Using computers to model crops – careers in biology

Tilly Eldridge is a researcher specialising in computer modelling and plant biology. She spoke to us about her current job and her career in plant science so far.

‘The nice thing about doing a PhD is that you can follow your own interests. If you’re having an awful time in the lab, you can go early, if you’re enjoying yourself, you can stay till late. It’s a really flexible atmosphere, and I spend a lot of time talking to other people.’

What’s your job title and what do you do?

I’m a PhD student at the John Innes Centre, Norwich. I’m researching the female reproductive organ, the gynaecium, in a model species of plant called Arabidopsis. That may not sound very important, but the gynaecium is what turns into fruit, so understanding it is crucial for crops worldwide. For example, at the moment up to 10-20% of oil seed rape crops, even more in a windy year, is lost because the pods open too soon, what’s called ‘pod shatter’, and we lose the seeds. I’m comparing computer models and genetic studies of model organisms.

Can you tell me more about how you model plant growth?

The idea is to make a computer model that recreates how it grows and use that to make predictions I can test out in the model species. I use a special software package to create different models of the gynaecium and see how growth is affected in different circumstances. Then I re-create this in the model organism to see if the prediction is right.

“I chose a plant sciences degree, because I could see it was a growing area, with the concerns over food security, so I knew there’d be jobs at the end of the course.”

What’s a typical day in your job?

I usually get up at 8am, but I get into work at 9.30am. There isn’t really a typical day – some days you’re doing lab work and you get really involved. Time flies, and you leave really late. Other days I’ll be working on the computer, which I love. The nice thing about doing a PhD is that you can follow your own interests. If you’re having an awful time in the lab, you can go early, if you’re enjoying yourself, you can stay till late. It’s a really flexible atmosphere, and I spend a lot of time talking to other people. I did go on a field trip to the Pyrenees lately. I was collecting flowers on the side of a mountain in Spain, so that was pretty amazing!

Have you done a lot of travelling for your job?

My undergraduate degree was at Manchester University. We went to Equador for 1 month and I did an ecological project in the rainforest, which was really good fun. Then I did a year of ‘industrial experience’ at Kew, a beautiful botanic garden. Working there was amazing, especially working with parts of science that aren’t much covered in Universities. Then I went travelling for a year, and was invited to work at a lab in Australia. In Australia, lots of species haven’t been named yet, so I worked on a group identifying species of sedges, separating them out and naming them. It’s really important for conservation, knowing what’s rare and what’s not. While I was there I met an American scientist who invited me to come and work in his lab. So I flew to Boulder, Colorado, and worked there for three months. That gave me a whole different perspective on things I’d worked on earlier, and all of this US trip was paid for by the American lab.

“I went travelling for a year, and was invited to work at a lab in Australia. While I was there I met an American scientist who invited me to come and work in his lab. So I flew to Boulder, Colorado, and worked there for three months. That gave me a whole different perspective on things I’d worked on earlier.”

What’s the money like as a PhD student?

I get paid to do a PhD. It’s quite generously paid – I get £16,500 free of tax, plus a £500 travel budget and £2000 ‘lab expenses’.

How did you get interested in plant science?

My parents run an organic market garden, so I had a lot of interaction from the start, and I did a plant-based biology project at A-level. At Uni, I chose a plant sciences degree, because I could see it was a growing area, with the concerns over food security, so I knew there’d be jobs at the end of the course.

”Take as many opportunities as come your way – never turn down a chance, as you don’t know who you’ll meet. If you get into the lab atmosphere, you can find yourself travelling around the world.”

What’s your advice to a teenager who’s interested in a career in science?

Take as many opportunities as come your way – never turn down a chance, as you don’t know who you’ll meet. If you get into the lab atmosphere, you can find yourself travelling around the world.

Career Summary

A-levels: Science A-levels, including biology and maths

Study after school / college: Four-year undergraduate degree in Plant Science at the University of Manchester, including a year of ‘industrial experience’ at Kew Gardens and a 1 month field trip to Equador, job placement in a plant science lab in Australia, 3 month job placement in a plant science lab at the University of Colorado, Boulder, in the USA

Salary: £16,500 per year, free of tax

Hours: Around 9.30am – 6pm, but this varies depending on how the work is going

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