I entered University in 1961 when the Department of Microbiology was just beginning and was occupying huts lent by the Chemistry Dept. There was an intake of just four undergraduates that year. Thus I gained a very privileged undergraduate training. My subsidiary subjects were chemistry, genetics and physics.
Following graduation (2(i)) I did a PhD at the John Innes Institute at Bayfordbury Hertfordshire. I registered with the University of East Anglia, which was under construction at the time. My research topic was the biochemical genetics of acetate utilisation in Neurospora crass – bread mould. At the beginning of my third year my supervisor relocated to a Chair at Leeds University (Dept of Genetics). I spent much of my third year at Leeds, making only the occasional trip to UEA to give a seminar or two. My PhD from UEA was one of the first awarded.
After my PhD awarded in July 1967, I went to Stanford University for a two-year Postdoctoral Fellowship. While there I was offered a job in Cambridge at the Plant Breeding Institute under the leadership of Sir Ralph Riley, a noted wheat geneticist. I took the job and so became committed to research on wheat and other crop plants.
In around 1975, genetic engineering was made possible and I took the opportunity to develop this topic for plants, creating many of the first adventures into plant molecular biology in the UK. I developed a large laboratory team in Cambridge creating what has turned out to be one of the most successful teams of plant scientists in the UK and the world. Many of its members have since become leading Professors and leaders in industry. I gained my FRS in 1998 and a CBE in 1999.
In 1987 the Government decided to sell the Plant Breeding Institute to the private sector (Unilever) and so I applied and was appointed to be Director of the John Innes Institute at Norwich and to have a Chair at UEA in the School of Biological Sciences. While in post I oversaw the move of my former team from Cambridge to purpose built labs at John Innes and the setting up of the now world-famous Sainsbury Laboratory. Also I moved the Nitrogen Fixation Laboratory to the John Innes to create what I named the John Innes Centre. That Centre became a world-class centre for plants and microbial sciences.
After being Director for over 10 years I was challenged to move to California to join a fledgling plant genomics company, Ceres. This I did and became the founding Chief Scientific Officer. There I helped develop a leading plant start-up company, deploying the latest genomics and bioinformatics developments. After a few years we chose to focus on energy crops and since then we have focused on bringing world leading energy crops to the market place. This has not been easy because of the economic crisis of 2008 but now we are poised for success in bringing sweet sorghum hybrids to the sugarcane mills of Brazil.
Recently I resigned by CSO post in Ceres retaining a consultancy. I now spend half my time in London. I am now gradually developing my scientific links back in the UK taking advantage of the Royal Society and other connections with academia and industry and BBSRC. Amongst other things, I chair the Science and Impact Advisory Board of the BBSRC’s Sustainable Bioenergy Centre. I also chair the External Advisory Board of the Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences of Aberystwyth University.
My career has been extraordinarily rewarding and much of this has to do with entering microbial genetics near the start of the subject, via the Dept of Microbiology in 1961 as an undergraduate.