Joseph Moughan isn’t one for cliches. He doesn’t believe that he was ‘born to be a scientist’ nor does he think he will die one. He has a passion and he’s following it, it’s as simple as that. However, that passion has taken him through a undergraduate degree in Plant Science with Industrial experience at Manchester and then on to a PHD elsewhere. He’s currently working on a project that aims to help some of the world’s poorest farmers and has traveled to some incredible places in the process.
1) Why Plant Science with Industrial Experience?
To be honest, there wasn’t really a ‘why’. Like all my life choices, I fell into it and it all worked out. I wasn’t born a plant scientist, nor will I die one. What did happen, though, was that I followed my interest and passion. The only subject I was really interested in at sixth form was biology, so I worked really hard to ensure that I could study it at the University of Manchester.
I was never remotely excited by plants or their biology until I went to university. As bright eyed first years we covered the breadth of biology and in this time I learnt a lot, which often still helps in my job today. During this time, I attended two modules which inspired me to specialise on the plant science course. Firstly, the Biodiversity unit delivered by Liz Sheffield, which gave me an immense appreciation for the evolution of all species, but especially the plant world and the amazing diversity which is alive and present in the precious world in which we live. Secondly, during a field trip to Mallorca, I was also inspired by Giles Johnson who went on to be my final year project supervisor.
2) Any particular highlights from the course or studying at Manchester in general?
Attending field trips abroad, particularly in Belize at the end of my second year. Whilst this was expensive, it was completely worth it. We got to spend one week doing marine biology research on a coral reef nature reserve and then around two weeks in the jungle studying biodiversity, where we focused on research projects. My project was studying the insect diversity within the water pools (phytotelmata) of bromeliads – which are huge plants which grow on tree branches high up in the canopy of the forest. We also got to interact with other projects including forest frog species, bird diversity and the mapping of over 200 terrestrial tarantula nests. It was an amazing experience.
3) What did you do after graduating?
In my final year at Manchester, I decided I wanted to carry on researching food security and so I pursued a PhD. I applied for roughly 10 PhD positions around the country, and I was interviewed twice, including once during my finals exams. Unfortunately, I was unsuccessful. So, with great dread I phoned my parents during the last week of my lease in my student house in Manchester to say that I had run out of money and I had no job (and could they please come and pick me up at the weekend, because I also had nowhere to live anymore).
At this time, a friend from university advised me to contact Rothamsted Research which was in the next town over from my parents’ house in Luton. I saw a job was going for a summer research assistant so emailed Kim Hammond-Kosack and applied. Within a month or two I had been offered a PhD in Kim’s lab working on an industry funded project in the field and lab. My PhD research aimed at making wheat more resilient to root disease and since then I have been dedicating my career for nearly 5 years to crop science and food security.
4) You’ve recently started in a new role, could you explain the role and how it differs to what you did previously?
My new role at the NGO One Acre Fund applies my undergrad and PhD knowledge to solve issues for the world’s poorest farmers. One Acre Fund aim to give small holder farmers the tools and knowledge to grow themselves out of poverty. My role as Product Innovations Lead in Myanmar is to research and test new products before they are provided to farmers. It involves running trials at all levels of our business, including more controlled experiments in our research station up to trials with thousands of farmers. Our project in Myanmar is relatively new and currently we serve 900 farmers. Globally, One Acre Fund enhances the lives of over 600,000 farmers, predominantly in East Africa. I love my job; no two days are the same!
5) What is your career highlight to date?
At the end of 2016, I was hugely fortunate enough to attend the Nobel Week Dialogue conference, on the future of food, in Stockholm. During the conference, we got to listen to six Nobel Laureates and many other world leading experts, whose work influences the future of the planets food. This was the most inspiring day of my career so far, highlighting both the major challenges and threats to the globes food network but also the major achievements that we have already had in shaping our crops and agricultural environment. I truly believe, that with concerted effort we can one day have a highly productive, low environmental impact food system in which no one goes hungry and all eat healthily.
6) Any advice to current or prospective students?
Always focus on what you find most interesting and what inspires you, don’t just take a job because the pay is good. Remember, nothing worth doing is easy and everyone has times where they just have to power through the tough times. Don’t obsess about ‘your career’ or ‘what you want to be’, if you’d have told me when I was 18, that at 28 I’d be an agronomist, with a PhD, working in rural development in Myanmar, I’d have laughed and probably not even have known what that job even was.
My best advice is try lots of things, find out what you definitely don’t want to do and take the opportunities which seemingly come out of the blue even if a risk is involved. If it feels right, it probably is, even if it feels scary too. And to all the ladies reading this, apply for that job, course or internship, even if you don’t think you have all the skills or you’re not right for it, trust me all the men reading that advert won’t think twice if they are good enough!