A Conversation with…

Dr Emily Harrison

Dr Emily Harrison is an Innovation Technical Research Associate and plant specialist at CHAP (one of the Agri-Tech Centres). In this interview, she expands on her career, the importance of plant science and her passion for sustainability.

Can you tell us about your education and background?

I am a plant scientist by training and specialised in molecular biology and plant physiology. My research to date has focused primarily on using biotechnology to engineer crop gas exchange, to either improve abiotic stress resilience (by altering plant water loss) or productivity (by increasing photosynthetic carbon fixation). I completed my PhD at the University of Sheffield, where I worked with Limagrain to produce drought tolerant maize lines using gene-editing. Following this, I was awarded a Grantham-funded innovation grant to enhance carbon sequestration capacity in rice. I recently joined CHAP, where I will be helping to drive innovation within the agri-tech sector, focusing particularly on sustainable crop production.

Why did you choose a career in plant science?

I chose to pursue a career in plant science so that I could help tackle two of the greatest global challenges: food security and climate change. To feed our rapidly growing world population, we need to increase food production by around 60% by 2050. If this wasn’t difficult enough, huge yield losses and soil degradation is occurring around the globe, due to unpredictable and extreme weather. Agri-food systems are large emitters of greenhouse gases, directly contributing towards global warming. However, croplands and pastures also store large amounts of carbon, helping to mitigate climate change as well. As you can see, these two global challenges are uniquely intertwined with each other, so it is essential that they are addressed together. We desperately need to transition to climate-smart agriculture, without compromising on productivity. Not an easy task, but I believe plant science has an important role to play, and I hope to contribute to this area.

What excites you about agri-tech?

Contrary to the above, I am hopeful for the future. We are at an exciting point in time, where many disruptive technologies are emerging. These include advances in genetic engineering, remote sensing and artificial intelligence, which I believe will be pivotal in transforming global food production going forward. I am thrilled to have joined CHAP to work at the forefront, as we enter a fourth agricultural revolution.

With the recent introduction of the Precision Breeding Act in the UK, we can start putting into practice the outcomes of over a decade of plant science research. Genome-editing will allow us to produce more resilient and nutritious food at a lower environmental cost, ensuring a reliable UK food supply. I hope to soon see more gene-edited crops coming to market, and who knows, maybe I’ll see the corn from my PhD on a shelf one day.

What drives your collaborative focus in your new role?

We aren’t short of novel and innovative ideas but getting them into the right hands and ensuring their adoption is more challenging. One of the reasons I was most excited to join CHAP was to work at the crossroads between scientists, farmers, industry and government. If we are to achieve our shared goals, I believe it is essential that we all work together and break down the silos between these groups.

This collaborative mindset also needs to extend beyond the UK. I have been fortunate to work with a number of researchers across South-East Asia over the past few years, spending several weeks conducting rice experiments in Thailand (the perks of researching an “exotic” crop!). It is more important than ever to build strong and lasting international partnerships, to enable us to share the wealth of agricultural knowledge that exists around the world. I hope to continue building on these existing relationships in the future.

What else are you passionate about?

I am really passionate about living a sustainable lifestyle. From eating alternative plant-based proteins, to reducing consumerism and waste, I believe we all have a part to play in building a more sustainable future. I recently had the opportunity to attend COP28, the UN climate summit, which was an eye-opening experience into how climate policy is meticulously negotiated between nations. Whilst I left a little disappointed by the final agreements, the momentum that I witnessed building in the side line events throughout the week, has motivated me to take more action on the ground, in both a personal and professional capacity.

Women and Girls in Science Day is coming up, any advice to any budding scientists?

My biggest advice would be to surround yourself with supportive and inspiring female role models, wherever possible. I was very lucky to have Professor Julie Gray as my PhD supervisor. Julie was an excellent mentor to me, who led by example. Crucially, she allowed me the freedom to pursue my own interests and grow as a scientist, in an encouraging environment.

Now more than ever we need young people, from all walks of life and background, to take an interest in where their food comes from and the world around them. In order to build a better future, we all need to contribute effectively to tackling global challenges such as food sustainability.


If you have any questions about CHAP, or are interested in using any of our facilities or would like to work with us on a specific project, then please send us an email at enquiries@chap-solutions.co.uk

Please note, the opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of CHAP.