Temperate matters in agriculture

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Most of the world’s food is produced in temperate zones. The Global Food Security program’s Evangelia Kougioumoutzi reports on the TempAg network.

Agricultural production in temperate regions is highly productive with a significant proportion of global output originating from temperate (i.e. non-tropical) countries – 21% of global meat production and 20% of global cereal production [link opens PDF] originate from Europe alone. This proportion is very likely to increase in light of climate change.

Temperature zones

Little fluffy clouds: temperate zones are well suited to agricultural production. Image credit: connect11/Thinkstock

TempAg is an international research collaboration network that was established to increase the impact of agricultural research and inform policy making in the world’s temperate regions. Its work does not solely focus on research, but also provides insights into current thinking through mapping existing scientific findings and outstanding knowledge gaps. In this way, the network aspires to become a platform for the alignment of national agricultural research and food partnership programs (such as Global Food Security) that will enable the development of more effective agricultural policies with a long-term vision.

Since its official inauguration in Paris in April 2015, TempAg has been leading a series of on-going workstreams around:

  • Boosting resilience of agricultural production systems at multiple scales and levels
  • Optimising land management for ecosystem services and food production
  • Improving sustainability of food productivity in the farms & enterprise level

You can read more about these themes on the TempAg website: http://tempag.net/themes/.

Future foresights

After 18 months of existence, TempAg held a foresight workshop in London on 5–7 October to determine its future priorities.

Forty delegates took part in the workshop, coming from the 14 different countries in the temperate region, and from academia, policy, industry, and professionals at the science–policy interface. Through a series of presentations and interactive sessions, participants were invited to consider what the current and future challenges are in temperate agriculture, taking into account the needs of policy makers and industry in helping them to improve sustainable agriculture practices.

 

Temperate zones

Temperate zones cover much of the world’s major food-growing areas. Image from Wikipedia/CIA-Factbook

 

To tackle sustainability in temperate agriculture, there is a need to better manage risks and stresses (both biotic and abiotic), as well as finding ways to manage the restoration of natural capital, ecosystem services, and soils. During the workshop, it was noted that utilizing the diversity within different agricultural systems, via identifying the best practice and using the appropriate technological mix, may be a way forward in making production systems more sustainable.

Participants stressed the importance of taking a holistic view of the sustainability agenda within agriculture, without just focusing on environmental aspects. This means also taking into consideration socioeconomic factors, such as making food value chains (like turning milk into cheese), more equitable by identifying who gets the equity from the food commodities’ prices, or identifying what the optimum legal framework for sharing data might be.

The group also considered sustainable agriculture issues from a policy and industry needs angle. It was interesting to see that dealing with shocks (environmental, socioeconomic, and technological) featured highly in this discussion as well. It was suggested that increasing resilience to these shocks could be facilitated via the widespread diffusion of existing technologies. Engaging with farmers during this time would be necessary to identify technology uptake barriers.

Forward moves

Future-proofing agricultural resilience and enhancing the capacity to respond to shocks was deemed an urgent priority, so the development of a comprehensive map identifying the multiple shocks that could impact on farm resilience in temperate zones might be a future workstream for TempAg. Work in this area could help develop models to assess the flexibility within agricultural production systems.

 

What we eat is largely based on the types of food we produce. Therefore, healthy diets are intrinsically linked with our production systems. Another area of interest for TempAg could be to explore what the nutritional value of crops should be for better health, and what a nutritional diet will look like for sustainable temperate agriculture. Developing frameworks in this area could further inform future farming practices in temperate areas.

Since TempAg’s initiation, two major global policy agendas have been adopted by the international community: the Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris COP21 agreement. Identifying what types of data and scientific evidence policy makers will need to achieve the agriculture-relevant targets was another area where TempAg could focus its activity moving forward.

Finally, delegates highlighted areas of work that could help to build more effective policies with a longer-term vision. These included developing economic tools for valuing natural capital and ecosystem services, as well as integrated assessment tools to monitor the performance and impact (environmental cost) of existing policies.

This article is cross-posted with the Global Food Security blog.


About Evangelia Kougioumoutzi

Evangelia is International Coordinator & Programme Manager for the Global Food Security program (GFS). Before joining GFS, Evangelia worked as an Innovation Manager for GFS partners BBSRC. She holds a PhD in plant development and genetics from the University of Oxford.

 

In Nature Plants: Come together

This post is republished with permission from Nature Plants.

Science is not a solo endeavour but a social one, and the most social part is conference attendance. Regardless of their other strengths and weaknesses, scientific meetings are critical for encouraging researchers early in their careers.

Conference

Image credit: Dion Hinchcliffe. Used under license: CC BY-SA 2.0.

Unquestionably, one of the most enjoyable aspects of being a journal editor is the opportunity to attend conferences. While the average scientist may get to one or two scientific meetings a year, we try to get to many more — and so are in a good position to compare the different styles of meeting, and to try to understand what makes a conference not just good, but great.

Mainly, it is the people who are attending. Meetings are exactly what the name implies: an opportunity to meet colleagues and discuss science. But there are many factors that determine who will attend a conference, and whether they will get to talk constructively while they are there. Location is important. Many scientific conferences are held in places well worth visiting in their own right. Last year’s International Plant Molecular Biology Congress, for example, was held near Iguazú Falls, Brazil; the XIV Cell Wall Meeting was held this year on the Greek island of Crete; and, next year, the Plant Biology 2017 conference of the American Society of Plant Biology (ASPB) will be in Honolulu, Hawaii. However, as much as exotic locations may be a draw for participants, the long and expensive journeys can be a deterrent.

Conference

Image credit: Dimitris Kalogeropoylos. Used under license: CC BY-SA 2.0.

An additional factor is the breadth, or narrowness, of focus of a meeting, which affects both its size and atmosphere. Larger meetings with a broad range of topics guarantee that there will be something of interest to everyone. These can be superb at giving a broad view of the important questions currently being addressed in a field, and usually have presentations by impressive well-known and well-practiced speakers. However, it can be difficult to meet all the people with whom you want to chat without considerable dedication and forward planning.

You often see a reluctance in speakers to present new and unpublished work at larger meetings. For that, smaller meetings come into their own, where a more tightly defined community makes it more appealing to share confidences in a room perceived to be full of ‘friends’. If the location is remote, so much the better, as it forces that community closer together. The summertime masters of such meetings are the Gordon Research Conferences, which are often (though not exclusively) held in out-of-season New England boarding schools — two of which, this year, are the Plant Molecular Biology and Plant & Microbial Cytoskeleton meetings. In the winter, there are the Keystone Symposia, which have the added attraction of afternoons left free for skiing. In fact, the conversations had while trapped on a ski lift can often be the most scientifically productive of the whole event.

Presentation

Image credit: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. Used under license: CC BY 2.0.

More focused meetings will usually give attendees the opportunity to attend every talk, but larger conferences frequently host parallel sessions to allow many more topics to be discussed. Successfully presenting parallel sessions is hard. Ideally the topics covered should overlap so little that every attendee would wish to attend one session, and one session only — a goal never fully achieved, and rarely even approached. Instead, attendees must pick the talks that they most want to see, which are often presented in different sessions, leading to a lot of distracting crowd movement between talks. For sessions to remain synchronized, speakers must keep strictly to their allotted time — again something so difficult to achieve that it rarely, if ever, happens.

At its heart, the main point of a scientific conference is not to visit interesting places, to catch up with old friends, to party with colleagues (although much partying does occur), or even to listen to high-profile scientists lecture on their work. All these are important aspects of a successful conference, but its central function is to bring people together to discuss their own studies. Where this happens most is at the poster sessions — the great equalizer of any scientific conference..

Poster

GPC New Media Fellow Sarah Jose presents a poster at a conference

However lofty the professor or junior the student, with a poster everyone can present their work on an equal level, open to the criticism of all. They are the soul of any good conference, but they are the most difficult aspect to organize successfully. Ideally the posters should all be in one place rather than spread out over a number of rooms, to avoid some groups getting ignored. The posters need to be arranged close enough together that when the session is in full swing there is a throng and hubbub of chatter, but not so closely packed that posters are blocked by people reading the next one over. It is also vital that there is enough space to move freely between posters without having to squeeze past huddles of scientists talking with the presenters. Above all, posters must be available for long enough that conference-goers can read all that are relevant to them. Therefore poster rooms need to be open throughout the conference, not just during designated sessions, and all posters should be available for the whole conference, not taken down halfway through to make way for a second batch.

Posters provide some of the first opportunities that early-career scientists have to present their research. It is therefore always good to see conferences enhancing their status in some way. The simplest is the awarding of prizes for the ‘best’ posters, judged as much for the clarity of presentation as for the story being told. Some conferences have started to schedule ‘flash talks’, selecting presenters to give a short description of their work, and serving as an advert for their posters. This commonly takes the format of five-minute presentations with no more than three slides — but ‘slam’ sessions are also possible, where a single minute is allocated to each speaker. A variation of this occurred at the recent ASPB Plant Biology 2016 meeting in Austin, Texas: early-stage researchers were helped to video ‘elevator pitches’ about their work, which can now be seen on the Plantae YouTube channel. It is also encouraging to see that the New Phytologist Trust will again be holding a Next Generation Scientists symposium next year, following on from the successful inaugural meeting in 2014.

The planning, organization and execution of a scientific meeting requires as much skill, enthusiasm and innovation as any other part of the scientific endeavour. After all, a good conference brings scientists together to discuss ideas, initiate collaborations and forge friendships that can last for entire careers, and sometimes longer.

A postcard from the Spanish Society of Plant Physiology

SEFV logoThe Spanish Society of Plant Physiology (Sociedad Española de Fisiología Vegetal; SEFV) is a society for scientific professionals with an interest in how plant organs, tissues, cells, organelles, genes, and molecules function, not only individually but also through their interaction with the natural environment.

The society was founded in 1974, and currently has approximately 600 members distributed across the seven groups that constitute the SEFV, namely; Phytohormones, Maturation and Postharvest, Carbohydrates, Nitrogen Metabolism, Water Relations, Mineral Nutrition, and Biotechnology and Forestry Genomics.

One of the main objectives of the society is to organize meetings, which are held every two years in collaboration with fellow GPC Member Organization, the Portuguese Society of Plant Physiology (Sociedade Portuguesa de Fisiologia Vegetal; SPFV). In the alternate years between SEFV conferences, the different SEFV groups hold individual biannual meetings.

SEFV 2015 Biannual Meeting

XXI Reunión de la Sociedad Española de Fisiología Vegetal/ XIV Congreso Hispano-Luso de Fisiología Vegetal. Photograph from the combined biannual meeting of the SEFV and SPFV held in Toledo, Spain in 2015

 

Each week the SEFV distributes a newsletter to its members containing information on courses, conference announcements around the world, jobs, student scholarship opportunities, and some current news. Twice a year the SEFV issues a bulletin that comprises a scientific review, interviews with leading figures in plant physiology, information on different research groups, abstracts of doctoral theses presented in the last 6 months, as well as news on science policy.

The SEFV is a member of the Scientific Societies Confederation of Spain (Confederacíon de Sociedades Científica de España; COSCE), which aims to contribute to scientific and technological development, act as a qualified and unified interlocutor to represent government in matters affecting science, promote the role of science in society, and contribute to the dissemination of science as a necessary and indispensable cultural ingredient.

The SEFV is also part of another GPC Member Organization, the Federation of European Societies of Plant Biology (FESPB) and has links with the Argentine Society of Plant Physiology (SAFV). (You can read a Postcard from the SAFV here.)

We sponsor student attendance at the SEFV and FESPB conferences and encourage their active participation by awarding poster and oral presentation prizes. Additionally, the SEFV convenes biannually (coinciding with the SEFV Congress) to award the Sabater Prize for young researchers.

The SEFV website, Facebook page and Twitter (@NewsSEFV) account provide information to SEFV members and general readers with an interest in plant physiology.

A year at the Global Plant Council

Last April I joined the Global Plant Council as a New Media Fellow along with Sarah Jose from the University of Bristol. The GPC is a small organization with a big remit: to bring together stakeholders in the plant and crop sciences from around the world! As New Media Fellows, Sarah and I have have assisted in raising the online profile of the GPC through various social media platforms. We wrote about our experiences in growing this blog and the GPC Twitter and Facebook accounts in the The Global Plant Council Guide to Social Media, which details our successes and difficulties in creating a more established online presence.

 

Why do it?

My wheat growing in Norfolk field trials. I have spent every summer for the past 3 years out here analysing photosynthesis and other possible contributors to crop yield

My wheat growing in Norfolk field trials. I have spent every summer for the past 3 years out here analysing photosynthesis and other possible contributors to crop yield

I chose to apply for the fellowship during the third year of my PhD. Around this time I had started to consider that perhaps a job in research wasn’t for me. It was therefore important to gain experience outside of my daily life in the lab and field, explore possible careers outside of academia and of course to add vital lines to my CV. I still loved science, and found my work interesting, so knew I wanted to stay close to the scientific community. Furthermore, I had always enjoyed being active on Twitter, and following scientific blogs, so the GPC fellowship sounded like the perfect opportunity!

 

The experience

I think I can speak for both Sarah and myself when I say that this fellowship has been one of the best things I’ve done during my PhD. Managing this blog for a year has allowed me to speak to researchers working on diverse aspects of the plant sciences from around the world. My speed and writing efficiency have improved no end, and I can now write a decent 1000 word post in under an hour! I discovered the best places to find freely available photos, and best way to present a WordPress article. Assisting with Twitter gave me an excuse to spend hours reading interesting articles on the web – basically paid procrastination – and I got to use my creativity to come up with new ways of engaging our community.

Next career move, camera woman?

Filming interviews at the Stress Resilience Forum. Next career move, camera woman?

Of course going to Brazil for the Stress Resilience Symposium, GPC AGM and IPMB was a highlight of my year. I got to present to the international community both about my own PhD research and the work of the GPC, Sarah and I became expert camera women while making the Stress Resilience videos, and I saw the backstage workings of a conference giving out Plantae badges on the ASPB stand at IPMB. It didn’t hurt that I got to see Iguassu Falls, drink more than a few caipirinhas and spend a sneaky week in Rio de Janeiro!

Helping out on the ASPB stand

Helping out on the ASPB stand with Sarah

 

Thank you

Working with the GPC team has been fantastic. I learnt a lot about how scientific societies are run and the work they do by talking to the representatives from member societies at the AGM. The executive board have been highly supportive of our activities throughout. Last but not least, the lovely GPC ladies, Ruth, Lisa and Sarah have been an amazing team to work with – I cannot thank you enough!

I have now handed in my PhD, left the GPC, and moved on to a new career outside of academic research. I’m going into a job focused on public engagement and widening access to higher education, and have no doubt my GPC experiences have helped me get there. My advice if you’re unsure about where you want to end up after your PhD? Say “yes” to all new opportunities as you never know where they will take you.

Thank you the GPC! Hopefully I’ll be back one day!

 

Thank you! It's been amazing!

Thank you! It’s been amazing!

Creating stress resilient agricultural systems: Video interviews

The global population is projected to reach 9.6 billion by 2050, and to accommodate this, crop production must increase by 60% in the next 35 years. Furthermore, our global climate is rapidly changing, putting our cropping systems under more strain than ever before. Agriculture will need to adapt to accommodate more extreme weather events and changing conditions that may mean increased instance of drought, heatwaves or flooding. The Global Plant Council Stress Resilience initiative, was created to address these issues.

Back in October the Global Plant Council, in collaboration with the Society for Experimental Biology brought together experts from around the world at a Stress Resilience Forum to identify gaps in current research, and decide how best the plant science community can move forwards in terms of developing more resilient agricultural systems. We interviewed a number of researchers throughout the meeting, asking about their current work and priorities for the future.  Watch the best bits in the video below:

Stress Resilience: Call for papers for a JXB Special Issue!

GPC banner Without linkFollowing the recent Stress Resilience Symposium and Discussion Forum that we co-hosted in Brazil last month with the Society for Experimental Biology, we are pleased to announce a call for papers for a forthcoming Special Issue of the SEB’s Journal of Experimental Botany.

Achieving food security in a changing and unpredictable climate urgently requires a better understanding of the mechanisms by which plants interact with and respond to their environments. This special issue will bring together a collection of papers highlighting the best current research in stress resilience contributing to global efforts to develop crops and cropping systems that are better able to deal with fluctuating and stressful environmental conditions.

Proposals are invited for the submission of new and innovative research papers that contribute to this goal (submission before the end of January 2016 will guarantee inclusion in the special issue pending positive peer review). Confirmed contributors already include: Andrew Borrell (University of Queensland, Australia), Elizabete Carmo-Silva (Lancaster University, UK), Scott Chapman (CSIRO, Australia), Bill Davies (GPC President and Lancaster University, UK), Lyza Maron (Cornell University, USA), Jianbo Shen (China Agricultural University), and Roberto Tuberosa (University of Bologna, Italy).

If you would like to contribute a paper, please email a title and short abstract to Mary Traynor: [email protected].

A Postcard From… The Argentinean Society of Plant Physiology (SAFV)

Professor Edith Taleisnik

This week Professor Edith Taleisnik describes the vision and activities of the Argentinean Society of Plant Physiology (SAFV), a Member Organization of the Global Plant Council dedicated to promoting collaboration in plant science within Argentina, across Latin America and beyond.

SAFV member Dr Constanza Carrera drinks mate, an infusion made from leaves of Ilex paraguariensis, which is very popular in Argentina, Uruguay and southern Brazil.

SAFV member Dr Constanza Carrera drinks mate, an infusion made from leaves of Ilex paraguariensis, which is very popular in Argentina, Uruguay and southern Brazil.

The Argentinean Society of Plant Physiology (Sociedad Argentina de Fisiologia Vegetal; SAFV) was founded in 1958 to nucleate researchers and teachers in plant physiology in Argentina. Since then the SAFV has maintained continuous activity in the country and the region, providing opportunities for the dissemination and exchange of information related to plant function. It has about 350 members, mostly from Argentina and also from neighboring Uruguay. The SAFV is linked with the Global Plant Council and many other important international plant science organizations.

Exchanging ideas in Argentina and beyond

29th SAFV meeting

The 29th SAFV meeting

One of the main objectives of the society is to organize meetings, which are held every two years. The last one was held in Mar del Plata, and was attended by nearly 600 people. The SAFV has close ties with the Brazilian Society of Plant Physiology (BSPP), so every other SAFV meeting is a joint Latin American event in association with the BSPP. These meetings provide a unique opportunity for scientists in the area to meet, analyze and exchange views on the future of this field, to plan for joint efforts and enterprises, to share personal experiences and contribute to a regional and global perspective of local endeavors.

The participation of students and young scientists in SAFV meetings is stimulated by invitations to deliver lectures and organize symposia, and by making available fellowships that cover travel and registration costs. In accordance with its mandate to promote and diffuse knowledge in plant science, the SAFV also organizes and sponsors courses and workshops.

Conversations with keynote speakers

Keynote speaker discussions at an SAFV meeting

Poster sessionPlant science, and plant physiology in particular, has experienced steady growth and development in Argentina, reflecting the importance of agriculture in its broadest sense; pastures and forests for the Argentine economy. Established groups all over the country produce novel data on various aspects of plant function and interaction with other organisms and the environment, which is particularly relevant to local and global crop production. The wide range of this work is reflected in the proceedings of the last plant physiology meeting.

Other Argentinian plant science societies

There are several other plant science societies in Argentina. Scientists working on botanical and morphological topics are affiliated to the Sociedad Argentina de Botánica (SAB). The focus of the members of the Asociación Argentina de Ecología (AsAE) is centered in environmental topics. A more recently formed society, the Asociación Argentina de Fitopatólgos (AAF), is dedicated to plant pathology, while the Sociedad Argentina de Investigación Bioquímica y Biología Molecular (SAIB) features a section specifically devoted to plant biochemistry and molecular biology. All of these societies hold periodical meetings, stimulate the work of young scientists through incentives and prizes, and publish journals (e.g. Ecología Austral) and books.

Get in touch

If you’d like to know more about the work of the SAFV, or how you can get involved with the society, have a look at their website, or get in touch via Facebook or Twitter (@fisiovegetal).


About the author

Edith TaleisnikProfessor Edith Taleisnik researches the physiology of plants under saline stress for the Argentinean National Scientific and Technical Research Council (CONICET), and is based at the Instituto de Fisiologia y Recursos Geneticos Vegetales  (IFRGV) CIAP, INTA, Argentina. Edith was the president of the SAFV from 2000 to 2004, and is now a member of the scientific committee.

Plant Biology Scandinavia 2015

Celia Knight and Saijaliisa Kangasjarvi at the conference dinner

Celia Knight and Saijaliisa Kangasjarvi at the conference dinner

The 26th Scandanavian Plant Physiology Society (SPPS) Congress took place from the 9th – 13th August at Stockholm University. Celia Knight attended the meeting and has written a report for the blog this week, so that those of you who couldn’t attend are up to speed!

A diversity of speakers and topics

Attending SPPS 2015 was a fantastic opportunity to hear about progress across a really broad spectrum of plant biology research. The program included sessions on development, epigenetics and gene regulations, high-throughput biology, photobiology, abiotic stress, education and outreach, and biotic interactions. There really was something for everyone! Additionally, the organizers had made a notable effort to include a good mix of both established and early career researchers, further adding to the diversity of talks on offer.

I was struck by the contributions from the various Society awards so will focus on these.

Beautiful Stockholm where the meeting was held

Beautiful Stockholm where the meeting was held

SPPS awards

Gunnar Öquist (Umeå University, Sweden) was given the SPPS Award in recognition of his outstanding merited contribution to the science of plant biology. His talk entitled “My view of how to foster more transformative research” provided a reminder that the dual aims of research, both to solve problems and to seek new knowledge, are very important if global challenges are to be met.

The SPPS early career award recognizes a highly talented scientist who has made a significant contribution to Scandinavian plant biology. This year two early career awards were given. The first recipient, Ari-Pekka Mähönen (University of Helsinki, Finland), received the award for his work on growth dynamics in Arabidopsis thaliana, and showed some amazing sections to follow cambium development. Nathaniel Street (Umeå University, Sweden) also received an award for his work “Applying next generation sequencing to genomic studies of Aspen species and Norway Spruce”. Both gave great talks including strong research in these areas; it was great to see upcoming researchers take the spotlight and give us a glimpse to the future of plant biology.

Torgny Näsholm (SLU, Umeå Sweden) was awarded the Physiologia Plantarum award. This award is given to a scientist that has made significant contribution to the areas of plant science covered by the journal Physiologia Plantarum. Torgny uses microdialysis, a technique currently used by neuroscientists, to investigate the availability of soil nitrogen to plants. Data generated using this technique are now bringing into question our current view of nitrogen availability measured using traditional methods.

Additional activities included a tour of the Bergius Botanic Garden

Additional activities included a tour of the Bergius Botanic Garden

The Popularisation prize, awarded to Stefan Jansson (Umeå University, Sweden), recognizes significant contributions to science communication and public engagement. Stefan’s work in public engagement has been wide-ranging. He has been involved with The Autumn Experiment, a citizen science project engaging schools in observation, data collection and real research. Recently Stefan published a book in Sweden, called ‘GMO’, which tackles the response of societies to genetically modified organisms.

At the congress, Stefan took over as the new President of the SPPS. This could lead to further emphasis and resources being placed on communicating science as the society moves forward.

Poster prizes

Prizes for the best posters are also awarded at the meeting. Five judges, including myself, assessed the posters, and the competition was fierce. It was impossible to split the top prize, so joint 1st prizes were awarded to Veli Vural Uslu (Heidelberg University, Germany) on “Elucidating early steps of sulfate sensing mechanisms by biosensors” and to Timo Engelsdorf (Norwegian University of Science and Technology, Norway) for “Plant cell wall integrity is maintained through cooperation of different sensing mechanisms”. Joint second prizes went to Zsofia Stangl (Umeå University, Sweden) on “Nutrient requirement of growth in different thermal environments” and to Annika Karusion (University of Tartu, Estonia) for “Circadian patterns of hydraulic and xylem sap properties: in situ study on hybrid aspen.”

Additional activities

Like any meeting, SPPS wasn’t all work and no play! Lisbeth Jonsson (Stockholm University, Sweden) and her team organized an excellent program. I feel very fortunate, on this short trip, to have had the opportunity to view Stockholm’s fine City Hall where Nobel laureates have dined, as well  as the incredibly preserved Vasa ship, which sank in Stockholm bay on its maiden voyage in 1628.

I very much look forward to seeing how the society progresses in the future, and nurturing new friendships and collaborations I made at the congress.

The Drinks reception at the City Hall, walking in the footsteps of Nobel Laureates

The Drinks reception at the City Hall, walking in the footsteps of Nobel Laureates

Plant Biology 2015: Introducing Plantae.org

Minneapolis skyline. Photo by 'zman z28', Flickr, used under a CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license.

Minneapolis skyline. Photo by ‘zman z28′, Flickr, used under a CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license.

Ruth and I recently flew out to Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA, to attend the American Society of Plant Biologists’ (ASPB) annual conference, Plant Biology 2015.

Ruth did a sterling job of live-tweeting the scientific sessions she attended. She also spent some time stationed at the ASPB booth to talk to people about the Global Plant Council (GPC), as well as a big project we’re helping to bring to life: Plantae.org. I’ll talk more about what I did at the conference later… But first, what is Plantae.org?

The Evolution of Plantae.org

Some time ago, here at the GPC, we thought it would be a great idea if there was one, online location where plant scientists and teachers could go to look for and share new ideas, tools and resources for research and education. We tentatively called it the ‘Plant Knowledge Hub’, and set about looking for people or organizations that might be able to help us make it a reality.

In doing so, we discovered that the ASPB was interested in creating a kind of community networking and collaboration platform, for which they had the working title ‘Plant Science Exchange’. Joining forces, we decided to combine the two ideas into one big portal, now called ‘Plantae’. Extending beyond the ASPB membership, Plantae will be for plant scientists and educators all over the world. We hope it will become the leading plant science resource hub and community gathering place.

Lisa modeling her Plantae t-shirt!

Lisa modeling her Plantae t-shirt!

At this point, I should also mention the Society for Experimental Biology (SEB), without whose help the GPC would not have been able to move forward with this project. The SEB generously provided enough funding for my post! I joined the GPC in February as the Outreach & Communications Manager, so as well as looking after the GPC’s internal and external communications and helping to spread the word about the work of the GPC, one of my main duties is to identify and curate tools, resources and plant science information to upload to Plantae.

Building Plantae.org

I’ve made a few simple websites in the past, but nothing as complicated as an entire ‘digital ecosystem’ so taking the ‘Plant Science Knowledge Exchange Hub’ from an idea to the reality of Plantae.org was going to be a mammoth task. Fortunately we have had a lot of help!

Susan Cato, the ASPB’s Director of Member Services and Digital Marketing, and her team, have been doing a stellar job of pulling different stakeholder groups together to build and develop the Plantae platform. As well as a group of web architects to build the portal’s infrastructure, an agency called LookThink has been involved, with the unenviable task of optimizing the user experience. It’s no mean feat to take our ideas about what the platform should do, and the practicalities of how it can be built, to ensure that the final online product actually does what users want and need it to do in an intuitive, user-friendly way!

Ultimately, Plantae.org will have features such as Facebook or LinkedIn-style user profiles and groups, with the ability to ‘connect’, interact and send private messages. It will have public and private discussion boards where scientists can collaborate, talk about issues in science, or ask questions to the community and have them answered. It will eventually contain hundreds and thousands of pages of content including research papers, teaching resources, videos, posters and much more, some of which will be curated by groups like the GPC, and others uploaded directly by members. Underlying all of this, the portal needs a robust, intuitive search engine to allow users to find exactly the contact they are looking for.

User Testing the Beta Version

PlantBiology2015logoSo during the ASPB conference, I was to be found in a meeting room with Clare Torrans from LookThink, helping her to conduct some user experience analysis on an early beta version of the Plantae site. We recruited a range of potential Plantae users – from students through to senior professors – and asked them to tell us what they thought of the idea of Plantae, whether they would use it and find it useful, whether the icons, buttons and links on the screen did what they expected, and what else they would like Plantae to do.

I’d never consciously considered the ‘user experience’ of a website before, but having spent time with Clare, I now realize it’s a vital part of the build process – and now I’m analyzing every website I visit!

The feedback we received was varied: there were some clear patterns related to age, academic level, or previous experience with social media, some people pointed out elements of the site I hadn’t even noticed, or misinterpreted buttons I’d thought were obvious, but – positive or negative – all of the feedback we received was useful and will be fed back into the site development process.

When can I start using Plantae?

The site isn’t quite ready yet, but taking into account all of the data we obtained from the user testing sessions at Plant Biology 15, we will hopefully be ready for launch in the Autumn. Watch this space for more news!