King’s Birthday Honours recognition for Professor Diane Saunders

Professor Diane Saunders has been recognised for her outstanding scientific achievements and dedication to women in STEM with the honour of Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in the King’s Birthday Honours 2024.

Professor Graham Moore FRS, Director of the John Innes Centre said, “This prestigious honour reflects Diane’s remarkable contributions to plant pathology and her dedication to advancing our understanding of plant diseases. Her work has made a significant impact on both the scientific community and agricultural practices around the world, and we are incredibly proud to work with her at the John Innes Centre.”

The Birthday Honours list recognises the achievements and service of people across the UK, from all walks of life, and the award reflects Diane’s contributions to plant science, agriculture and women in STEM.

Professor Saunders remarked how “It is a phenomenal honour to be recognised in this way,  and really this recognition reflects the remarkable research accomplishments and dedication of each and every person who has worked in the incredible team that I have the privilege to lead at the John Innes Centre.”

Professor Saunders research investigates (re-)emerging plant pathogens that pose a significant threat to agriculture. With her group’s primary focus on the wheat rust pathogens, which are known as the “polio of agriculture” and “cereal killers” due to the damage they have caused to wheat production ever since we started cultivating wheat over 10,000 years ago.

Diane’s team aim to harness the potential of the phenomenal recent advances in genomic-based approaches and molecular resources to finally wrestle the wheat rust fungi into submission. Developing numerous new genomics-based strategies to enhance the resilience of our wheat production systems to these deadly cereal invaders.

This includes the development and deployment of pioneering techniques for pathogen surveillance; the revolutionary “field pathogenomics” and “MARPLE diagnostics” techniques, that are bringing the capacity for real-time disease diagnostics (for the first time) to resource-poor regions in Africa and Asia, which are the regions often hardest hit when it comes to plant disease epidemics.

Diane is hugely passionate about training the next-generation of plant scientists, including supporting researchers in countries with few opportunities to access high-level training in various areas of need. She is also highly dedicated to promoting gender parity in wheat research. This led her to the development of the Rosalind Franklin Women in Wheat mentoring programme, which she created to address the severe lack of female representation in wheat research particularly in academia at the independent career stage.

Through the Rosalind Franklin Women in Wheat mentoring programme, and working with her colleagues, Diane provides targeted career development training and mentoring for early-career female scientists at the John Innes Centre, The Sainsbury Laboratory and beyond to encourage them to continue their career paths in wheat research.

Diane commented, “Developing and leading the Rosalind Franklin Women in Wheat mentoring programme has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my scientific career. Just being a small part of the career journey of so many exceptionally talented female researchers, is a huge privilege.” She also noted that “We must all keep in mind, that it is only by cultivating a diverse research community that we can truly harness the diversity in scientific thinking that is essential to maximise our collective creativity and innovation, and tackle the monumental challenges we face around food insecurity worldwide”

Diane received a first-class honours degree and PhD from the University of Exeter. After her PhD, Diane became a postdoctoral researcher at The Sainsbury Laboratory in Norwich. In 2014 Diane established her own research group at the John Innes Centre initially in conjunction with the Earlham Institute. She is an Honorary Professor in the School of Biological Sciences at the University of East Anglia and became Head of the Crop Genetics department at the John Innes Centre in 2023.

Diane was awarded the Innovator of the Year Award in the International Category with Dr. Dave Hodson of CIMMYT in 2019 from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, received the Rosalind Franklin Award and Lecture from The Royal Society in 2022 and the RKS Wood Prize from the British Society for Plant Pathology in 2024.

Rosalind Franklin Women in Wheat mentoring programme

This is a targeted career development programme established by Diane and her colleagues in 2019 to address the severe lack of female representation in wheat research at the independent career stage. It aims to support early-career female researchers to continue working in wheat research and attain senior research positions.

There are many women working in wheat research, but this representation is not reflected in senior leadership roles. The programme aims to provide practical skills and encouragement to better support women to transition their careers to independence in the wheat research area. This is supported through dedicated one-to-one mentoring provided by group leaders at the John Innes Centre and The Sainsbury Laboratory, practical career development training and inspirational career talks from external female speakers working in wheat research.

The programme also includes an annual two-day career development and networking workshop open to female wheat researchers from across the UK to join, widening the reach of this amazingly successful programme.

Notes for Editors

Press Contact: Adrian

Tel: 01603 450238/07989 339598

More News Stories