Trials of conducting trials in a global pandemic -by Lauren Hibbert
Was this as a familiar sight for you as it was for me during peak lockdown?
If anything, the outbreak of COVID-19 has highlighted the importance of the global food chain in keeping our supermarkets stocked. My research focuses on the base of this food chain, working on developing nutritionally-dense and environmentally-friendly varieties of watercress. Despite the pandemic’s best efforts to keep me out of the field, I was able to start a UK field trial at a watercress farm in June this year.
The trial: what and why?
Aim: investigate the effects of different nutrient applications on the growth and biochemistry of selected watercress lines under UK growing conditions.
I tested 13 different watercress lines, including a commercial line and several other lines of interest for their nutritional profile and morphological characteristics. These were grown either without fertiliser or given the typical commercial fertiliser regime, to explore which lines are better adapted to low nutrient conditions. These lines could then be integrated into our breeding program to develop new varieties that require less fertiliser and thus have a lower environmental impact.
Watercress is typically grown in the south of the UK in areas with chalk streams, which have high conservation value. My PhD focuses on improving the phosphate-use efficiency of watercress. Phosphate is an essential nutrient: used by plants to power cells, regulate several metabolic pathways, link nucleotides in nucleic acids such as DNA, and form the structure of proteins and carbohydrates critical for growth. However, natural reserves of rock phosphate (the main phosphate fertiliser source) are finite and are expected to be exhausted in the next 50-100 years (Smil, 2000; FAO, 2004). Phosphate is also the primary limiting nutrient in chalk streams so increasing levels of phosphates can be responsible for the disruption to ecosystem dynamics in water systems downstream of watercress farms.
To investigate which lines had the best phosphate-use efficiency (PUE), I measured several morphological parameters associated with improved PUE such as increased production of lateral roots, increased total root length and increased adventitious root growth. Next, I’ll be conducting the lab portion of this trial. This includes biochemical analyses into the phosphate content and nutritional profiles of the plants and RNA sequencing to explore gene expression changes responsible for better PUE. This will give me insight into how altering nutrient application may affect the nutritional content of watercress (for better or for worse). Results pending…
Conducting fieldwork during a global pandemic: tribulations and jubilations
I should start by saying that I was one of the fortunate ones. My PhD is supported by Vitacress Ltd: as a supplier of fresh produce in the UK they are an essential industry and thus remained busy and functional through this year. Nevertheless, conducting fieldwork during a global pandemic certainly has its challenges. Here are some of the biggest lessons I learnt this field season:
- Look out for your mental health:
The importance of looking after your mental wellbeing has really come to the forefront. I think it goes without saying that this pandemic has created new anxieties on top of those already associated with fieldwork. Schedule time for yourself and don’t hesitate to reach out for support from others. For me, I rediscovered gardening and running during lockdown, and the importance of Zoom coffee breaks was invaluable. Tied with scheduling time for me, I tried my best to keep a routine: on days when I was WFH I used an app (Forest) to work in short bursts broken up by coffee breaks outside (weather permitting). Since I often have meetings past 5pm, due to the 8hr time difference between the UK and where the rest of the lab were in California, it wasn’t always possible to close my laptop at 5pm. On those days I would schedule my time-off in the middle of the day and pop to the gym then.
Dr Zoë Ayres (@ZJAyres on Twitter) frequently shares other practical resources for researchers: https://twitter.com/ZJAyres/status/1239983524259737606
- Many (sanitised) hands make light work:
With the rest of the lab in the US, I needed alternative volunteers to help me process all my watercress samples in the field lab (aka my parent’s kitchen!). I rallied around and was blessed to have my friends and family (scientists and non-scientists alike) come to my aid. Over the 2-month course of my trial, I had 12 helpers on rotation to get all the measurements completed (following government guidelines of course). Biggest shout out goes to my mum for giving over 100 hours of her time to countless bags of salad and a pair of callipers <3 You can see more in this thread: https://twitter.com/hibby_8/status/1297603237869232128
- Plan to plan again:
Plan A: trial in Portugal and UK in March, Plan B: trial in the UK in March, Plan C: trial in the UK in summer, Plan D: ? It’s not possible to plan with a lot of certainty in these times so try to remain flexible and accept that you’ll likely have to adapt the plans you make at short notice. I was meant to be back in the US months ago, but with a travel ban still in place this hasn’t been so straightforward and I’ve had regular meetings with my supervisory team to make alternative arrangements. Thankfully, the ability to conduct meetings over Zoom has made changing plans easier. I learnt how to evaluate the importance of different aspects of my trial and alter it to get data that is as informative as possible, while maintaining my safety/sanity. In the wise words of Bear Grylls: Improvise. Adapt. Overcome.
- Photoshoot for one :
It’s always useful to have some science promo photos! Spending all my time in the field without having an extra pair of hands meant I became very familiar with self-timer and finding dodgy places to balance my phone for self-directed field photoshoots.
5. Be proud of what you’ve managed to do! This field season didn’t go to plan by any means (I was meant to do it in Portugal for starters!) but acknowledge what you did manage to do in the face of a global pandemic