Amy Withers – NPIF Innovation Placement Programme
Details of student and placement
Name: Amy Withers
Institution: Lancaster University
Placement Host: AgSpace Ltd
What motivated you to apply for the placement?
I wanted to gain as much experience as possible during my PhD, and learn about the many different career paths available within science and research. Doing a placement allowed me to immerse myself into a research and development team within an agricultural technology company, something I would not have been able to fully understand by simply reading job descriptions and speaking to others about this career option. It enabled me to think about options outside of the ‘typical’ path after a PhD which goes on to post-doc and lecturer type roles. Furthermore, the placement provided me with the opportunity to gain new skills and learn about many practical applications of research that can be missed whilst based at an academic institution.
Please describe how the placement aligned with the UK Industrial Strategy, giving specific examples where possible.
AgSpace is a UK-based company that that combines scientific innovation with technological development to provide agricultural solutions for farming. It currently works in Europe and Africa with farms growing a wide range of crops. They are also a founding board member of the Agricultural Engineering Precision Innovation (AgriEpi) Centre, one of four Agri-Tech Centres established by the UK government, meaning they work with AgriEpi to implement several projects that are closely aligned with the UK’s Industrial Strategy. This placement worked on a project that aims to take weather models, Earth observation data and knowledge about different crops and crop pests to develop software to help farmers better prepare for pest outbreaks, and improve overall crop management by being more aware of weather patterns and crop growth stages. This enables farmers to benefit from academic research. It also addresses key goals in the Industrial Strategy Challenge such as to ‘transform food production’ and to improve ‘ideas, the world’s most innovative economy’.
Please outline your placement achievements.
There were two large achievements with direct outcomes from my placement. The first was that I carried out an investigation into the economic damage profiles of different pests and diseases in Africa. This utilised many sources such as government reports, published literature and speaking to agronomists in Africa. Following this, I completed a thorough literature review of the models currently available in the literature for the key African pests and diseases identified in my initial investigation. This was presented in a detailed table to my placement managers, including key information such as field trials and the commercial availability of the models. This will be very useful to AgSpace as they move into the crop pest market in Africa, and enables them to quickly see an overview of what is currently available.
Secondly, I produced a detailed report on sugarcane growth models for Africa. As part of this I completed a detailed literature review on published models and summarised models already available in both Africa and the rest of the world. This was then written up into a summary report to be used by the research and development team at AgSpace. This report will be used to aid the development of sugarcane growth models, once produced these could be used by farmers in Africa to better understand crop growth through personalised management advice, potentially leading to improved yield and economic benefits.
Overall, whilst both large achievements were highly beneficial to AgSpace, they also enabled me to develop skills in reading and summarising large amounts of information. This will be important during the remainder of my PhD. It also provided me with the opportunity to develop networking skills, such as communicating with stakeholders including agronomists in Africa, and potential collaborators.
How has this placement influenced your future career aspirations?
The placement provided me with the opportunity to see how research can directly contribute to businesses and industry, and following my placement I am much more likely to consider work outside of academia after completing my PhD. My PhD is on an invasive insect crop species which was mentioned as a serious problem by many of the agronomists I spoke to. Therefore, my placement helped to directly put my PhD into context, and help me see how the wider community could benefit from my research and knowledge of this species. Through my placement I was able to see how research can be utilised for the benefit of farmers through companies like AgSpace, enabling them to access it in useful ways through apps and websites which present the results of the scientific models in user-friendly ways. Previously I was unsure if industry would be for me as I have always loved the research that academia offers, but after my placement this is certainly an area I would look for jobs in after my PhD. I was able to see how I could combine my love of research with industry. Finally, through my placement I was able to meet other people with PhDs who had also left academia to work with in industry, and speak to them about their career journey which was very helpful when considering my own options.
What were your expectations and did your placement fulfil these expectations?
From my placement I expected to learn about how science can be used by businesses, and how it can be implemented in more real-life settings. AgSpace meant I was able to learn about all areas of the business, from the research and development side, to testing the models and their continued development, and finally how the models were used by customers in the field. Therefore, this expectation was fulfilled, and went above what I was expecting.
I also expected to be able to positively contribute to AgSpace, and provide them with beneficial outcomes as well as gaining many skills and knowledge myself. By being able to work on two separate projects, and submit detailed reports on both crop pest models and sugarcane growth models then I feel I did fulfil this expectation as the reports should be very useful when looking at developing these models in the future.
Any final comments you feel would be useful for future placements/ to summarise your experience?
Overall I would recommend completing a placement to anyone. It was very enjoyable, and allowed me to further understand the context of a PhD in the wider world. A placement allows you to gain a more in-depth understanding of possible career options, and provides the opportunity to develop some of the skills required for these options too.