In conversation with Katherine Denby

31 October 2016 - By: Sarah Blackford

In conversation with Katherine Denby

Katherine Denby

By Sarah Blackford

“I’ve always liked working as part of a large team,” says Katherine Denby, recently appointed professor at the University of York (UK) and Academic director of the N8 AgriFood programme1. Katherine is also a long standing member of the SEB and sits on its Plant Section committee as the plant biotic interactions group convenor.

SB: You recently relocated from Warwick University to take up these new roles. How are you settling in to your new life at York University? 

KD: I can’t deny things have been hectic! Half my time is allocated to running my own research team, with the other half focusing on overseeing the newly established N8 AgriFfood programme. York has been fantastic and very supportive. The department has an Athena SWAN Gold award2 and it shows; there are lots of women in high profile positions here such as the PVC for Research, Head of External Relations and three of our Research Champions. 

SB: Tell me more about the N8 AgriFood programme3.

KD: This is one of the research themes of the N8 Research Partnership, an association of eight research intensive universities based in the north of England. Within the programme, working to ensure sustainable, resilient and healthy food supply for all, we have approximately 370 researchers from a range of disciplines including the biological sciences, chemistry, engineering, geography and social sciences. In addition to our researcher base, the programme actively engages with industry and other agri-food organisations with a team of knowledge exchange fellows and business development capacity. 

SB: What have been the main highlights and challenges so far in your role as director?  
KD: Rather than just talking about research, this role allows me to engage with a lot of external stakeholders on the broader aspects of the agri-food sector. We’re not going to solve or improve the food system without looking at and integrating different aspects of it. What I find exciting is understanding some of the complexity of the food system and seeing where the complementarities lie between the different universities and external stakeholders. I’m discovering all sorts of potential research collaborations and linkages with companies and NGOs and can see opportunities for real multi-disciplinary approaches to a problem.  

SB: How does your own research contribute to the Agri-food N8 strategy?

KD: My research forms a very tiny part of the whole programme, which is looking at the whole agri-food sector including crops, livestock, precision agriculture, supply chains, nutrition and consumer behaviour. Being part of the N8 partnership gives me a broader perspective and offers opportunities to link into bigger projects.

SB: Tell me something about your research career.

KD: After completing my PhD with Chris Leaver at Oxford University, I did a 4-year postdoc with Rob Last at the Boyce Thompson Institute at Cornell University. This led on to a permanent lectureship at the University of Cape Town, where I was able to set up my first research group. It was a fantastic place to live and work. The university is quite small, so you knew everyone and could interact with people in many different departments. With a relatively low level of bureaucracy it meant that it was easier to get things done; if you had a good idea it could happen! I managed to secure funding for a facility to start doing early transcriptome profiling experiments, which might not have been possible for a ‘lowly’ lecturer in the UK. 

SB: What brought you back to the UK?

KD: Whilst it was great in many ways, the limited number of researchers in molecular plant science and the restricted funding availability in South Africa, meant I didn’t have access to the resources needed to conduct the kinds of exciting large-scale experiments I would hear about from others, when I attended international conferences. I also had a growing interest in systems biology and the opportunity of a joint position between Warwick HRI (as it was then) and Warwick Systems Biology Centre was too good to turn down. I had also started a family and thought it might be quite nice to have grandparents slightly closer!

SB: What have been your research highlights? 

KD: In terms of what I’ve enjoyed most so far, it’s been working as part of large inter-disciplinary teams. The six-year long PRESTA6 project at Warwick included computational researchers, mathematicians and biologists. We met every other week and so built personal relationships as well as a science relationship. Whilst at Warwick I developed into a systems biologist, focusing on elucidating models of the regulatory networks controlling the plant defence response, and then progressed to synthetic biology, looking at how we can re-wire those networks to engineer enhanced disease resistance. I was an Arabidopsis researcher - it’s a great tool but I wanted to use my research to make advances in crop breeding. Working in collaboration with the vegetable breeders, A. L. Tozer, as part of the BBSRC HAPI5 initiative, we are translating our systems network approach in Arabidopsis into lettuce to facilitate breeding of improved varieties. 

SB: What else have you particularly enjoyed during your career so far? 

KD: I’ve really enjoyed teaching undergraduate and postgraduate students; it was particularly challenging (but also rewarding) when I worked at the University of Cape Town where some of the students had done very little science at school and English wasn’t always their first language. I learnt a lot from the people there and courses on effective teaching and really enjoyed my experience. I like supporting students and encouraging them to take opportunities. At Warwick, I ran the Midlands Integrative Biosciences Training Partnership, MIBTP4, a BBSRC doctoral training programme with Birmingham and Leicester universities. It’s an exciting time to be a PhD student with the broader training that such DTPs provide and opportunities to develop additional skills such as entrepreneurship and funded internships.

SB: What are you looking forward to right now? 

KD: I like new technologies and working with people who think different ways. I perform best in brainstorming sessions when you can bat ideas off each other. I also like being part of a big project which has the potential to have economic and social impact. The excitement of the N8 AgriFood programme and working as part of an interdisciplinary team means you challenge each other’s thinking and create opportunities to make discoveries that, as individuals, you wouldn’t necessarily have made on your own. 

SB: Do you miss not being in the lab?

KD: No, not at all! As the head of the lab, I enjoy thinking about and interpreting the results generated by my research group. I love seeing connections between the work of different members of the group – I get far more insights and make new discoveries from looking at their results than just generating my own data. 

SB: Your business is food – what’s your favourite cuisine? 

KD: I guess I should say I’m an aspiring vegetarian looking to eat food that’s nutritious and grown sustainably. I’ve been invited to an upcoming Royal Society of Biology event called “Come dine with the future”, and these are two of the qualities on which I’ll be drawing up my three-course menu!



1. N8 AgriFood programme
2. Athena SWAN  
3. N8 Research Partnership
4. MIBTP Programme 
5. HAPI Projects
6. PRESTA Project 


Category: Plant Biology
Sarah Blackford - Author Profile

Sarah Blackford

Sarah Blackford is the head of education and public affairs at the SEB and the editor of the SEB magazine. As a qualified careers adviser and MBTI practitioner, Sarah provides career development and support for SEB members and the wider scientific community. Sarah is also an active member within SEB+, focusing on a number of initiatives aimed at improving gender equality and diversity in the science field.