New Lecturer grant winners announced

We are pleased to announce the winners of the 2021 Rank Prize New Lecturer grant in nutrition. This annual research grant is offered in the areas of human nutrition, animal nutrition and crop science to help postdoctoral scientists establish their careers as independent investigators. This year we made three awards to the following scholars:

Dr Alexandra Burgess, University of Nottingham

Alex is a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at the University of Nottingham, having completed her undergraduate in Biological Sciences from the University of Oxford, PhD from the University of Nottingham and post doc positions at Queen Mary University of London and the University of Nottingham. Her research uses a combination of biological experiments, computer vision and mathematical modelling to link plant canopy architecture to light interception and photosynthesis.

“The Rank Prize New Lecturer grant will be used to generate new methods for the analysis of plant structure and yield production,” explains Dr Burgess. “By using advanced image analysis in the form of deep learning, we can generate improved 3D plant models (digitised plant structures) to understand how plants respond to their environment and improve resource capture.”

More about Alex’s work: How plants position their leaves and stems will determine how they interact with their environment such as the effect of variations in weather and the interception of key growth resources such as light. My research uses methods from biological, computational and mathematical disciplines to understand how different structural traits (or architectures) influence plant performance. I am particularly interested in using 3D plant models- digitised plant structures- and new measurement techniques to characterise the quantity and spectral quality of light reaching different parts of plants, and how the plant adapts to this variable environment. My side interests revolve around the use of alternative cropping practices to improve the sustainability and resilience of our agricultural systems. By incorporating multiple crop species together (intercropping) or positioning trees in or around fields (agroforestry) we can improve overall productivity, reduce inputs and the environmental impacts of farming and help to mitigate climate change.

Dr Amanda Cavanagh, University of Essex

Amanda completed her PhD at the University of New Brunswick in Canada in 2016, and then did a postdoc at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign in the USA, where she worked on Rubisco – the photosynthetic enzyme that feeds the world. Since 2020 she has been a lecturer at the University of Essex, where her research is developing strategies to optimize crop performance in response to our changing climate.

“I am honoured to receive this award from Rank Prize, which will play a critical role in establishing my research program,” said Dr Cavanagh. “This support will allow me to take the first steps to mine natural variation in photorespiration and make crop plants more tolerant to high temperatures”

More about Amanda’s work: Crops use photosynthesis to convert carbon dioxide into sugars, but many crops – including major UK crops like wheat and rapeseed – are plagued by a photosynthetic glitch that can limit their yield potential. This is because the enzyme responsible for converting carbon dioxide to carbohydrates can mistakenly grab an oxygen molecule, resulting in an energetically expensive plant recycling process called photorespiration. As temperatures rise, the competing oxygenation reaction increases and photorespiration rates can impose significant yield drags in warm growing regions. Lowering this penalty can increase crop photosynthetic performance and yield under temperature stress, but there remains limited understanding of natural variation in the biochemistry underpinning photorespiration. This project will explore variation in photorespiration among Brassica crops to identify mechanisms to boost productivity in a warming world.

Dr Jeongmin Choi, Department of Plant Sciences, University of Cambridge

Jeongmin’s passion for plant biology began as undergraduate at Seoul National University in South Korea. For her PhD, she moved to the USA to study plant molecular biology, genetics and cell signalling at the University of Missouri.  She then joined the Department of Plant Sciences in Cambridge, UK, to investigate arbuscular mycorrhizal symbiosis as an EMBO and a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow. In early 2021 she received the Royal Society University Research Fellowship to start her research group at the Crop Science Centre in Cambridge.

“The Rank Prize New Lecturer grant is the first I have received as a principal investigator,” said Dr Choi. “This is a wonderful start to my independent research group and provides me with the initial resources to start my research. The award is a vital seed-corn grant which will create momentum to attract talented scientists and provide opportunities to secure additional funding.”

More about Jeongmin’s work: Phosphorus and nitrogen minerals are essential for plant development, growth, and health, yet they are often unavailable. In nature, 80% of land plants form a symbiotic relationship with arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi in the soil to obtain these essential minerals. Plants grown in nutrient-poor soils actively invite the fungi inside their roots to form a small tree-like structure called arbuscule where bidirectional nutrient exchange occurs. The fungi deliver minerals to the plant in exchange for carbohydrates fixed by photosynthesis.

Current agriculture heavily relies on industrialised fertiliser to improve crop yield. However, plants take up only 30% of fertiliser input, and the remaining portion causes environmental pollution. Thus, finding environmentally sustainable methods to support mineral supply is urgently needed for global food security. Implementation of arbuscular mycorrhizal symbiosis in agriculture could be a solution. However, the symbiosis is a highly dynamic process heavily influenced by environmental factors. In my lab, we study how the environment affects symbiosis at a molecular level.  Particularly, we focus on how fertiliser application inhibits symbiosis. Understanding AM symbiosis’s dynamic nature could help us use this naturally occurring beneficial symbiosis in agriculture and therefore improve crop performance under various environmental conditions.