3 months in Morocco, a PIPS with a difference
For my PIPS, I spent 3 months in the Moroccan capital of Rabat working with the International Centre for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA). I arrived into Marrakech airport after a Christmas at home in the west of Ireland, thrilled to escape the rain and to experience the life of an expat in North Africa. Starting after the new year allowed me to jump straight into meetings between senior members of staff outlining their plans for the coming seasons. After an extensive tour of the facility, I was given a lot of freedom to choose who I wanted to work with, allowing me to gain experience within areas of the organisation that interested me the most. I decided to work mainly with agronomists and breeders involved with wheat and barley to see how scientific research was being translated to improve the livelihood of smallholder famers. The Mediterranean diet of fruits, vegetables and dry land cereals in Morocco puts these two staple crops at the centre of daily life.
The first order of business was to design trials to test various cereal lines. We sourced and mixed the soil on site for tolerance to the adverse conditions such as drought, salinity and even freezing that can occur in macro environments within dry areas around the globe. Since I was a recent convert to the world of plant genetics this was an excellent experience to see not only how trials are conducted in breeding programs, but how they’re carried out within a non-profit organisation like ICARDA.
Following this, regular visits were conducted to Marchouch, one of ICARDA’s major field research sites where they leverage the diverse soil and climatic conditions available in Morocco to test a multitude of crops and varieties. During these visits we spoke to the local smallholder farmers who were assisting on site or nearby about implementing modern agronomic practices for improved yields such as the use of fertilisers and choosing varieties appropriate to their field conditions in our own unique blend of French, Arabic and English.
ICARDA is 1 of 15 organisations in the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research (CGIAR). An annual meeting of all of the directors of the CGIAR took place in January. Representatives from each centre gathered to present developments and research they were conducting in their host countries. I felt this was a really rare opportunity to get an idea of how scientific research translated to progress in developing countries. I was lucky enough to engage with some of the directors personally to get an idea of the professional opportunities available to plant scientist’s in international agriculture.
After this I began to work with Adil El-Baouchel in the quality lab of ICARDA to see how high yielding lines were assessed for nutritional content, dough quality and even baking! This involved a lot of co-ordination and organisation due to the high throughput of samples in the facility. Beyond this, analysing data that we generated to train machine learning algorithm really hammered home the growing importance of programming in science, especially in not for profit organisations like ICARDA, where predictive algorithms can save valuable time and resources.
The breeders at ICARDA encouraged me to engage with some of the local Moroccan student, helping me run workshops in epigenetics and chromatin biology for them with presentations and lessons. It was great to contribute to the student’s education in molecular biology and to put my academic studies to good use as the capacity building mission statement of ICARDA was to build the next generation of breeders and agronomists. Having previously taught in India, I found myself once again enjoying the experience of teaching and bonding with others over a shared love learning, a crucial trait shared by all scientists all over the world.
My experience was more than just work though. Trips across the diverse culture and landscape of Morocco were organised regularly with staff and others I’d met in Morocco. This made my time there all the more enriching journeying from the humble rural farms of the atlas plateau to the bustling medinas of Marrakech, and from the Rif mountains to the eternal Sahara Desert.
By far I felt the biggest advantage of being at one the CGIAR’s main centres was engaging with other plant scientists who knew what prospects were out there for adventurous young scientists. The insights they gave me into the industry and real-world application of new agricultural technologies was absolutely invaluable. Building these connections and learning the lay of the land this early in my PhD will allow me to tailor my research and skill development to pursue a fulfilling career in food security.
I would like to give a big thanks to the MIBTP directors and administrators for supporting me to undertake this personal and professional journey. I know this formative experience will stick with me throughout my career and appreciate how rare an opportunity a paid internship abroad like this is.
Cathal Meehan, MIBTP 2017, Warwick
Picture 1: Hassan II tower Rabat
Picture 2: Marchouch field trials
Picture 3: Adil El-Baouche giving a tour of the quality lab to the CGIAR directors
Picture 4: The eternal Sahara Desert