Adventures and Africa, my career in plant science

Dr Tilly Eldridge joined the John Innes Centre over a decade ago and since then her scientific career has taken her around the world, before bringing her back to Norwich.

We caught up with her to hear all about her adventures and plans for the future.

“My current role is International Impact Officer, which means that I have the interesting task of uncovering all the different impacts of the plant and microbial research that the John Innes Centre is doing in the wider world.

For example, in collaboration with BecA-ILRI Hub, the Earlham Institute and others, we have built a Bioinformatics community of practice (BiX CoP). The aim is to build a self-sustaining network to enable Africa to reap the benefits of the genomic era in improving its agricultural productivity.

Another example, is a project with the Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute in Dakar (BARI) where we are helping to grow Brassica rapa in a short 90-day window to fit around rice growing commitments.

While I am currently based in the UK looking outwards at the global impact of our work, my own scientific career has taken me all around the world.

Before I joined the John Innes Centre over a decade ago, to undertake a PhD studying fruit shape development in the labs of Lar Ostergaard and Enrico Coen, I had worked for Kew Gardens and spent three months in both Australia and Colorado.

I grew up on an Organic vegetable farm and the science of nature always fascinated me. In particular I always wanted to be involved in science that could have real impact in farming.

For my PhD I was awarded the John Innes Foundation Centenary studentship, which included additional funding to do something of my choosing. I’d always wanted my work have more impact with a special interest in working in Africa and this extra funding allowed me to get involved in a new relationship between the John Innes Centre and BecA-ILRI Hub in Nairobi, Kenya.

As the partnership flourished, my husband and I moved out to Kenya in 2015. I was based at the BecA-ILRI Hub in Nairobi, Kenya where, among other things, I co-ordinated many workshops, the biggest of which was the John Innes AfriPlantSci Summer Schools in 2017 and 2019.

My time in Africa was amazing, not only did I get to meet, work with and support some fantastic scientists from all over Africa, I also got a chance to explore some natural wonders of Africa.

Throughout my career so far, the moments that make me most proud are when I hear about the success of one of the early career African scientists that I have supported, knowing that I have been a part of their journey. I feel that is my small contribution to a better future in Africa.

We came back to the UK in 2019, only now it was myself, my husband and our daughter (plus baby number two on the way) on the plane.

My next adventure is a three-month placement in the Netherlands at seed company Enza Zaden. I’ve chosen to work at a seed company as I feel this is the piece of experience I am missing to have a real impact in the farming community. I hope that it will lead to longer term opportunities to live and work abroad again.

I have experienced fundamental research at the John Innes Centre and applied research in Africa. I want to find out how this research can be translated into something farmers can use.

My dream is to one day to be able to work at the interface of science and farming, particularly to support the regenerative farming movement.”

Image courtesy of Nathan Sukhnandan.

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