February 26, 2021, by Andrew Edwards (Ed)

When does rice not like water? – An interview with Gavers Oppong

Gavers Oppong is a second-year PhD student on the UoN-Rothamsted Graduate Centre for International Agriculture scheme. His project is titled ‘Understanding the mechanism for hypoxia tolerance in rice’. He is supervised by Prof. Frederica Theodoulou and Dr Smita Kurup (RRes) and Dr Darren Wells and Dr Jonathan Atkinson (UoN)  

Why did you decide to do a PhD?

Born to cocoa farmers in a farming community in Ghana, I was always fascinated by how seeds germinate and flowering plants. When I later learned about this in my science class in junior high school, I became very interested in science. I developed a strong desire to do something that will improve the lives of farmers using science.

My passion for science motivated me to study a BSc in Agriculture and later an MSc in Plant Biotechnology. I decided to do a PhD because I thought I could do more as an independent researcher to realise my childhood goal; to undertake food security research that will improve the livelihoods of farmers.

Tell us about your research..

In south and south-east Asia, rice has traditionally been cultivated by transplanting. However, rising labour costs have rendered this method cost inefficient.

Direct seeded rice (DSR) is being adopted by farmers to cut labour costs. Widespread adoption of DSR is hampered though because most sub-tropical and tropical areas experience unexpected heavy rainfall and flooding. Flooding during germination creates hypoxia (low oxygen), which most elite varieties of rice are sensitive to. There is a pressing need to develop new germplasm with enhanced tolerance to hypoxia during germination but the mechanism of hypoxia tolerance in rice is not clearly understood.

My project studies the mechanism of hypoxia tolerance in rice by contrasting rice genotypes with different hypoxia tolerance, using transcriptomics, proteomics and phenomics. Results from this study will aid breeders to develop new rice varieties with improved tolerance to hypoxia during germination. This will reduce the cost of producing rice.

Gavers Oppong in the lab

How do you explain your research to ordinary people?

I tell people that rice likes water but not when it’s germinating; most rice varieties germinate poorly in water. That is why rice must be raised in a nursery before the seedlings are transplanted to the paddy, which is labour intensive.

However, a few low-yielding and old varieties can germinate quite well in water so my research seeks to understand how these cultivars can do that. Such insight will be essential for developing new rice genotypes that can germinate well in water, reducing the labour costs of cultivating rice.

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

I chose the Rothamsted-UoN scheme because both institutions are renowned research centres with state-of-the-art facilities. I consider it a privilege and a wonderful opportunity to be part of the Future Food Beacon international PhD programme.

My project includes an international collaboration with the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in The Philippines and there is an opportunity for me to visit IRRI during my PhD.

What were you doing before this PhD?

I worked as a research assistant for the Grain Biochemistry and Genetics group at the School of Agriculture, Food and Wine at the University of Adelaide, Australia between March 2017 and October 2019. I was part of a small group, working on Elimination of Grain Defects in Wheat – preharvest sprouting (PHS), black point (BP), late a-amylase activity (LMA).

Prior to that, I worked as a teaching assistant at the Biotechnology department, University for Development Studies in Tamale, Ghana from 2013 to 2014.

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

I did my BSc at the University for Development Studies in  Ghana and my MSc at the University of Adelaide in Australia. Both degrees involved prescribed courses and lectures but doing a PhD is different; there is more self-learning, no lectures and you are by yourself. You must plan your day to day activity, which can be challenging.

Gavers Oppong casual

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

My first year has been interesting so far. I have met a lot of nice people in my cohort and in the lab and made some friends. I mostly undertook pre-experimental training and conducted pre-experiments to test hypotheses in the first five months of my PhD. I had the opportunity to present a flash talk and a poster at the 2020 UK ECR Rice meeting in Sheffield, something I was very happy about because it was my first conference.

I used lockdown to read a lot of literature to understand key theoretical concepts about my research and I wrote my literature review. I also had the chance to present at the PhD symposium and received positive feedback.

I now have some results from my preliminary study on whether ethylene priming is involved in seed imbibition in rice. I have also been looking at the expression key hypoxia proteins and genes using Western blot and qPCR respectively, so that is exciting.

What have you learnt through your first PhD year?

My experience so far has been a good one. I have learned a lot of new skills, both in the lab and in character, that will shape me to become a better scientist. I have acquired molecular skills in RNA isolation, cDNA synthesis, qPCR and Western blot hybridization. I have also had the chance to undergo statistical training on R software and gained presentational skills.

I have learned to always strive for quality by being more careful and accurate when performing experiments. I have become more organised and resilient since starting my PhD.

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

A PhD can be lonely and stressful, so I listen to music and interact with friends during my leisure time. I play football with members of the Rothamsted football group once a week and go to the gym.

Posted in Meet the Beacon