This is the report from a BSPP MSc/MRes Bursary.
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After recently deciding to return to education as a mature student, to take my interest in plants into a profession, I completed a BSc in Plant Science in 2020. During this course, I stumbled into the field of plant pathology, which quickly became a major interest. After graduating, I took on a temporary contract for Defra working with plant imports, as part of the transition to the new import systems, which really cemented the importance of the field. After deciding to take the interest further as a speciality, I applied for a Master’s degree in Plant Pathology at Harper Adams University and was lucky enough to be selected for the BSPP 40th anniversary studentship for this course.
COVID restrictions inevitably had an impact, especially the first few months where many classes were online, reducing the opportunities to socialise outside the classroom. I also suspect numbers were reduced, especially of international students due to the uncertainty and quarantine rules. Effects of ‘plant blindness’ on student numbers were also evident, especially as the class was the only taught Plant Pathology master’s degree in the UK that year. As I was living on campus opposite the veterinary sciences department, it was hard not to contrast the horde of students studying animal health with we few students studying plant health!
The first part of the course was module based, with one or two-week blocks of teaching and practical sessions, followed by assessments. Many masters students were living elsewhere and only coming to campus for these teaching sessions, often fitting them in around work or other commitments. Although there were not many students on the Plant Pathology course, most modules were shared with other courses in the agriculture department and often some research master’s students also joined the class, bringing different viewpoints and knowledge into classes.
This taught component consisted of eight modules: seven compulsory and one optional. Although it was not one of the standard options, I was allowed to select an introduction to entomology module as my optional module. Understanding insect vectors and their lifecycles is so important to many plant diseases and their epidemiology, I felt this would be a useful addition to my skillset, especially when it comes to species identification.
The course content was varied, with a main focus on agricultural crops, their pests, management and of course, their pathogens. For most assignments assessment was essay based, with plenty of opportunity to select areas of specific interest outside of the major agricultural crops. A few modules also included alternative forms of assessment including presentations and more unusual tasks like producing a public information leaflet.
A third of the final grade was determined by a research project, which was the focus of the second half of the course. When choosing my project, one of my main criteria was to maximise my laboratory experience, as this was something I felt less confident in, partially due to losing lab access during COVID19 closures midway through my undergrad honours project. With this aim in mind, I opted to carry out a laboratory-based study investigating the biocontrol potential of multiple species of Bacillus and close relatives on Microdochium nivale and M. majus, specifically focusing on seedling blight in wheat. Although some isolates showed good biocontrol effects in vitro, this did not translate to a reduction in disease in planta, probably largely due to the temperatures required for optimal growth. This project allowed me to gain experience in a range of molecular diagnostic techniques, as well as designing, running and adapting a project where – inevitably – not everything went to plan!
Overall, I had a great experience and the support from the BSPP was a huge help in allowing me to fully focus on the course and associated training and opportunities available over the year, helping me take the next steps and starting a PhD!