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Professor Sarah Gurr

Professor Sarah Gurr

Research News features a member of staff from the University in each edition, allowing you to find out more about members of the research community.

Professor Sarah Gurr joined Exeter in February 2013 as the new Chair of the Food Security Alliance, part of a new partnership between Exeter, Rothamsted and BBSRC on Food Security.

Professor Gurr will be presenting "Food Security: Food, Famine and Fungi" as part of a Food Security Event at Exeter on 16 May 2013 from 17:30 to 19:15 at The Henderson Lecture Theatre. Video linked to Peter Lanyon Seminar Room 10.

Who or what is your inspiration?

When I was still at school I read two books – one a social history of Ireland at the time of the Irish potato famine (Cecil Woodham-Smith) and the other called “The Advance of the Fungi”  (E.C .Large). My peers all read Medicine but I decided to become a “Plant Doctor”.

As a former and first female president of the British Society for Plant Pathology, how well represented are women in the sciences?

Sadly, the numbers of women choosing to stay in science declines rapidly post PhD studies and / or one post-doc appointment. It is tough to raise a family and pursue a demanding career path – but it is not impossible, especially when driven by a passion for progeny and plants alike!

What attracted you to Exeter, and how do you see your research developing here?

I was attracted by the excellence and variety of the group of fungal biologists gathered here in Exeter. This, coupled with the opportunity to conduct field-based trials at the BBSRC North Wyke Farm Platform, opens up new horizons in my research field. It far exceeds what I was able to do as the sole tenured fungal plant pathologist at Oxford.

How will your role draw together research at Exeter, Rothamsted and the BBSRC on food security?

I see my role as both an initiator and a catalyst of research activity between Exeter and Rothamsted Research at North Wyke. First and foremost, I must raise awareness of the Farm Platform and its facilities in our Exeter and Cornwall Campuses, and within the Food Security and Land Research Alliance (FSLRA).  I wish to engage those involved in biological, physical and social sciences in both theoretical and applied work.

What does the future hold in the development of environmentally sustainable solutions for food and energy production?

We need to think carefully about more sustainable food and energy production. Our current agricultural practices have boosted food production, but at a cost.  The crops that “feed the world” are rice, wheat and maize, with potatoes gaining global popularity.  We have planted vast swathes of genetically uniform plants, leading to reduced soil nutrients,  quicker spread of diseases and crops that are more susceptible to pathogens, so jeopardising the food supply.  We must use energy and water more wisely and grow more biomass for greener fuel whilst preserving and boosting global food production of our major crops.

How crucial is public awareness in the development of global food security?

It is pivotal – few people have thought much about the provenance and/ or sustainability of the food that goes into their supermarket trolleys. Closer to home we must raise awareness of food quality and mitigate losses both post-harvest, and in our “throw-away” culture. We must also raise awareness of the 1.4 billion people globally living on less than £1 a day, and of rising malnutrition in a growing population.

What type of experiments and scenarios are being explored at the Farm Platform in North Wyke?

Several projects are being discussed – the facilities on offer will enable us to go from the laboratory to the field. Our first project will be to survey natural grasslands and ancient cereals to see if we can find microbes which will protect wheat from biotic and abiotic stress, that is from disease and such stresses as drought.

What are the implications for the South West now that is it a centre of ‘global significance’ in food security and land research?

The SW FSLRA is unique. The Alliance amalgamates the extraordinarily diverse skills of different scientists and social scientists. We have curatorship of the first national capability farm platform. Together, we can start to address the various issues faced by farmers in this changing world.

This profile featured in Edition three of Research News, edited by Research and Knowledge Transfer. Please contact rkt@exeter.ac.uk with any queries