November 12, 2019, by Lexi Earl

Breeding rice for higher temperatures: an interview with Tanvir Ahammed

Md Tanvir Ahammed is a UoN Rothamsted Research PhD studentship recipient. Their project is titled ‘Exploring genetic diversity in rice for better nitrogen recycling and reduced ammonia emission under stress’ and they are supervised by Dr Sigrid Heuer (RRes), Dr Erik Murchie (UoN), and Dr Kazuki Saito (AfricaRice).  

Why did you decide to do a PhD?

I have a very inquisitive mind. I scrutinise almost everything. Why it is like that? How has it happened? What if that was not the case? I always ask myself these types of questions. Since my early school age, I had a soft spot for scientists because they are the ones who help the world to solve its problems, discover the unknown and make this world a better place to live in. The passion for becoming a scientist has motivated me to do a PhD.

What were you doing before?

After completing my undergraduate degree in Bangladesh, I moved to the UK to complete a Master’s degree. After finishing my Master’s, I joined at Fera (Food and Environment Research Agency) as a scientist where I mostly worked with plant diseases, doing research on the efficacy of different pesticides on various plant diseases. Afterwards, I worked at a nematology lab at the University of Leeds, where I worked with plant nematodes, generating some transgenic nematodes for functional analysis of some Meloidogyne genes.

Why did you choose this particular scheme (Rothamsted-UoN)?

This joint PhD programme between Rothamsted Research and the University of Nottingham has given me the opportunity to work in both of these excellent places, gain different experiences from two different labs and learn from the renowned scientists in both institutes. Also, my PhD project will allow me to work at AfricaRice Centre in Senegal, which actually attracted me most, as it is an excellent opportunity to gain some international work experience.

How has your first year gone? Any highlights or successes?

My project requires me to work at both Nottingham and Rothamsted, and I have spent my first year at Nottingham. Thus far, I have had a wonderful time here in Nottingham. I have learnt many new things, met lots of new people and made some good friends. I have found everything in the lab that I need for my research, and many helpful people in the lab who always support me in solving problems I encounter. I have made some significant progress in my project and found some interesting results.

Has undertaking a PhD been different from other degrees you have done? How so?

Undertaking a PhD is quite different from other degrees. I have a MSc degree from the University of Leeds and BSc degree from the Sher-e-Bangla Agricultural University in Bangladesh. The main difference between those degrees and PhD is that there is no specific curriculum for PhD, unlike other degrees. In the PhD, I have to work independently, manage my daily routine in the lab and office, set my own goals and accomplish those, and communicate my research to others by attending seminars and conferences. Undeniably the PhD is a unique opportunity to develop independent working skills and project management skills.

What have you learnt through your first PhD year? 

I enjoyed the research throughout my first year. It has been a challenging year for me as this is the first time I am working independently on a specific project, and I have learnt so many things. I have learnt new lab techniques while also learning to manage my time and to network with people. I attended conferences and gave a talk at the annual postgraduate conference at the school, which was a good experience. The University of Nottingham provides professional training courses on various topics like presenting your research, project management, and statistics which I have found very helpful.

Tell us about your research. What do you study? Why is it important?

I am working on rice, the third most important staple crop in the world and the most important staple crop in developing countries. My research is focused on increasing the nitrogen re-assimilation efficiency in rice under high temperatures. Under high temperatures plants operate stress metabolisms such as photorespiration which results in free ammonia in the plant cell that needs to be recycled within the cell. I am looking at how efficiently different African rice varieties can re-assimilate this photorespired ammonia under heat stress in order to find out which genes are responsible for this trait. Global warming is a burning issue at the moment, and we need heat-tolerant crops to feed the burgeoning  world population. My research fits in exactly there because hopefully, my project will produce results that breeders can use directly to increase nitrogen use efficiency in rice under high temperature.

How do you explain your research to ordinary people?

Plants need nitrogen for growth and development and most is taken from their environments. There are some biological metabolisms in the plants that produce free inorganic nitrogen that plants need to recycle in order to maintain a balanced nitrogen status for growth. However, under high-temperatures plant suffer from stress, and nitrogen recycling efficiency reduces, resulting in poor growth and yield or even death of the plants. My research is to try to increase this nitrogen recycling efficiency in plants so that plants can grow under heat stress condition even with low input of nitrogen fertiliser.

How do you cope with the pressure of doing a PhD? 

Everyone says doing PhD is enormous pressure, but I enjoy these challenges. I like to do research and take challenges that keep me motivated to move forward to become a scientist. Alongside doing intensive work for my PhD, I try to maintain a balanced social life. I have lots of friends here. I am affiliated with a cricket team in Nottingham so every weekend we play cricket at the county level, and we go to different places in Nottinghamshire to play with other teams. I also play badminton, and attend different social gatherings that refresh me and give me the energy to do my PhD with a calm mind.

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