A Conversation with...
Dr Archita Barua is a Technical Liaison Officer, based at our office at CABI, in Egham. Here she chats about her career to date, explains why she decided not to accept a prestigious fellowship award, and offers advice for students thinking about their own future specialisations.
As a Technical Liaison Officer (TLO), my main responsibilities include fostering relationships between CHAP and CABI, looking after CHAP’s capabilities – including the National Reference Collection and Fungal Biopesticide Development Laboratory – and providing operational and administrative support to the Capability Liaison Manager.
Although my work mostly involves operational activities, I am also building professional networks beyond CABI, in academia, industry and other research institutes in order to explore new project opportunities. In fact, I am currently working with CHAP’s innovation team, CABI and some other organisations to prepare concept notes and grant applications for several exciting new projects. I also help to improve the visibility of our capabilities and resources by attending conferences, writing blogs and research papers: supporting the marketing team is a vital part of my job.
A typical day for me starts with a bus ride to the office. Once there, I go over my scheduled meetings and training, and respond to emails. I try to follow my weekly To-Do list unless an urgent activity comes up that needs immediate attention. Apart from this, I often get invitations from CABI to join internal team meetings and occasional informal events such as farewell, celebrations, BBQ and pizza/cake takeaways. These have all helped me to build relationships with CABI staff in a short period of time.
As CABI is considered the home of microbial research, whenever I have time I go to the laboratory to learn microbial techniques to diversify my research expertise.
I also try to put some time aside to read scientific papers and reports to keep up to date with advances in integrated pest management. This helps in our brainstorming sessions to identify research gaps, novel and promising future research avenues and potential collaborators.
Currently, I am involved in the SlugBot project. In my previous role at CHAP’s Digital Phenotyping Lab at Rothamsted Research I helped in slug collections from various farms, their culture maintenance in the laboratory, and capturing of slug images using multispectral cameras in lab and field conditions. Now I am also actively participating in the research dissemination side of this project by writing research papers, blogs and magazine articles.
In addition to this, I support CABI’s biopesticide team in the ongoing Cabbage Stem Flee Beetle (CSFB) project by carrying out lab-based bio efficacy experiments.
Both these projects fit very well with CHAP’s mission of promoting open innovation in the agri-tech sector to find innovative solutions that can transform cropping systems. SlugBot aims to build an autonomous slug monitoring and precision treatment system by combining the expertise of CHAP, Small Robot Company (SRC), and farming enterprise AV and N Lee. Likewise, the CSFB project, which aims to develop a fungal biopesticide as an alternative to neonic to help oilseed rape growers to fight CSFB, brings together leading scientists, innovators and business executives from CHAP, CABI, Russell Bio Solutions and H&T Bioseed.
I am really excited by the idea that my research could benefit the environment and society, in terms of producing new scientific knowledge (such as scientific papers and prototypes), enhancing agricultural productivity and reducing the negative impact of chemical pesticides.
I worked as a Postdoctoral Fellow at the School of Biological and Environmental Sciences, Liverpool John Moores University, where I developed interests in researching slugs and finding their biological control measures. I am originally from Assam, India and moved to the UK in 2019. Back in India, in 2018, I worked in a government organisation, Vigyan Prasar, in New Delhi. This is a communication wing of India’s Ministry of Science and Technology. Before that, I spent five years working as a Research Fellow in the Entomology Department of the world’s oldest tea research organisation, Tocklai Tea Research Institute (TTRI), where I was involved in various projects related to the biological and chemical control of tea (insect) pests.
While working at TTRI, I also completed my PhD from Gauhati University, India, where I investigated the use of a coccinellid beetle (Stethorus aptus) to control tea red spider mites, responsible for more than 40% annual losses in tea production in India.
Although I always dreamed of visiting the UK and having a cup of tea by the side of the River Thames, I never thought that one day I would have the opportunity to stay in the UK permanently and build my research career here. In 2017, I got married and at that time, my husband was pursuing his PhD at the University of Manchester. Even though I spent a few months in 2018 with him in Manchester, we did not have any plans to settle down in the UK. My husband expected to return to an Indian university to start his academic career and I did not want to leave my job in India.
However, after completing his PhD, my husband was offered a job as a lecturer at the University of Liverpool. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for him and so I began thinking seriously about moving permanently to the UK.
In February 2019, I left my job in India, moved to the UK and started looking for research opportunities in integrated pest management. That is when when I met Dr. Christopher Williams, Senior Lecturer at Liverpool John Moores University (LJMU), and discussed the possibility of pursuing postdoctoral research under his guidance. He introduced me to the fascinating world of slugs and snails.
I will always be thankful to him for supporting me to develop expertise in slug control because this was key to me getting my first job with CHAP to work on the SlugBot project. Today, I am very proud that I am an integral member of the SlugBot project and this amazing organisation.
Of course, I am grateful to my parents and husband for their unconditional love, guidance and personal support. Professionally, Dr Azariah Babu (who was my PhD supervisor at TTRI) and Dr Christopher Williams at LJMU – two great human beings and excellent researchers – played huge roles in shaping my career. Azariah’s dedication to crop protection research initially motivated me to pursue my career in this field while, as I mentioned before, Chris was influential in my transition from entomology to malacology.
Earlier this year, I was offered the prestigious Irish Research Council post-doctoral fellowship to pursue research on the biological control of pestiferous slugs at the National University of Ireland, Galway. This fellowship is annually awarded to about 100 researchers from a pool of thousands of applications coming from different parts of the world. Although I did not accept this offer due to my job commitments with CHAP, I will cherish this award forever because of the highly competitive nature of the fellowship and the sheer volume of work I put into preparing the application.
I can see agriculture undergoing two major changes over the next few years. First, as predicted by many, agriculture will enter the fourth revolution, which means that researchers and farmers will mostly rely on the use of industry 4.0 technologies, particularly artificial intelligence (AI) and big data for smarter and more effective farming practices. Evidence of this can be seen even in some of CHAP’s current projects. For instance, in the SlugBot project, we are using advanced imaging and AI to detect slugs autonomously in the field.
Second, the use of biological pesticides is going to be the go-to control strategy for pests in the next few years. With the limited availability of synthetic chemicals and their negative impact on the environment, there is a massive market for biological pesticides. The onus is now on scientists to find biological pesticides that are effective in controlling pests, non-toxic to other organisms, and can be made commercially available at low cost.
We are now living in the digital age. Its influence is also visible in agricultural research, for example, using AI for more sustainable agricultural productivity and big data for measuring the effectiveness of new agricultural innovations. If I could go back in time, I would try learning data sciences along with agricultural topics so that I could contribute more actively to these emerging and interdisciplinary research avenues. I would, therefore, encourage prospective students in agricultural and biological sciences to try to develop at least a fundamental understanding of big data analytics.