A fruitful low carbon collaboration

The cohort of enthusiastic researchers standing outside Lancaster Environment Centre

Twenty masters by research graduates joined 6 PhD researchers for a two-day team building session at the Lancaster Environment Centre, Lancaster University.

The masters researchers are part of the award winning Centre for Global Eco-innovation, which has built an international reputation for matching young researchers with businesses who have a specific problem they need researched. The initiative is part funded by the European Regional Development Fund, allowing the researchers to be paid a stipend whilst the businesses get expert R&D support from a top research institution. This supports the business in innovating to deliver business growth for a low carbon economy.

The PhD researchers are part of a collaborative training partnership between four academic and research institutions, led by Lancaster University, and Waitrose Agronomy Group. The four year studentships are funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC): each student works on a project with one of Waitrose’s fresh produce production and supply companies.

All the masters are aimed at developing products, processes and services that cut carbon and increase the efficient use of resources. They cover a wide range of disciplines from engineering, ecology and computing to social sciences.

As well as learning research skills and creating posters about their projects, the PhD researchers got tips from Alan Wilson, director of the training partnership for Waitrose, about how to work effectively with business.

Dr Carly Stevens, from the Lancaster Environment Centre and academic lead for the Waitrose collaborative training partnership, said: “Our projects are driven by what the suppliers need to know to improve the sustainability of food production.

“Our students have only been here a few weeks and this get together is about introducing them to what the training partnership is about, and creating a cohort so they can help and support each other as well as getting support from their supervisors.”

The graduate researchers also got the opportunity to network with others who are already taking part in the two schemes.

Josh Ingham, who is ten months into his research masters project, is working with 2D Heat Ltd, working to reduce hot spots on film used to make heating panels.

“The company is very happy with my work,” said Josh. “I do it like a full time job and feel like I am employed and valued.”

He also praised the experience he gets in project management, how to use and apply data and how to publish the results in different ways for different audiences.

“The Centre put on two day boot camps and this has helped me understand how to communicate the research to commercial partners.

“It’s all on your shoulders, how you manage your project: it gives me a big advantage if I want to apply for roles with a large research company.”

Biologist Kelly Smith, one of the new masters researchers, worked as a science technician in schools after graduating. She is doing a masters project with Adgro Consulting Ltd, a newly established company developing biological adjuvants, substances which help biopesticides work more efficiently.

“I have had research experiences before in laboratories where there was no real tangible outcome. Here you’ve got a clear goal, you’re measured all the way through and feel you are going to have an impact.”

Biochemist Phoebe Foulstone is working with Hygeina International Ltd to evaluate their new product that tests water for contamination in real time. “Currently what they do in places like Africa is to take a sample and send it away for testing which can take a long time. This product would mean water could be tested on the spot, so it would make a real difference.”

Joseph Richardson was already doing an integrated four year computing masters when he decided to swap because of “the chance to work with an industry partner with real world impact as well as getting paid.” He’s working with Invisible Systems on using AI machine learning to improve boiler controls and so reduce the carbon footprint of heating systems.

Although R&D is frequently seen as science driven the masters also includes Natasha Hoare who is an anthropologist and social scientist. She is working with Energy4All, which coordinates energy cooperatives across the company, to evaluate how these cooperatives use their profits to benefit the community. “There is no consensus about how these funds should go back into the community, and we don’t even know how it is happening at the moment. The aim is to make policy recommendations about how best to do it.”

She feels the project makes use of the skills she has learnt in anthropology while allowing her to move into practical work in the environmental field, which has always fascinated her.

The new PhD researchers are equally enthusiastic about their projects.

Nicolas Buck is working with major soft fruit producer, Berry World, on a wire mesh to protect raspberries from a species of fruit fly which can decimate a crop. “We want to limit the use of insecticides and this is one of the main ways to do so. My project is to analyse the economic impact of the mesh, including how it impacts pollinators and natural predators, temperature and humidity, as well as the cost of implementation and the impact on infestation.

“I will have a placement in Spain next year and the chance to go to a couple of soft fruit conferences. This is at the forefront of research because, while there is research being done on wire mesh, there are few studies looking at its economic impact.

“I never really ate raspberries before this, but I now I have I think they are definitely worth saving!”

Helen Ripley is also working in Spain on a project with Prima Fruit exploring how plants can reduce soil erosion. “I’ll be working directly with farmers. I’m very interested in sustainable agriculture and farmers are part of that.”

Anastasia Sokolida’s projects involves assays (tests) for airborne fungi, specifically mildew in tomatoes. She has three supervisors, from Warwick University, Rothamsted Research and APS Group “The project is fun and I get to work with industry and with Rothamsted, one of the leading places in this field of research.”

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