Department of Biological and Medical Sciences

Gatsby at Brookes

Monday, 27 June 2016

Part of lily pollen

The 21st century has been dubbed “the century of the biosciences”. Advances in biomedical sciences mean that people will live longer so one of the grand challenges the world faces is to feed our ever growing population. Plant scientists are working to ensure this as over the next decades food production will have to double if we are to avoid extensive global famines exacerbated by the effects of climate change on the availability of agricultural land and a shift towards increasing meat consumption.

To address this problem will require intensive research into agriculture, plant pathology and the plant sciences. The Gatsby Charitable Foundation, a private charity financed by former Science Minister Lord David Sainsbury (of the supermarket chain) was in part established to promote the teaching of plant sciences in Schools and Universities, and to support plant science research through funding two research Institutes and a number of prestigious PhD studentships. Gatsby realised a number of years ago that there was a serious decline in plant science education in the UK both in the quality of A-level teaching and the loss of plant science teaching in the University sector - there are now only 9 Universities offering plant sciences degrees in the UK!  To counteract this worsening situation, Gatsby have established a number of initiatives to promote plant sciences in the UK, and at Brookes we have been fortunate to be involved in a number of these.

The Gatsby Plants Summer School is a one week, fully funded course run at the Government Emergency Planning College just north of York, where 80 top first-year biology students from 25 or so Universities around the UK are invited for a week of lectures from internationally renowned plant scientists. These are combined with a series of tutorials, practical classes and other activities, such as career sessions. Brookes is the only post ’92 University invited to be part of the Gatsby “club” and for the past nine years John Runions, Chris Hawes and the Plant Cell Biologists from BMS, along with colleagues from Warwick, have been helping to organise the course cell biology practical. Every year three of our biology students with an interest in the plant sciences have won fully funded places on the course.

Attendance at the course qualifies students to apply in their second year for a Gatsby funded summer research studentship and recipients of these can subsequently apply for a Gatsby four year PhD studentship. In 2016 Jess Upson, one of our top biology graduates, was the first Brookes student to win a Gatsby Studentship and she will be joining the group of Dr Silke Robatzec, at the Sainsbury Laboratory in Norwich, to study plant pathology. I am sure the whole Faculty would want to congratulate her on this tremendous achievement. Another of our students Shamma Rattan attended the 2015 summer school and was so inspired by plant science that she, along with some fellow students, have established a Brookes Plant Science Society and obtained the first ever grant from the Gatsby Foundation given to students to support such an activity.

Find out more about Gatsby from their website at