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Profiles from our environment research theme – University of Reading

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  • Research that makes a difference

    Addressing the global challenges that face the environment

Profiles from our environment research theme

Hear from our postgraduate researchers whose work comes under our Environment research theme.

Joanna Baker

Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology

Title of PhD: Integrating extinct and extant diversity into macro-evolutionary analyses

Briefly describe your area of research Photo of Joanna Baker

My area of research, although broad in scope, is focused on characterising patterns and processes of how biological characters have changed over time among different groups of animals. This includes detecting body size trends in planktonic microorganisms and mammals, all the way to inferring how natural selection has acted on anatomical features associated with distinct behaviours such as flight in dinosaurs or cooking in hominins. My research is unified by the approaches taken to answering these questions and is involved in both developing and implementing such methods for use with varied and diverse datasets.

Why did you select Reading?

I felt extremely privileged to have the opportunity to embark on a PhD within the thriving Ecology and Evolution group at the University of Reading. Working in close association with prominent researchers in the field of phylogenetics – including one who literally wrote the book on phylogenetic methods – was an opportunity too good to pass up, as my project has a strong emphasis on the development and implementation of novel phylogenetic approaches.

Furthermore, the University of Reading has a strong academic reputation and looked like a dynamic, productive and exciting environment within which to begin my PhD journey.

What do you enjoy about studying at Reading?

The University of Reading is a beautiful and thriving environment that provides all of the necessary support and guidance needed for a stressed postgraduate student. Not only this, but the Ecology and Evolution research division is an exciting and productive group of people. The opportunity for academic conversations are plentiful, and this is truly inspirational. I feel intellectually challenged every day by the strong academic influences around me, but this is balanced by a cohesive support network provided by both the department and the University as a whole.

What has been your biggest challenge since starting your research?

The biggest challenge I have faced since starting my research has been learning to manage my own anxiety. It is often the case that PhD students feel as though they are not up to the mark – a situation I have experienced often. However, I have learned to cope with this by fighting through it and doing the best I possibly can do. This effort, combined with the support I have received from my supervisors and colleagues has allowed me to produce exciting and publishable scientific work. Ultimately, it has been possible to overcome these challenges in a rewarding and fulfilling way.

What advice would you give a new postgraduate researcher?

When you first embark upon a PhD, it's possible that you might feel alone and not up to the job. However, it is important to remember that everybody feels like this at times and, if it were true, it's unlikely that you would have even been offered the opportunity to study for a PhD in the first place.

I would advise early stage PhD students to take advantage of the social and enrichment opportunities provided by the Graduate School to help with this. You should never feel alone!

Where do you want to be in five years' time?

I would like to be a research leader in my field and at the forefront of phylogenetic macro-evolutionary studies. I hope to be exploring and answering as many exciting questions as I have done over the last few years. I am looking forward to following the path this takes me along, from different places to different people to different exciting research areas. Ultimately, I hope that the work I will have done or will be doing in five years' time contributes to inspiring a new generation of evolutionary biologists to follow the same path.

Oliver Ellingham

School of Biological Sciences

Title of PhD: Identification Methods of the Powdery Mildew Fungus

Briefly describe your area of research

I work with a fungal plant disease named powdery mildew in the field of molecular biology, taxonomy and systematics. I use DNA sequences in order to differentiate between the hundreds of powdery mildew species that can appear identical to the naked eye and under a microscope. This can aid in the prevention of the spread and proliferation of this harmful plant pathogen.

Why did you select Reading?

Reading is a great, vibrant, multicultural university with useful close ties to important horticultural organisations.

What do you enjoy about studying at Reading?

The proximity to many influential research centres is a real positive when studying at Reading; lectures across the south of England can be attended with relative ease.

What has been your biggest challenge since starting your research?

In my experience, collaborations can be very challenging. Working as part of a seamless team is hugely rewarding but rarely the reality. When working alone you know all your own shortcomings; these can be hugely frustrating when identified within a team of people with differing priorities.

What advice would you give a new postgraduate researcher?

Relax. It is almost certainly the case that you are unsure what form your research will take and how you will go about gathering suitable and sufficient data to reach any novel conclusions.

Read plenty. The majority of articles that you read will not end up in your completed thesis but knowledge around, as well as within, your subject is always a great thing.

Where do you want to be in five years' time?

I would love to be heading a team of researchers, interns and volunteers identifying and quantifying fungus and/or fungal plant pathogens with potential future importance.

The future health of our planet, as well as humans and plants, is not insignificant and if naturally growing fungi could aid in any one of these aspects I would like to be part of the discovery of such important features.

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