31 October 2014

Antje Fiebig found herself presenting her PhD research on effective plant watering systems to the world’s top horticulturalists in Australia, after winning a prestigious travel scholarship.

“When does this session start?” said a man sitting behind me.

“I think it’s 4pm” was the reply from his neighbour.

“Ah yes. It’s the second talk I’m really interested in. ‘Feedback regulation of irrigation via soil moisture monitoring and its implication on plant growth and physiology’, that sounds interesting.”

At that moment, my heart seemed to stop for a second. That was the title of my oral presentation. Of course I knew that there would be people in the room, but somehow I always assumed they would have come to listen to other talks, not specifically mine. But there I was – a PhD student from the Lancaster Environment Centre at Lancaster University - speaking at  the world’s premiere horticultural event.  The International Horticultural Congress, (IHC) is held only every four years and regularly attracts thousands of delegates. This year it was in Brisbane, Australia. 

Comparing hand and automated watering

My PhD research, supervised by Dr Ian Dodd and Professor John Quinton, compared the effectiveness of watering plants by hand and by automatic irrigation linked to a soil moisture sensor. Our experiments showed that watering plants by hand, relying on grower’s experience only (for example in commercial nurseries), can result in significant differences in the soil moisture around plants, even when they are standing on the same bench. This can lead to patchy crops and poorer quality or yield.

We also evaluated a system which used soil moisture sensors to measure the level of moisture in the soil. Using software to access this data, irrigation can be automatically switched on or off whenever the soil moisture is too high or too low. This system works for many different substrates, plant species and adjusts watering according to the developmental stage of the plant (when plants might need more or less water). My PhD, funded by the Horticultural Development Company, showed the irrigation system not only reduces labour, but also increases crop uniformity and plant growth.

My conference talk, presenting some of the results, was well received and I obtained very valuable comments and ideas for further research. The conference also gave me the opportunity to discuss my results with high-profile research scientists from academia and industry. In particular, several presentations about automatic irrigation scheduling caught my attention and it was very interesting to see the advances made in this area in recent years and where my PhD research project fits in. 

Apart from the conference itself, I was very lucky to get to see more of Brisbane and especially Australian wildlife. We got the chance to go whale watching and cuddle with kangaroos and koalas.

Travelling to Australia is not cheap, so I was very thankful to receive a travel grant from Lancaster University’s Faculty of Science and Technology and the David Miller Travel Bursary Award from the Society of Chemical Industry (SCI), which is awarded to only two recipients each year.

In September, I was invited to London to give a presentation about my work and the conference to the SCI committee, where I also received a certificate of the Travel Award, one-year free membership of SCI and three years’ Friends Membership of the Eden Project. I am very grateful for the financial support, which made it possible for me to present part of my research in Australia.

Having submitted and successfully defended my PhD,  I am now a research associate at the Lancaster Environment Centre working with one of its resident companies, Levity, trying to understand the effects of the heavy metal titanium on plant growth.

Find out more about studying for a research degree and about the Plant and Crop Science taking place at the Lancaster Environment Centre.




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