I should explain that I trained as a botanist and plant pathologist and spent most of my career investigating diseases which infect plants, especially vegetables. Not often glamorous (the first nickname refers to a disease of onions called white rot, after the fluffy white fungus that grows out of rotting onions – nice) but plant pathology is an international business and it has taken me to some far-flung places.
It all started when I was a PhD student studying viruses of beans in Africa. I was attracted to the project because I knew it would involve extensive travel in Africa and I was excited at the prospect of working overseas for extended periods. My PhD supervisor loved to travel too and as we had a limited travel budget we decided to share out the bean hunting destinations so that we could both collect the precious bean samples for me to study in the laboratory back in the UK. He had strong views about which countries he wanted to visit, and decided it would be good experience for me to visit some of the less developed nations. Suffice to say I ended up with countries where there was a strong possibility of civil unrest, namely Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Congo, Zimbabwe and Kenya.
Undaunted, I made contact with our local collaborators and planned my first visit to Uganda. My most vivid memories of this first trip were staying in the building where Idi Amin had imprisoned and tortured his political opponents that is now a hotel, being stopped by alarmingly young armed soldiers at roads blocks, pot holes that stretched across the entire road, bullet holes all over the airport buildings at Entebbe and visiting a house which had a steel lined bathroom in which to hide during raids.
I also learned the hard way that women in rural areas in Uganda absolutely must wear a skirt. Such was the attention and ridicule I experienced on my first day in the field wearing trousers that after the first village we visited, I dared not get out of the vehicle. None of our local partners had told me as they were uncertain what the protocol was on advising a European woman what not to wear.
I quickly learned that a long skirt, long-sleeved shirt, brimmed hat and boots were perfect, although I saved such items exclusively for bean hunting as I didn’t want to look like Indiana Jones all the time.
I also devised a survival kit for the very long, hot days spent in a dusty Landrover and wandering about in bean fields: wet wipes were a must, along with bottled water, tissues, sun cream, lip cream, and a pocket knife. Also essential: insect repellent to try and prevent bites, and sting relief because you get bitten anyway; stop and go medication for inevitable tummy trouble; Werther’s originals for a non-sticky energy boost and to give to kids along the journey; ditto pens and pencils to give to kids; notebook; and camera and film – something never, ever to be used anywhere near police roadblocks or official buildings. An American colleague caused a near-riot when he filmed a police roadblock with a video camera.
I often took pictures of farms and people on my travels. The farmers were always keen that I send them a photo but this was difficult as most did not have a PO Box, so I started taking a Polaroid camera on my trips. Some people had never seen a photo of themselves, so a photo was very exciting. Once I offered to take a photo of a farmer and his family after we had visited their farm. He readily agreed but then there was a long delay and great excitement as he rounded up his entire family; the delay went on and on until finally we were ready. It turned out that his wife had quickly washed all the children and changed them into their best clothes for the occasion. They were so grateful for the photos they gave us a basket of avocados.
Farmers’ hospitality sometimes extended to offers of food and drink. This was fraught with difficulty as I didn’t want to offend by refusing, but I didn’t want to get ill through food or water-borne infection. Normally we managed to extract ourselves quickly enough to not be offered refreshments but on one occasion in Uganda a farmer was determined that we try his fermented sorghum beer. It was thick brown sludge with a yeasty smell and I was going to have to drink it; luckily I managed to choose the smallest glass on offer and started to sip it without gagging. It was truly disgusting but I couldn’t show it. Some of my colleagues had decided to down it in one to get it over with. They were rewarded with a second helping!
The fear of a road traffic accident was probably the most worrying risk. I had heard about people who travelled regularly to countries with high HIV incidence who had banked their own blood in private hospitals in case they ever needed a transfusion. I always carried my own swabs, needles, sutures, IV lines, saline and canuli, and even an emergency dental kit but I drew the line at blood banking.
My best memories of this time are the people I worked with and met and the enduring sense that in countries devastated by war, malnutrition and hardship, there is a hunger for knowledge and a strong resilience to do more with what little people have. It was a real privilege to share my knowledge in helping people grow healthier crops.
PROFESSOR Nicola Spence is Chief Executive at Science City York
Science, technology and innovation is transforming the economy in and around York. The city is now the base for more than 500 technology companies. Spanning the sciences and creative & digital industries, young dynamic companies sit alongside global research giants such as Smith & Nephew and The Food and Environment Research Agency, where Nicola was previously Chief Scientist. At the heart of this transformation is Science City York. The first initiative of its kind in the UK, and having achieved critical acclaim as the most successful science city in the UK, Science City York (SCY) is recognised as the leading innovation asset in the Leeds City Region.
Over the last three years, SCY has secured more than £23 million investment for York’s science base. For over a decade, SCY has successfully been the focus and vehicle for enabling a new knowledge-led economy for York. Launched in 1998, in its first ten years SCY helped establish over 100 technology companies and create and sustain around 2800 jobs.
SCY delivers a suite of activities to sustain and enhance York’s status as a leading Science City in the UK:
• Bringing world-class research together with industry
• Facilitating growth and innovation in biorenewables and new environmental technologies
• Managing specialist sector networks: Bioscience York, Creative York and IT & Digital York
• Delivering tailored business mentoring
• Securing major capital investment in support of a leading knowledge economy
• Connecting the wider community with the benefits of living and working in a leading city of science.