£120k to help future scientists discover secrets of Norfolk's soil

Cambridge university researcher Harvey Armstrong joins Morley PhD Studentship

Cambridge university researcher Harvey Armstrong is the first recruit to the Morley PhD Studentship, funded by the Norfolk-based Morley Agricultural Foundation to turn scientific discoveries into practical farming solutions - Credit: Tom Wood

A Norfolk-based farm research charity is investing £120,000 per year in a new PhD programme to help emerging scientists unlock the yield secrets of East Anglia’s soils.

The Morley Agricultural Foundation (TMAF), based near Wymondham, already provides grants for research into arable crops but has now launched its first fully-funded PhD studentship, in tandem with NIAB (National Institute of Agricultural Botany) and the University of Cambridge.

The first scientist recruited to the annual programme is 25-year-old Harvey Armstrong who, after completing an integrated masters in biological sciences at Cardiff University, will now be working with Dr Tom Wood at NIAB and Dr Nik Cunniffe at the Cambridge university’s department of plant sciences, on a four-year project to investigate the effects of legume rotations on soil microbe populations.

His third supervisor will be Morley director Dr Steve Rawsthorne, who said the programme would give TMAF greater impact in its funding objectives, by being able to choose PhD projects rather than funding “ad hoc” applications – although those would also still be supported.

“One of the things that Morley has done for many years is to seek to fund research with application to agriculture,” he said. “We will continue to do that, but one of things we lacked was the ability to direct the type of research that was being undertaken in the PhDs because these were all ad-hoc applications.

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“The Morley PhD Studentship is another string to our bow and it is a really valuable one because it gives us the ability to direct the kind of research that we are funding.

“The board really liked the feel of this inaugural proposal because it overlapped with the interest of the Morley board. There has been a lot of focus on soil quality and things that affect soil, such as tillage and so on, so the idea that we could fund a pHD studentship that was researching the effects of cropping on the microbiome in the soil was really exciting to us This has been a win/win for everyone.”

Cambridge university researcher Harvey Armstrong joins Morley PhD Studentship

Cambridge University researcher Harvey Armstrong - Credit: Tom Wood

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Mr Armstrong said his PhD study would combine field sampling, molecular biology and computational studies, and he hoped it would lead to predictive tools that could help farmers assess their soil’s yield potential and disease risk.

“What we would like to do is investigate specifically the effects that cropping has on the microbiome, and see if we can associate those changes to things like susceptibility to disease and yield traits,” he said. “We could potentially develop a predictive model using that data to inform growers of what those changes might lead to for their yield or their chance of having diseases in their crop.

“Also, if we could develop a set of robust bio-indicator species that we could easily survey from soil samples, that could be used to inform growers on things like their risk of foot root or root rot, and they could identify beneficial microbes in the soil as well.

“I would love for that to be an output of my PhD – if the knowledge we gain from our experiments can actually inform agricultural practices. That is the most important part for me. 

“It is not uncommon for PhD students to go through and publish and not see any tangible output or real-world impact from their three or four years of research. So I consider myself very fortunate that with this project, and with the institutes I’m working in, this is a real prospect.”

Dr Rawsthorne said TMAF aims to fund one PhD student every year, leading to a rolling cohort of four farmer-led research studentships over a four-year training cycle. 

“There is a really strong feeling that we want to build a long-standing relationship with Harvey and the people that follow on from him so we develop a cohort of individuals who feel committed to supporting the aims of TMAF, and we will be doing everything we can to support them in their long-term careers,” he said. 

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