A Conversation with...

Ross McKellar

Ross McKellar is the Research Assistant at our partner Liberty Produce, up at the James Hutton Institute in Dundee. He is responsible for day-to-day maintenance of the vertical farming facility and also works on projects and trials being run in the facility. A big sci-fi fan, he tells us about his passion for this futuristic form of food production.

How do you generally introduce yourself and the work you do at the IHCEA?

I am the research assistant at the Innovation Hub for Controlled Environment Agriculture (IHCEA), working with CHAP partner Liberty Produce at the James Hutton Institute in Dundee. I’m responsible for general maintenance and cleaning of the vertical farming facility, as well as assisting in the project INFINITE trial, growing and analysing various plant tray samples to improve yield and growth time. The work I do at the IHCEA can help to reduce strain on domestic crop production’s need to increase farmland, and provide a model for year-round crop production in an environmentally controlled space.

What does a typical day look like for you and what are you currently working on?

With my job, there is never a typical day! The nature of my job – involving the growth of various plant species – results in a wide selection of daily activities. My continuous job requirements involve water quality testing, measurement of plant height and physical features, and setting up camera equipment for photo-capture or plant-growth timelapses. More exciting days can feature new system installations (lights, water pumps) and chopping up microgreens for nitrate testing and root length analysis!

When I’m not running around the IHCEA, I help support the site’s health and safety by writing COSHH forms for chemicals and how-to standard operating procedures (SOPs) for new starts. No future CHAP employees will have algae stained shirts if I have anything to do with it! Along with various internal meetings with other departments (marketing and innovations) there’s never a dull moment that’s for sure.

How did you decide to pursue a career in this sector?

Before I started this career I sat my biology degree at Dundee University, graduating in 2019. I have always been interested in the science of the world and find it fascinating how organisms work on a cellular level. After uni I studied a masters at the James Hutton institute, working on the notorious oomycete Phytophthora capsici (a blight affecting vegetables including peppers, cucumbers and tomatoes) and how to better understand its internal functions.

It was during this time that, by sheer chance, I discovered this opportunity to work on state-of-the-art hydroponic systems, as the IHCEA facility was located directly opposite where my masters took place! I have always been a fan of sci-fi, and vertical farming systems are both captivating to watch work and highly beneficial for water efficiency and an alternative source of domestic crop cultivation.

I decided to pursue this area as I believe it holds positive potential for feeding the ever-growing population. Also, on a personal level, I spent most of my time in my masters testing plant pathogens so I feel that it’s a form of redemption to be growing plants, rather than infecting them!

What do you like most about your job and what are your biggest professional challenges?

The most satisfying part of the job is taking out the plant trays/pots ready to sample. It really shows the potential of vertical farming systems when the humble beginnings of a small, seeded media tray have exploded into tall, thick and healthy crops. It is always a good day when we can take home the spare samples for tomorrow’s salad lunch!

The challenges involve the management of system time and space. Each type of baby leaf and microgreen grows on different timescales under different conditions. Therefore, planning is crucial if we are to avoid the IHCEA turning into a small-scale jungle!

What has been your most memorable experience of working with CHAP?

In November 2020, I was asked to help during the New Scientist Live Event in London, promoting the work we do at the IHCEA facility to a public audience. This gave me the opportunity to practice my video and photography skills, as I recorded a “day in the life of a hydroponics scientist” facility tour. I had a lot of fun showing off the various vertical farming systems and explaining how our work can provide a template for a more efficient and productive alternative to domesticated crop growth. You never know, it could also have been the start of my TV presenter career!

Tell me about someone who influenced your decision to work in this area?

I have always been involved in science, even from an early age. Studying biology at secondary school, I became interested in understanding the functions of cells and how their individual molecular interactions can benefit an organism as a whole.

Aside from other media influences such as Doctor Who, my most influential figures would be my family. My mother and father always saw potential in me and pushed me to try my hardest in a subject I was passionate about. With their help and support, I was able to enter my top university choice and meet all the friends and colleagues I know today.

My younger sister also hopes to attend university this year (2021), and the passion she brings towards achieving that goal helps keep me working just as hard!

Other influential figures included my university lecturers, who were able to bring a fun twist to all our boring theory revision sessions and keep us sane through the tough exam times.

What do you wish other people knew about vertical farming?

The fundamental method of hydroponics is quite simple and can be easily accessible to anyone who has an interest. You don’t need a state-of-the-art research-funded facility to enjoy hydroponic growing in your own home! Most systems can be powered by a simple electric water pump (the type you find in fish tanks) and the power of gravity!

The simplest method is a wick system, which does not require electricity and relies on water adhesion to direct the water into absorbent substances like rockwool or coir pots. As for plant type, the possibilities are endless! Hydroponic systems can be constructed for a wide range of plant requirements, from the smallest microgreens to the more heavy-feeding vegetable crops. It is also a fun home experiment to introduce the concepts to beginners.

What do you think will be the biggest change in agriculture over the next five years?

With the combination of a rising urban population and the increasing unpredictability of the environment, I believe vertical farming systems are an ideal alternative solution to crop production. The research that we conduct at the IHCEA will benefit future totally controlled environment templates by reducing power consumption and increasing yield through data-driven analysis.

The future of crop production is becoming very sci-fi indeed! We may even reach the point where food we buy is grown in the shop we buy it from!

If you had to stop working in this field, what would you choose to do instead? Can you explain why?

Before I joined CHAP, I studied the protein-protein interactions that occurred within the oomycete pathogen Phytophthora capsici. The practical lab skills I developed there, including protein chemistry and molecular biology, were fascinating to me and felt very rewarding during my time in an MSc by Research position. Therefore, my alternative field of work would be to return to the opposite end of the plant-pathogen battle, supporting research into harmful diseases on crops and how to limit/prevent them from damaging future food supplies.

To find out more about where Ross works, go to Liberty or check out our IHCEA page.

To read more about the partnership between CHAP and Liberty, go to Projects.

If you have any questions about CHAP, our Membership Scheme, or are interested in working 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.