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LAMMA 2021

LAMMA 2021

Hannah McGrath: The Scientist

Hannah McGrath is a PHD student for Sustainable Agriculture Sciences at Rothamsted Research. We catch up with her on her work towards greener farming in the UK.  

Hannah McGrath
Hannah McGrath

Why science?


I think I’m a curious person and I’ve always liked to investigate something deeply, to find out what’s really happening behind a process or in a situation.

I also recognised science gave me an opportunity to ‘have impact’.

It’s allowed me to help change the way we produce our food.


What was your route into Rothamsted?


For a scientist and PhD student, I’ve taken a fairly standard route, I did my undergraduate degree at Bath, before a Masters in Environmental Bioscience at Warwick, and then starting my PhD in October 2017.

However, there are many other routes to taking a PhD that don’t follow my route!


Why do the topics you study matter to you?


I am a Waitrose CTP student, this means that I work closely alongside an industry partner.

In my case, I work with a fresh produce company called Huntapac.

Knowing my work can help feed into making their operations more sustainable and more profitable is a huge help on days when my motivation is flagging! I’ve also spent many years of my academic career studying how humans are harming our natural world.

It is nice to be able to work on an area that in many ways is a good news story.

I’m helping to find a win-win for both farmers and our countryside.

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Hannah bringing her expertise to the field
Hannah bringing her expertise to the field

What happens in a working week?


My working life is split quite heavily between summer and winter.

In summer, each day I will be out looking after my field trials, talking to farmers and most importantly, for the process of getting a PhD, I have a lot of data to collect.

This is the bit of the year I enjoy the most though! In the winter, I spend more time inside, processing and analysing the data I collected and writing up the experiments.

Although this half of the year is a little less dynamic, I tend to use this time to go to conferences or training courses, which make the time more exciting.


What has surprised you about your course?


This perhaps won’t be a surprise to many experienced people who work in agriculture, but I was blown away by how keen people are to talk to me about my work and to discuss their own actions on farms to help support wildlife.

There definitely is a strong culture of innovation that I get to feed off and, I hope, my work can help fit into that.

These wildflower verges encourage natural pest control, helping farmers and the ecosystem
These wildflower verges encourage natural pest control, helping farmers and the ecosystem

What kind of a person would a career in food science suit?


I think any personality can find a route into food science or agricultural research. The stereotype of a scientist would be that I live in a white lab coat, spending all my life in a lab or looking at spreadsheets of numbers.


But it’s my mission to get to the end of my PhD without wearing a lab coat! Recently, I’ve allowed my creative side to get a bit of attention as I’ve become involved with a new podcast, The Science of Feeding the World.


Thinking about the best way to interview a guest or the music for a theme song was definitely a shock to the system but shows that you don’t just have to be one kind of person to be successful on this path.

What’s your biggest strength?


I think it’s the enjoyment I get from talking to people.

I love just talking to people and finding out about how people farm, what their challenges or success stories are and what they are doing for their local environment.

Or it could be talking to the public about the positive and science-based actions so many farmers take in our countryside.


What do you enjoy doing in your spare time and why?


I should probably lie and say mountain biking or something.

But in reality, I spend too much time scrolling on a phone and watching reality TV shows.

Sometimes my brain needs a break!


Biggest untruth about agriculture?


I think growing up we all get taught what this image of a farm is.

With a farmhouse, a blue tractor, everyone growing wheat, lots of Holstein Friesian cows around and a sheepdog called Meg.

While there is someone out there probably doing this, there are so many other different types of farming and food production.


Biggest myth about food science?


That you’re always wearing a hairnet!


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