Hello, my name is Danni and I’m a third-year PhD student in the School of Water, Energy, and Environment specifically within the Soil, Agrifood and Biosciences department. My PhD focuses on how biostimulants (seaweeds, humic substances, protein hydrolysates) impact soil health factors and crop quality. My background before the PhD was in Environmental Science (BSc) and Climate Change (MSc) studies and I knew relatively little about soil before starting the soil-focused PhD! It has been a steep learning curve but I’ve loved every minute of it.
My PhD is a little unique in that it is part of a wider ‘FoodBioSystems’ Doctoral Training Partnership which means that my project is part funded by industry and includes a three month internship with that funder. For me, that’s the well-known supermarket, Sainsbury’s who had a keen interest in the consumer facing aspect of my PhD project of growing good quality crops on better managed soils. I’ve actually just completed my internship with the Agriculture team at Sainsbury’s and I couldn’t have loved it more. I worked on a project slightly different to my PhD topic which was to do with potato variety mapping against Sainsbury’s sustainability strategy in relation to carbon emission reduction targets. I was able to highlight to the team where we could make significant carbon reductions and therefore cost savings to the business. By working through this project, I have also developed a tool which can be used to assess other crops after I’m gone which I’m really proud of. Outside of my individual project I was able to fully immerse myself in what the agriculture team do at Sainsbury’s. I visited supplier and grower sites that grow various crops such as peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers, potatoes, tender stem broccoli and sweetcorn; I joined a dairy farmer business meeting/farm visit; I contributed to report writing on various agriculture stakeholder strategies and crop condition reports; and I contributed to some of the sustainability project work in relation to food production that Sainsbury’s support, such as looking into new crop varieties, alternative fertiliser and different land management practices. This experience has given me such an improved understanding of the wider food system, shown me the importance of where my PhD fits in with this wider outlook on food production and also, it’s been a great source of networking and connections who I may lean on, post PhD.
Heading back to uni life now, I am ready to immerse myself in the upcoming experiments I have got planned. Similar to the steep learning curve with the soil science knowledge, I also had a steep learning curve with experimental lab work as I had not been based in a lab before. This provided a challenge at the start of my PhD because this was back in 2020 when the pandemic still had tight reins over the movement of people. Therefore I could not get into the lab much. As restrictions started to ease, I was able to get into the lab and see for myself the equipment and practice operating procedures I would need for my experimental work which I quickly picked up and gained confidence with. Leaning on my peers and the lab technicians for help and support in the lab has contributed to my success and they are owed a huge thank you.
Other aspects of my PhD have included attending some really cool and unique places for conferences, with the opportunity to share my PhD work with like-minded academics. For example in 2022 I attended COP27 in Egypt in November, Glasgow for the World Congress of Soil Science in August and more recently I went to the US for the International Erosion Control Association annual conference held in Missouri. Later this year I plan to attend the annual conference of the British Society of Soil Science in Belfast city and a Biostimulant World Congress in Italy. With each of these conferences I have gained confidence in my ability to share my work, learn from others in the field and spark up conversation with both new and old friends I’ve made from these conference experiences. I particularly like poster presentations because you can have engaging and extended conversations with those most interested and aligned with your work.
There have also been other fun activities a little closer to home, on campus actually. For example, I hosted a World Soils Day event last December where we had a ‘pub quiz’ and soil based board game with some delicious and home-made soil-themed cake. I am also a member of Cranfield Circuits – a CrossFit/exercise student society, not the electrical type as some have asked! I started there in early 2021 and there were three of us, now I have gained a greater role within the society and we have had up to 60 members join us!
I have a year and 4 months to go (not that I’m counting! No, seriously, it’s good to keep check on what time you have in order to plan your time efficiently and effectively and ultimately hand in on time) and I’m eager to take the next step in my career. The internship for me has been a pivotal moment where I have found an area I’d like to pursue for a career, whether that be for a retailer of supplier I’m not sure yet, but at least I know where to start looking. I’m confident that Cranfield has and will continue to help support me in my confidence, knowledge, expertise and experience to hit the ground running when I finish my PhD.