Catching up with Dr Mark Pawlett
Recently we sat down with Dr Mark Pawlett, Senior Research Fellow in Soil Biology and Course Director for Environmental Engineering to discuss two of the Thesis projects he supervised this year. We talked about the objectives of the project, the skills students learn during their project and how Cranfield University students in particular, work closely with industry to find solutions to solve real-world problems through their thesis projects.
The projects this year were conducted very differently to pervious years due to the restrictions brought on by Covid-19. With this in mind the students worked exceptionally well to continue to produce a high standard of work despite the challenges and were able to present back to their industry clients with their findings and complete their projects.
Project 1: Use Of Biostimulants And Surfactants In Turfgrass Management
Aim: To investigate the influence of biostimulants and surfactants on turfgrass quality through their influence on microorganisms within the plants rhizosphere.
This Research was sponsored by Aquatrols, a US company and world leader in the development of soil surfactants and wetting agents. The field trial was managed by the Sport Turf Research Institute (STRI) in the United Kingdom. This was a follow-up projecting leading on from previous work foundered by Aquatrols from 2019.
The main research aim was provided by Aquatrols and it is an ongoing business focus of the company. The intension was that the student was to design their own experiment to investigate biological mechanisms associated with the effects of the products on turfgrass quality. Due to the Covid-19 lockdown the student was not able to go into the laboratory to perform the intended experiments, so data was analysed from a 2019 trial. Despite the changes, the project matched the student’s interests very well.
The student communicated regularly and directly with STRI and Aquatrols on many occasions throughout the project, in addition she also had the opportunity to present a summary of her findings over Zoom to the companies at the end of the project. By doing this she was able to learn valuable project management and presentation skills which will be very useful in the future when working in industry.
The benefits of the thesis project for the student are that they are able to gain skills in respect of working with companies to tackle real-world scenarios and problems. They also are able to improve their communication skills in communicating scientific principles to industry.
Throughout the thesis projects supervisors act as a guide, ensuring that the student keeps on track to complete their work within guidelines stipulated by Cranfield for MSc projects. With this in mind it is still important for students to follow their own journey, as it often leads to more creative innovation and discovery, while also allowing them to develop skills that will benefit them in their pursuit of employment.
The outcomes that the student came to at the end of the project were:
- The student was able to provide scientific evidence to support the benefits claimed by manufacturers and farmers on how biostimulants remain a knowledge gap from industry and academia.
- There was little experimental evidence, within the confines of this project, that the biostimulnts tested affected either soil microbiology or plant health.
- Varying the dose rate applied was recommended.
- Effects of biostimulants may be more apparent when the plant is stressed, thereby experiments were recommended to artificially induce stress scenarios such as water deficit.
- Circadian rhythm of plants should be considered for biostimulants application.
The unique part of this project was that the company sponsoring the project are exploring unique biostimulants in field-trial scenarios.
Project 2: Using Biostimulants to facilitate plant growth and microbial development in agricultural soil.
Aim: To investigate the ability of biostimulants and how it could be used to stimulate and improve plant growth, yield and quality.
Tricet UK sponsored this project and Cranfield have not worked with t them before so it was a great opportunity to work with a new industry partner and we hope we will be able to collaborate with them more in the future.
The student had regular meetings with the company throughout the project and delivered a presentation at the end to discuss conclusions and findings. From my experience working with students on their thesis projects, I always find that the student really values the chance to present their conclusions to industry the client also benefits through a concise summary of the project.
The outcomes that the student came to at the end of the project were:
- The biostimulants researched in this project did not produce significant effects on crop yields.
- Although these novel substances are potentially economically and environmentally beneficial in agriculture, their specific mechanism of action is yet to be known.
- Biostimulants effect may be context dependent, and so depend on the crop and other environmental variables such as soil type.
- The student was able to make recommendations including suggestions in terms of altering field trial design.
Well done to both students on your project outcomes!
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