Plants, products and policy: a tale of the unexpected

Kneeling in a lawned garden area, Nigel Paul smiles to the camera in front of colleagues and a wheelbarrow of gardening tools

Professor Nigel Paul’s career path proves that academic careers are often anything but predictable.

“I don’t think my teenage self could ever have imagined where my interest in plants would lead”,’ says Professor Nigel Paul, whose ‘retirement’ after 41 years at Lancaster University is being celebrated today.

“I grew up in the Wiltshire countryside, and it was gardening with my father as a child that triggered my interest in plant science,” said Nigel, who remains involved with the Lancaster Environment Centre (LEC) as Professor Emeritus.

“Like many others, nobody in my family had done a degree,” said Nigel. “If you had asked me what a PhD was, I wouldn’t have had any idea.”

Yet a few decades later, Nigel was presenting to world policy makers trying to protect the Ozone Layer and had helped to develop a new sustainable approach to combating crop pests across the world.

His academic career began with a degree in Horticultural Botany, including a sandwich year working for an agrochemical company.

“I didn’t realise it at the time but looking back I think that work experience at the interface between academia and industry sowed the seed of my interest in applying plant science to real world problems.”

After that year in industry, Nigel knew he wanted to do a PhD. A series of chances led him to Lancaster University to work with Peter Ayres, studying rust disease in groundsel, a common weed.

"That was 1980, and hardly anyone then had looked at the ecology of disease in wild plants, so it was a new field where I could carve out a niche very quickly.”

Following his PhD, Nigel continued to research disease in wild plants, and especially the ecology of interactions between plant disease and pests. Again, it was a chance event that led him to develop what was another little studied research topic.

Walking beside Lancaster canal one day he noticed that something was selectively eating rust-infected leaves of several wild plants, in a sense “curing” the plant. Nigel began to wonder if there were other interactions between plant pests and diseases.

“One of Lancaster’s ecologists, John Whittaker, was working on beetles that feed on dock plants, so Peter Ayres, John and I began to collaborate using dock as a model.” Successful funding application supported a series of projects focussing on these three-way, plant-pest-disease interactions.

At that time, molecular biology techniques were offering new ways to look at the mechanisms involved. Nigel and colleagues started studying the hormones that control plant responses to pests and disease, including a key hormone called jasmonate.

While spraying leaves with jasmonate could reduce pest damage, it also stunted plant growth. Then came a big breakthrough. Nigel was working with PhD student Jason Moore, who came up with an unorthodox idea – what would happen if you soaked seeds in jasmonate? Would the plants that grew from the seeds be more resistant to pests without being stunted?

It seemed a far-fetched idea, but Jason was given the go ahead. To everyone’s surprise, it worked. More research followed, leading to a successful patent that was licensed to a company that was able to commercialise jasmonate seed treatments. Since then, such seed treatments have been used to control crop pests around the world.

While the work on plant, pests and pathogens continued, Nigel had also developed another research area; investigating how plants responded to increased UV light caused by depletion of the ozone layer.

“The UV work built on the track-record of Peter Ayres and Alan Wellburn, who had worked extensively on the effects of air pollution on plants, but this was a completely new start for me. There was virtually no UV research in the UK. We set up controlled environment and field facilities completely from scratch.”

Within a few years Nigel was leading a group of a dozen people and collaborating with others to explore how UV light affects not just plant growth but also the colour, taste and smell of crops, their responses to pests and diseases, and ecological process like decomposition

In 2005, Nigel’s expertise in UV research led to an invitation to join the Environmental Effects Assessment Panel (EEAP) – the global agreement by which world governments work together to protect the ozone layer. In 2010 Nigel became EEAP co-chair, a role he held until he stepped down in 2019. Part of the co-chair’s role is to present to the regular meetings of the 197 countries that have ratified the Montreal protocol.

“It was a real step change for me, a huge honour. Suddenly I was standing there in front of international policy makers and politicians, translating the headlines of the science for the real world. It really taught me the importance of communicating with non-academic audiences using terms they understand. That’s fed back into all sorts of things, not least into my teaching where I can talk to students about what it is like to be involved in that process.”

Nigel was also keen to see how this fundamental UV research could be used in horticulture.

“If you are growing crops under plastic or glass, how can you manipulate UV responses to produce good crops and to provide pest control without using pesticides?”

This led to a long-standing collaboration with Arid Agritech, one of the resident companies based in the Lancaster Environment Centre (LEC), investigating different cladding materials that allow more or less UV to reach the crop.

“One real change has been that many growers now understand the benefits of allowing crops to receive the UV naturally present in sunlight, especially in improving crop quality. It is not ‘one size fits all’ but growers can now choose from a range of cladding materials with different properties.

Back in Lancaster, Nigel was also getting involved in leadership roles. He was head of Biological Sciences when that department was re-structured, with the ecologists and plant scientists combining with Environmental Sciences and Geography to form LEC. The creation of LEC stimulated what became a major focus of the last decade of Nigel’s career – helping to develop Lancaster’s approach to applying fundamental high-quality science in the wider world.

“Lancaster’s Enterprise and Business Partnership (EBP) teams were ahead of the curve in thinking about ‘research impact’, and I worked with them closely on the jasmonate seed treatment, my links with Arid Agritech and other companies, and as we prepared LEC’s return to the 2014 Research Exercise Framework.

Those links with the EBP team were formalised through the award-winning Centre for Global Eco-innovation (CGE), which provides local companies with research expertise to work with them on R&D projects. Nigel was first CGE’s academic lead and then, in 2014, became its director.

“CGE has always crossed the boundaries between traditional academic disciplines, bringing expertise from across campus to support enterprises in North-West England to develop new, sustainable products, technologies and services. Activities like CGE have supported many staff to grow strong links with their research user communities.”

In 2016, the lessons learned from CGE informed the successful application for the £7 million RECIRCULATE project, focussed on creating a safe, circular water economy in Africa, which Nigel led over its first two years.

“RECIRCULATE’s founding philosophy of researchers ‘working with, in and for their communities’ grew from CGE’s core approaches of working across disciplines and in close collaboration with research users. Exploring how those approaches can contribute to sustainable development in African countries has been an amazing experience. I have learned so much from so many people. It really has been one highlight of my whole career”.

Nigel is still working across disciplines in research that makes headlines. A long-standing collaboration with Dr Paul Young, a Lancaster climate scientist, led to a paper published in Nature in August, looking at how the Montreal Protocol has helped slow down global warming as well as reducing ozone depletion.

“It’s collaborations like those with Paul and with Arid Agritech that I hope to develop for a while yet, but retirement will almost bring me full circle. I started as a gardener, and now I am looking forward to spending more time tending my garden, pottering round at my own pace.”

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