My PhD internship at the International Centre for Tropical Agriculture

This is a guest blog post from James Bradley, who is a PhD researcher on the BBSRC DTP Mechanistic Biology working with Prof. Julie Scholes in the department of Animal and Plant Sciences.

What is a PIPS? A PIPS is a ‘Professional Internship for PhD Students’ that forms a part of the BBSRC funded White Rose Doctoral Training Partnership (DTP). The PIPS opportunity allows PhD students the chance to take 3 fully-funded months away from their research to conduct a placement at a location of their choosing. This is a great time to broaden horizons, make new connections and to trial a prospective career path.

 Where did I do my PIPS?


I completed my PIPS at the International Centre for Tropical Agriculture, where it is known by its Spanish acronym of ‘CIAT’. CIAT is headquartered in Colombia but also has a presence in over 50 countries in the developing world and works with many partner organisations worldwide.

CIAT is one of several research centres that constitute part of the ‘CGAIR consortium’. This consortium is a global agricultural innovation network working toward three key goals: (i) to reduce poverty; (ii) to improve food and nutrition security; and (iii) to improve natural resources and ecosystem services.

These three goals guide the work carried out by CIAT, which aims to develop technologies, methods, and knowledge to enable farmers in developing countries to make their production more sustainable, productive and resilient in a changing world. Being a global organisation, CIAT works with policymakers, scientists and farmers worldwide to conduct research that works towards a number of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.

Why was I interested in undertaking my PIPS at CIAT? If I were to list the 3 subjects that interest me most, I would say: plant science; agricultural sustainability; and rural development. Indeed, these three themes run through my PhD research; which is working to understand a pervasive agricultural parasite that grows throughout Africa and affects millions of small-scale subsistence farmers.

However, outside of academia, it is more difficult to find a career path that blends these three interests. I had considered working within an agricultural company. Typically, however, the work conducted by corporate enterprises is economically driven and therefore focussed on agricultural innovation in already developed countries, where they stand to make more profit.

The CIGAIR consortium of institutions provided an ideal alternative that would allow me to continue to peruse my interests but to do so outside of the familiar university setting. My PhD supervisor had collaborators at CIAT and was able to put me in contact with a potential supervisor at the organisation. I was excited to learn, after discussing potential PIPS projects via Skype, about a number of projects that I could contribute towards.

What did I do at CIAT? I was working within the rice genetics group, under the supervision of Dr Mathias Lorieux, whom has worked on improving genetic resources for rice breeders at CIAT for the last 15 years. I worked within the context of rice genetics by quantifying structural differences throughout the genomes of different rice cultivars and trying to understand how these differences can affect the exchange of genetic material during the rice breeding process. This kind of knowledge would be very useful to rice breeders, whom could use such information to develop elite rice cultivars much more efficiently.omer-rana-503225-unsplash (1)

What did I learn? During my PIPS I built on a range of skills that I have been developing over the course of my PhD, including programming skills and the ability to rapidly and critically synthesis new information. In addition, I learned to use a number of software that I had not previously used and that were specific to the task in hand.

Being based in Colombia and outside of the familiar university setting was admittedly out of my comfort zone and therefore it was initially challenging to adapt to the new working environment.  However, this challenge was a worthwhile one as it allowed me to develop a number of ‘soft’ skills that I’m sure will be valuable going forward in my career. For example, the ability to integrate with an international mixture of people from various different cultural backgrounds was not only a very rewarding experience but I believe will also prove to be very useful in today’s global job market.

Overall, this experience was not only very enjoyable but has hugely broadened my horizons and opened my mind to the potential career paths that I could take going forward after my PhD.




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