Inspiring the next generation of plant scientists

12 Jul 2016 - By: Harriet Truscott

Inspiring the next generation of plant scientists

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Photo: Pixabay, Creative Commons


The roadmap currently being developed for the future of UK plant sciences is about the science of 2030 and well beyond. It is also about the people – currently still at school – who will then be in positions of power, from taking the strategic decisions to doing the science or voting for the change-makers. Here, Harriet Truscott from the Gatsby Plant Science Education Programme argues that the roadmap must capture the attention of a generation.

By Harriet Truscott

Katy turns to the rest of the 17-year-old students. She’s clearly impressed by what an undergraduate has told her about his vacation project, on the devastation caused by rice blast fungus. Impressed – but also surprised.

‘You never think of rice as being plant science, do you?’ she says, and the other students agree.

Katy, like her friends, is an enthusiastic and talented student at an excellent college. Over the course of her school career, she’s learned about photosynthesis, fertilizers and much more. And yet she’s never thought of plant science as relating to hunger and malnutrition.

Research with teenagers shows us that, among the many factors that encourage them to aspire to a career in science, a vision of how science can contribute to a better world is crucial.
(National Foundation for Educational Research, 2011; Archer et al.2014).

The UK Plant Sciences Federation (UKPSF) is currently developing a roadmap which aims to provide an evidence base to support strategic decisions on the future of plant science, as set out by Alessandro Allegra of the Royal Society of Biology and Dr Rick Mumford (chair of the UKPSF and Director of Science at agri-food supply chain specialists Fera Science Ltd) in their companion article. The team will identify the opportunities for plant science to address social challenges, and signpost the critical technologies and innovations that will lead us there.

But a roadmap should go beyond this. It cannot merely provide us with a document to ask for more money. It is an opportunity to think about our vision for plant sciences, and in turn to share that with the next generation.

Teenagers and the fascination of science

The Gatsby Plant Science Education Programme includes long-standing projects focused on secondary school (ages 11–18) teaching and an undergraduate summer school. But 18 months ago a new project was started with the aim of inspiring teenagers with the importance and fascination of plant science. This was focused on trialing new approaches, with a view to sharing the findings.

We have worked closely with a Youth Advisory Panel – Katy and friends among them – who have been instrumental in shaping the project. As a result we have commissioned a micro-film for social media, a website (, a series of Masterclasses and a careers event. It has been immensely personally rewarding – a chance to bring together scientists whose work I admire in the Masterclasses, for example – and often great fun.

Throughout, we have focused on showing students the global role of plant scientists, tackling the 21st century’s global challenges: malnutrition, climate change, new sources of fuels, new sources of medicines. And returning to the roadmap, the scientific focus is inevitably global for this as well, and the process relevant for plant science internationally (Flavell, 2016).

Research from the engineering community, another area of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) that feels it can struggle to appeal to some young people, suggests that older teenagers have a particular focus on making a difference to the world (Mindshare, 2014). Throughout our recent Masterclass series, a series of four talks for local biology students (ages 16–18) studying in the two years before usual university entry, we therefore emphasized the global dimension to plant sciences.

A focus on the big picture

From an opening talk by Dr Lara Allen of the Centre for Global Equality, to a conclusion by Bojana Bazjelj of WRAP, our speakers have delved into the challenges facing the world, and the students’ future ability to tackle them. Prof. Andrew Balmford spoke of the need to balance biodiversity and food security, Dr Shailaja Fennell of agriculture innovation in Rwanda, and Prof. Howard Griffiths of the potential to re-engineer photosynthesis. Following each talk, the students gathered in tutorial groups to discuss the lecture, and to agree the questions they would pose to the speaker.

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Sainsbury Laboratory Cambridge University researchers running a workshop about their research for teenagers. Photo: Harriet Truscott


The questions the students asked were rarely about the details of the science, but focused on the big picture. ‘How can you persuade consumers to change their behaviour?’ Prof. Balmford was asked, while Dr Fennell was posed the question, ‘What is better – a cash crop for trade or a food crop for the local community?’ Big picture thinking seems to come surprisingly easily to an age-group sometimes accused of lacking synoptic thinking skills.

But, in introducing teenagers to problems that previous generations have been unable to solve, is there a risk that they may shrug their shoulders in anticipation of defeat? Again, research literature offers suggestions as to how we may make our message to teenagers more compelling. A study Jamieson et al. (2015) suggests that young people care most about the problems they feel they can and should contribute to tackling, while perceived powerlessness is associated with the downplaying of a problem.

It is true that teenagers do not have the immediate control over their lives that adults do. But they are at a point of immense possibility in their lives – the point at which they can make decisions that will allow them to contribute to global challenges. Thus, we emphasized students’ potential agency in our Masterclasses: that all the students in the room had the ability and opportunity to make a difference to the world. Through the series, they heard about and met PhD students only a few years older than themselves, who were already contributing to their research group’s understanding of a problem.

In the words of one Masterclass participant, ‘I loved learning about the actual science behind the enzymes that can help the issues. I am also very excited about the chance I have to get involved in their stuff in the future.’

Do you want to help change the world?

Making a difference is also the key message of the IntoBiology micro-film, a 90-second film whose voice-over was based on quotes from existing undergraduates. It begins with the question, ‘So ask yourself, do you want to help change the world?’ before touching on topics including medicine, ecology and food security. It’s not a film about science, but about what young people feel that they, as scientists, can achieve.

This enthusiastic engagement with global challenges is not to say that young people have visions of saving the world single-handed. On the contrary, research for the UK government’s Department for Business, Innovation & Skills has shown that, for this age group, the notion of the lone genius inventor seems daunting and unrealistic (Mindshare, 2014). Teenagers prefer to envisage a future working as part of a team, together making a difference to others’ lives. Perhaps young people’s notions of careers in science have been shaped by TV programmes and online gaming. Popular shows such as ‘CSI’ show a team of people working together, with specialists each contributing their own set of skills to the solving of a puzzle. Similarly, online gaming often involves forming ad-hoc groups to achieve a common goal that would be unachievable alone. The young people who have grown up playing such games may be primed to step into the world of the research lab.

This insight gives us important guidance in planning engagement with teenagers: yes, speak about the global challenges that we are tackling, but emphasize the ‘we’. If you’re involved in plant science, then actively talking about your colleagues and the different roles played within the team – computer modeller, biochemist, geneticist – can help students see themselves within that environment, and give them confidence that they can make a difference.

Reflections on public engagement

This article came out of a workshop I ran at the recent UKPSF annual conference, PlantSci 2016 (talks from world-leading scientists at the meeting are available here). Other projects discussed included (See here), the Why Study Plants? teaching tool (See here) and Sense About Science’s plant science panel (See here). It was clear from the discussions that much hard work and thought is being put into public engagement around the country. Sometimes this is a solo effort, with a crop breeder offering work experience places to pupils from local schools; sometimes a strategic approach is being taken by an entire university. Each of the participants had their own deeply held beliefs about the importance and fascination of plant science, but do they always share them with visiting students?

Part of the purpose of a roadmap is to reflect on what we are handing on to the next generation, what challenges and what opportunities. In ten years’ time, the teenagers who fill our classrooms now – energetic, motivated, asking unanswerable questions – will be the PhD students and postdocs in our labs. They will be the civil servants, the journalists, the business people, who shape the UK’s response to global challenges. And they will be the public, the people affected by advances in technology and changes in climate. We need to share our vision with them now, and watch them shape it in years to come.


Many thanks to Bronwen Richards, Beverley Glover, Robin Fairless and Alex Fairbrother-Naylor for thought-provoking discussions and useful insights. The Gatsby Plant Science Education Programme is entirely funded by the Gatsby Charitable Foundation, and I gratefully acknowledge their support.


Archer L, DeWitt J, Wong B. 2014. Spheres of influence: what shapes young people’s aspirations at age 12/13 and what are the implications for education policy? Journal of Education Policy 29, 58–85.

Flavell R. 2016. Making plant science purposeful and relevant to all. Journal of Experimental Botany 67, 3186–3187

Jamieson J, Reiss MJ, Allen D, Asher L, Parker MO, Wathes CM, Abeyesinghe SM. 2015. Adolescents care but don’t feel responsible for farm animal welfare. Society and Animals 23, 269–297.

Mindshare. 2014. Project STEM book of insights. UK Government: Department for Business, Innovation & Skills.

National Foundation for Educational Research. 2011. Exploring young people’s views on science education. London: Wellcome Trust.

Graphic representations of research for non-specialists takes an innovative approach to sharing contemporary research with a non-specialist audience.

PhD student and graphic designer George Foot takes the latest research papers and interprets them in a single graphic. The deSciphered images are designed to be attractive, encouraging students to share them via social media such as Tumblr and Pinterest.

Topics have included the effect of climate change on polar bear diets, bacteria on mobile phones, and carnivorous plants’ response to pollution. A major focus of the website’s work is research on climate change, teasing out some of the less obvious effects of global climate change.

Teaching tools in plant biology

When journal The Plant Cell initiated their Teaching Tools in Plant Biology feature in 2009, they decided the first lesson should cover the question, ‘Why study plants?’ The team envisioned this lesson being used by plant biology departments on campus open days to help recruit students.

Shortly after its publication, they were approached by a representative of the German Botanical Society who asked permission to translate it into German, and then the Scandinavian Plant Physiological Society arranged to have it translated into their member languages. More translations followed in 2012, in conjunction with the first Fascination of Plants Day.

The illustrated slide set is currently available in 19 languages (from Catalan to Ukrainian), with more in progress. Interestingly, the story it tells isn’t only useful for students; the team have heard many reports that it is an effective resource for talking to university administrators and politicians.

Public-led, expert-fed scientific comment

Sense About Science’s plant science panel is a unique collaboration between Sense About Science, the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, the Society for Experimental Biology, and fourteen institutes and learned societies from across the UK. It represents the plant science community taking the lead in addressing misrepresentations of science and evidence about what we grow and eat.

The panel’s frank, public-led, expert-fed approach helps cut through polarized debates and conflicting information. It is always open for questions via email, Twitter or Facebook. It was set up in 2012 following a threat to a GM wheat trial at Rothamsted Research – when Sense About Science helped scientists appeal for discussion not destruction of their experiment, the public came out in their support.

A generation that has grown-up with social media expects dialogue and the plant science panel is just that – a robust, public discussion on the future of our food.

Author: Harriet Truscott

Harriet Truscott

Harriet Truscott is Communications Manager for the Gatsby Plant Science Education Programme. The programme includes long-standing projects focused on secondary school teaching and an undergraduate summer school.