Communicating findings to farmers is critical: Meet Dr Helen Metcalf

Dr Helen Metcalfe is a postdoctoral research scientist working at Rothamsted Research. She is an agricultural ecologist and her work looks at how farming systems respond to changes in management practices. She particularly focuses on weeds within agricultural landscapes and how changes in the landscape and farm management can affect which plants you can find there. Her Soapbox Science talk will be focusing on weeds and why they might not always be the bad guys! Weeds are plants growing in the wrong place and so by definition we want to try and get rid of them where possible. However, some weeds can also provide benefits by supporting wildlife on farms. This not only makes the farm a more diverse ecosystem but can also provide other benefits to the farmer too!

You can catch Helen on a soapbox as part of Soapbox Science Milton Keynes on 30th June where she will talk aboutFarming – not just about food

Follow Helen on Twitter: @HMetcalfe1


SS: How did you get to your current position?

HM: I completed my PhD at Rothamsted Research looking at one weed species (black-grass) and why it grows in certain parts of the field and not others. Every day was different and I got to do so many different things; from simulating weed patch dynamics on a computer, to measuring them in the field. After my PhD I was able to keep doing what I loved as a post-doc at Rothamsted Research. I no longer work on just one species, but instead I simulate all of the weed species in the agricultural landscape. This is certainly more challenging but I think that makes it even more fun!


 SS: What, or who, inspired you to get a career in science?

HM: I would love to say that I have always been interested in science and it was something I have longed to do since I was tiny. However, it didn’t really happen like that. I have always been curious and loved learning but that was never restricted to just science. At school, I loved reading and was pretty much a super geek as I enjoyed most of my lessons! This made it really difficult to choose which subjects I wanted to specialise in. When it came to choosing my A levels I hedged my bets a bit and chose to study 2 sciences and 2 languages. From there I went on to do a biology degree and never looked back!


 SS: What is the most fascinating aspect of your research/work?

HM: I’m intrigued by the way species within a landscape interact. Even agricultural systems (which are simple as far as ecosystems go) are extremely complicated. There are so many different plants and insects (there are lots of other species too, but these are the ones I need to worry about) and each depends on many others. The complexity of these interactions means it is a challenge to simulate just a tiny part of an ecosystem – there is always something more to learn!


 SS: What attracted you to Soapbox Science in the first place?

HM: One of my colleagues was a speaker at Milton Keynes Soapbox Science in 2016. I went along to support her and came away with a massive smile on my face! Seeing so many passionate local female scientists was really inspiring and I really wanted to be a part of that. I love hearing about other people’s work and wanted to be able to share my own science with others.


 SS: Sum up in one word your expectations for the day

HM: Excited!


SS: If you could change one thing about the scientific culture right now, what would it be?

HM: I feel that communicating my work to non-scientists is not valued as much as it should be. To me, a big part of my job is talking to farmers. In my opinion, telling them about my work and how it could benefit them on the farm is just as important as sharing my findings with other scientists. Yet, it is the latter that is much more highly valued in the science community.


 SS: What would be your top recommendation to a woman studying for a PhD and considering pursuing a career in academia?

HM: Find a subject area that completely fascinates you. A PhD takes a lot of time and effort but if you absolutely love it then it will never feel like work!


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