David Miller Travel Bursary recipient, Lauren Hibbert, reports from California

18 April 2023

The David Miller Travel Bursary Award aims to give early career plant scientists or horticulturists the opportunity of overseas travel in connection with their horticultural careers. Lauren Hibbert was awarded one of the 2022 David Miller Travel Bursaries towards her research trip to the University of California Davis.

Lauren Hibbert, David Miller Travel Bursary recipient"My PhD project focuses on developing new varieties of watercress with improved phosphorus use efficiency and nutritional quality. Watercress is an understudied, nutrient-dense leafy green crop, representing a UK market value of £15 million per year. Traditionally it is grown in flowing water from chalk streams which are of high conservation value and is increasingly seen as well-suited for indoor vertical farming, due to its efficiency at growing in aquatic environments. However, watercress cultivation can contribute to environmental pollution downstream of UK watercress farms by the addition of phosphorus-based fertilisers. Currently, there are no commercial breeding programs for watercress, despite the need to breed for plants with reduced phosphorus use and those suited for the expanding indoor market. Using results from trials, lines with high phosphorus-use efficiency and those optimised for growth in the indoor vertical farm can be integrated into a breeding programme for watercress.

"Funding from the David Miller Award contributed towards my research trip to the University of California Davis (UCD) from April to June 2022. UCD is ranked 2nd in the world and top in the US for Agriculture (QS World University Rankings 2022) and thus has the world-leading plant science facilities to enhance my research project. Here I had the opportunity to assist with watercress trials in the indoor vertical farm facility, to better understand growth differences across the watercress germplasm collection held at UCD. The research group were also in the process of advancing the watercress population to the next generation of seed, so I assisted with managing the growth of almost 1000 plants in the greenhouse. I then worked with plant health authorities in the US to coordinate phytosanitary certification and enable transport of seed to the UK for field trials on commercial watercress farms later that year. Through this field trial, I identified two new watercress varieties with improved phosphorus use efficiency that could be taken forward for future breeding efforts! 

"Another aspect of this research trip that I am particularly grateful for was the opportunity to collaborate with other plant scientists, which helped me complete analysis of important nutritional compounds (e.g. glucosinolates and sugars) in samples I had taken from UK-grown watercress plants. I also loved the chance to share our vertical farming research with industry professionals at a Seed Central event and volunteered at the Plant Sciences Symposium held at UCD. Further to developing my communication skills, I had the opportunity to showcase my leadership and people management skills by supervising five student interns. I cherished the opportunity to build relationships in these teams whilst working towards common research goals.

"Thank you again to SCI and the David Miller Award for helping contribute to these experiences!"   

Lauren Hibbert
PhD Student
University of Southampton

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