics in the Department of Ecology with 4 invited foreign speakers. Returned to answer questions from the editor of the book chapter, then home to Roskilde. An evening jar with several colleagues from KVL and Risø, several of whom are English. There are a lot of us about!
Despite the above I managed to find time for the fun bit: talking to four students, my postdoc Tina and other colleagues about their work. But there is never enough time for this.

Where have all the Plant Pathologists gone?

There are approximately 850 members of the British Society for Plant Pathology.  850 people who subscribe to the aims of the BSPP, see it as a valuable outlet for their work in publications, in its journals and at meetings, and as a valuable source of information and interaction with other Plant Pathologists.  Also they see it as a source of support for their science through representation to funding bodies and others with interests in the work of Plant Pathologists, and through studentships, fellowships and grants.  These people presumably see themselves as Plant Pathologists.  While recognising that many members of the BSPP will also be members of other Societies and that, regrettably, some practising Plant Pathologists are not members of the BSPP, it can surely be assumed that the majority of those 850 have Plant Pathology as their primary activity.  They will bring different skills, knowledge and approaches to their work; some of their skills will be more transferable than others to different scientific activities and certainly the younger members of the Society will be keeping their options open.  A sensible approach when the early part of a scientific career is dominated by short term contracts. 

Thirty five years ago this correspondent was also seeking employment and, while the numerous applications that were turned down without an interview are now, no doubt mercifully, forgotten, I was interviewed for posts as a lecturer in plant anatomy, a three year fellowship in Electron Microscopy, a pathologist with the Forestry Commission and, my eventual home, as a pathologist to work on viruses of cereals and grasses.  Had I been willing to work only on powdery mildew of cereals, my Ph.D. topic, or indeed fungal diseases of arable crops, then I might well still be looking or, more likely, have decided long ago that there was no future for me in Plant Pathology. 

Being flexible is essential, taking a broad approach is desirable and, in my view, adds interest to all aspects of life.  This is not the same as being a "butterfly", sampling one thing then moving on to another; taking the cream off a subject but, when it gets harder to make progress, moving on elsewhere.  What is so rewarding is gathering knowledge from a variety of sources that impinge on the current primary topic; this has always seemed to me one of the attractions of Plant Pathology.  It acts as the focus of many disciplines and its ultimate realisation is in a plant, not a Petri dish, or gel. 

While many plants are now grown in conditions that closely approximate to a controlled environment, most are still grown in a "natural" environment, insofar as any commercially important plants are now grown in such conditions.  They are subject not only to interactions with pathogens, but with a range of other biotic and abiotic conditions such as environment, nutrition, pests, weeds, rotations, irrigation, and of course above all human interference.  It is the very complexity that makes life interesting and while I firmly believe that Plant Pathology should be the prime focus, it should draw on all relevant disciplines and knowledge.   Plant pathogens can be studied in isolation but Plant Pathology cannot be done without reference to other areas, and to be of greatest value needs to be linked to other activities.

If the 850 members share at least some of these views and consider themselves Plant Pathologists how many describe themselves in this way?  In our passports or when applying for car insurance or when introduced outside our work environment, how many describe ourselves as Plant Pathologists?  I suspect that rather few of us do.  We probably settle for something general, scientist, biologist, biological scientist, research worker, lecturer etc.  I have never been quite certain why a passport needs a job title and I am sure that Plant Pathologists are safe and careful drivers, but nevertheless giving a vague or general term is probably the safest decision.  But, with a personal introduction such a general description invites further questions, assuming that your companion is sufficiently interested to find out!  Is the term Plant Pathologist a conversation stopper?  Are we worried that we shall be interrogated about why their willow tree has canker, their potatoes are rotting and their hawthorn has dead branches?  Some will be better equipped than others to address these questions and may indeed have a professional interest in them.  In the latter case your questioner may soon be looking for the door or start drinking too much.  I suppose that this sort of conversation is the plant equivalent of regaling someone who has confessed to being a medical doctor with your back problem and finding out that they are an obstetrician. 

Getting the balance right between expressing interest or concern and offering a possible solution is always a problem.   But why hide our light under a bushel?  If members of the BSPP do not promote their subject, who will?  Or is it that too few members feel that Plant Pathology IS their occupation?  Do they see themselves as Molecular Biologists or Biochemists first, surely two sure-fire conversation stoppers in mixed company!  While it may be hoping too much to acquire the public recognition that our colleagues in the medical profession have, we should not miss opportunities to promote our subject.  We should point out, in the nicest possible way of course, the vital importance of Plant Pathology, its national and global importance, and, in consequence, the vital importance of Plant Pathologists.  A recent news item suggested that individuals' motivation and pride in their job was often linked to its title.  If dustmen are prouder and more motivated if described as Refuse Disposal Operatives then I am all for it, but what could be more motivational and stimulate pride in an important job than Plant Pathology?  Lets hear it for Plant Pathology and Plant Pathologists!

Roger Plumb 

BSPP Undergraduate Vacation Bursaries 2002 

BSPP has awarded Undergraduate Vacation Bursaries to the following students to work in the lab of a BSPP member over the summer of 2002. Reports by the students on their projects will appear in the Spring 2003 issue of BSPP News. Details of how to apply for a BSPP Undergraduate Vacation Bursary for summer 2003 can be found in the BSPP web pages and will be published in the Autumn 2003 issue of BSPP News.

Jenny Bowers, University of Bristol, to work with Gary Foster on T-DNA tagging in the mycopathogen Verticillium fungicola.

George McCallum, University of Strathclyde to work with Michael Mattey on the effect of a chitin synthase inhibitor on Plasmodiophora brassicae infections of cabbage.

Marianne Mitchell, St. Catherine's College, University of Oxford, to work with Sally Francis, IACR Broom's Barn, on microscopic and molecular studies of sugar beet powdery mildew.

Karen Parker, University of Nottingham, to work with Matt Dickinson on regulation of gene expression through DNA methylation during wheat rust development.

Ben Pascoe, University of Hertfordshire, to work with Avice Hall on the control of Diplocarpon rosae and other foliar diseases on roses via Systemic Acquired Resistance (SAR). 

Christelle Pinsard, Ecole Nationale Superieur d'Agronomie et des Industries Alimentaire, France, to work with Helen Grogan, Horticulture Research International, on transmission of mushroom virus X (MVX): cropping experiments using fresh spores.

Joanna Woodrow, St. Hilda's College, University of Oxford, to work with Hannah Jones, The Eden Project, St. Austell, on an investigation in to the use of aromatic (essential) oils for the control of phytopathogenic diseases, using the plant pathogen Botrytis cinerea as a representative fungal species.

Sarah Usher, University of the West of England, to work with Dawn Arnold on the use of a direct optical sensor to detect plant/bacteria interacting proteins.

M.Sc. Bursaries

The M.Sc. Research Project Bursary scheme is open to all BSPP members and provides modest support for M.Sc. students who are unable to find other sources of funding for the research element of their course. The fund does not support research costs. The objective of the bursaries is to allow graduates to complete their research project and to enable supervisors to undertake short research projects for which other funding is not readily available. Details of how to apply for an M.Sc. Research Project Bursary can be found in the BSPP web pages. 

BSPP has awarded M.Sc. Research Project Bursaries to the following students in 2002. Reports by the students on their projects will appear in the Spring 2003 issue of BSPP News.

Paula Azevedo Rodrigues, Tras-os-Montes e Alto Douro, Vila Real, Portugal, to work with Lesley Boyd, John Innes Centre, on genetics of non-host resistance in wheat to barley yellow rust.

Biswanath Das, Imperial College, University of London, to work with Prasad Sreenivasaprasad, Horticulture Research International, on characterisation of Rhizoctonia spp. involved in the rice sheath disease complex.

 Alice Smith, University of Wales, Bangor, to work with Richard Shattock, University of Wales, David Cooke, Scottish Crop Research Institute, on relationships between Peronospora hariotii (downy mildew of Buddleja davidii) and P. grisea and P. sordida from species of Scrophulariaceae.