Out in the field with Simon

Simon is a Research Assistant at the John Innes Centre working in the genetics department. If you would like to work both indoors and outdoors, and have an interest in agricultural science then your future career might start right here.


The Big Picture…

When you were a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?

I was football mad and wanted to be a professional footballer, but when I realised that was unrealistic and having been brought up on a farm, I decided to go to college to study farm management.

Who or what inspired you to become a scientist?

A lecturer at my agricultural college who took me aside during my agricultural science module and set me up with a project where I was counting tillers and looking at sewing rates. This was a real turning point for me and I realised there was more to life than sitting on tractors (which is what everyone else seemed to want to do) if you worked as a farmer.

My exams at school knocked my confidence in science as I didn’t do as well as I thought I would, but I threw myself into farming and as I came towards the end of my 3 year agricultural science course I realised that science could open up so many doors for me.

What do you love about your job and what would you change?

I love my job because it is something more than a job! It is right inside you and not something you just turn off at the end of the day. My job is very important to my life – especially because you can feel as though you could be on the verge of discovering something special at any moment, which could potentially lead to improving the yield of wheat which will help in the future as our population continues to grow and expand. I also love the variety of my job – I could be working on field trials, in the labs, in glasshouses, etc. and I appreciate the freedom to just get on with my daily job without constantly having to answer to someone else.

If I had to change something it would be the fact that I find it difficult to switch off and leave the job in the office. When I go on leave I find it difficult to switch off and stop worrying about the field trials, particulary if there is bad weather as I know that things can spoil in the field that you may have spent 6 months developing. The weather does rule you, especially during the summer months, but this is just what farmers have to face daily too.


What qualifications did you take at school/college?

I did my O levels (GCSE’s) and biology was always my favourite subject so I left school and got a diploma in farm management after 3 years at the local agricultural college. From there I came straight to work at the John Innes Centre.

Did you go to university? Was a degree required for your role?

A degree was required and I was fortunate enough to be able to take up a part time degree over a 6-year period whilst working.

Are there opportunities for apprentices within your organisation?

We offer a wide variety of work experience placements through summer work. This is a great opportunity for the students, but also enables us to find those students who are interested in the work and will work hard.


What does your typical day involve?

There is no typical day here as all of my work is very seasonally dependent. I could be working in the glasshouse cross pollinating plants, communicating with the group on upcoming or outstanding work, or I may be out in the field scoring and checking the crops.

What are the biggest implications your work will/could have in the future?

We are working on 1 of the 2 primary food sources in the world so it is a hugely important role. We have a very clear food security issue to address as we are working to boost the yield of wheat. I enjoy going to talk to outside organisations about the work that we are doing on wheat and the sustainability issues as the public have a right to know what to expect in the future.

How well is your job compensated? What is the starting salary for someone in your field and how much can this be expected to rise?

Summer students get £12,500 (casual arrangement). But the actual starting salary is probably in the region of £16,000 per annum.

What’s the most unexpected thing about your job?

Plants do what they want so anything could happen!


What do your friends and family think about your job?

My family have a background in Norfolk farming so are fascinated by what I ended up in. I think that they are proud of someone who made it into a field of science. A lot of my friends are in finance and insurance and they realise that I am doing something much more interesting than what they do, however I am paid a lot less than them.

Would you say you have a good standard of living/work-life balance?

I think I do yes. However, if I were to take a step back and really look at it then my family may disagree with me as I find it hard to take holiday. I always think there is something that needs doing and only me who can do it! But I am working on this and will try to take more annual leave next year!

What kind of hobbies or extracurricular activities do you do to relax?

I am a keen cyclist and used to enjoy football until my injuries took over. I also enjoy real ale and travel. My family life (I have two children aged 1 and 4) take up much of my time now.

…and finally…

What are your aspirations for the future? Where do you see yourself in five years time?

Still where we are standing right now (in the middle of this wheat field!) This is a good position and I am happy in my role. Becoming a Project Leader would be the next step up but without a PhD this is unachievable for me so I will stay at this level. It would be nice however to have more recognition for the increasing responsibilities that I take on and maybe the field of science will be able to address this in the future.

What would you like people to remember about your life as a scientist?

That I had a hand in producing something that will go onto be a successful improvement of wheat, and that I am helping the next generation by providing them with a sustainable food crop.

If you had a super power, what would it be?

I would love to have a crystal ball to see into the future so that I didn’t need to keep an eye on so many different varieties of wheat. It would be great to know which varieties were successful so that I could devote my working time to those, but then you would lose the interest of science!


With thanks to the John Innes Centre and Dee Rawsthorne of the Norwich Bioscience Institutes.