A Conversation with...
Dr Matthew Ryan is a microbiologist and curator of the Genetic Resource Collection at CABI (the Centre for Agriculture and Bioscience International), in Egham, Surrey. At CHAP, we know him as the person who looks after the National Reference Collection. Here he tells CHAP about the influences and interests that led him to his current role.
How do you generally introduce yourself and the work you do?
My official CABI (Centre for Agriculture and Bioscience International) page says I’m a microbiologist with specific interests in pure and applied mycology, biodeterioration and natural product research. What I tell people is that I am the curator and research lead for biological resources at CABI.
That sounds like a big job, what does it involve?
Essentially, this means I curate CABI’s internationally important collection of microorganisms isolated from agriculture and the environment. I work on several projects relating to the biology of fungi, the microbiome and the curation of genetic resources.
My work as curator of CABI’s Genetic Resource Collection involves overseeing the general operations and research programmes of the collection.
My more formal research brief is that I am Research Lead Biological Resources and Curator of CABI’s genetic resources collection of 30,000 living microbes, which includes the UK collection of fungus cultures and the British Antarctic Survey microbial collection.
My research centres around cryopreservation, the microbiome and the management and sustainable utilisation of microbial genetic resources.
Current funded projects include an EU FP7 CSA Microbiome support project (as CoI), the Centre for Crop Health and Protection and various CABI funded projects (as PI). My group has pioneered the application of both encapsulation-vitrification and Stirling Cycle Cooling approaches for fungi (CryoLett 35:63-68).
I also supervise two PhD students (through Imperial College London and Royal Holloway, University of London). They are working on the impact of climate change on the coffee wilt pathogen Fusarium xylarioides and the development and optimisation of cryopreservation regimes for recalcitrant fungi and microbial consortia.
I recently led a team of international experts in a major white paper on fungal biological resources to support International Development which gained 850 downloads in just two weeks.
My current external roles include the UK Plant Microbiome Initiative (jointly with Rothamsted Research), the UK KTN Microbiome Special Interest Advisory Group and I am also a member of the Board of Directors of the International Phytobiomes Alliance.
If that isn’t enough, my other work includes screening fungi to provide new drugs and other biological solutions!
I also work to develop new projects (including with CHAP) related to microbiomes, which will benefit farmers and the scientific community.
With such a broad portfolio, is it possible to say what a typical day looks like for you? What are you currently working on?
My daily work can involve a wide range of projects and activities, including working with CHAP on the National Reference Collection. I will also undertake work for EU Microbiome Support – a European Union project that aims to have a real impact on new microbiome innovations in the food system and provide solutions to global challenges by aligning research and innovation activities and contributing to relevant policies.
In addition to that, I spend time supervising my two PhD students and I also occasionally get into the lab!
What do you find most challenging about your job/field?
Adjusting to the rapid changes in technology and identifying opportunities to exploit this to help answer the fundamental questions related to the science we do, for example, in the research microbiome field we wouldn’t be able to answer the questions that we pose without the technology at our disposal!
What difference do you expect/hope to see in your field following CHAP’s involvement?
It should mean better UK facilitation between industry and science as it provides the opportunity to translate research from the lab to the field.
CHAP’s multi-institutional approach is providing the UK with a world-class facilities infrastructure, which essentially allows us to do cutting-edge science.
How have CHAP’s capabilities impacted the work you do?
Related to the above – the biggest value for me has been in identifying new collaborators and opportunities and providing access to facilities that wouldn’t otherwise be available.
CHAP has a great team, with network partners across the country!
What is your biggest achievement to date – personal or professional?
My biggest professional achievement is this job! Working for CABI means that I am in the privileged position to be able to see the science that we do actively making a difference in real-life situations. I have worked at CABI since 1999, and during the past 20 years I have worked on various projects including biodeterioration of hydrocarbon fuels, genomic stability and cryobiology. An added highlight for me was being awarded the ‘George Planer Prize’ of the Society of Low Temperature Biology in 2000.
Personally – and this very personal – it has been overcoming physical challenges and barriers to be able to do the job I love!
Do you have a mentor or someone whose work inspired you? Who were they and how have they influenced what you do?
Dr David Smith is my mentor. I got to know him when he was my PhD supervisor. He is internationally respected, always encouraging, happy to discuss anything and, most importantly, one of life’s good people.
Before that Dr Jo Smith (one of my schoolteachers) was the first person to inspire me to be a biologist!
What area of your work at CABI would you choose to publicise in the national media if you had the chance?
There are many but it would be related to the delivery of our science and hoping that its impacts will improve peoples lives. For example, knowledge in the microbiome may help a farmer increase their yields, which may put food on their table.
We also of course have Fleming’s Penicillium which is always topical. You can learn more about that in my blog and viewing the vlog, on the Science Museum website.
If you had to stop working in this field, what would you choose to do instead?
I never want to consider this but its important that we equip the next generation with a sound biological education – so maybe teaching. I also think public outreach is incredibly important.
What might your work colleagues be surprised to know about you?
I used to be a student union DJ!
CHAP partner CABI began as an entomological committee in 1910. Since then it has has developed into an international development-led organization with a mission to improve people’s lives worldwide by providing information and applying expertise to solve problems in agriculture and the environment. It is supported by both a first-class publishing division and a solid scientific research base. For more information go to CABI