Five years worth of rambling
Updated: Jun 10
Once upon a time, I dreamed of becoming a marine biologist.
Today, I am at Zurich airport, ready to fly to Miami to the CORBANA International Banana Congress having finished my undergraduate degree in Plant Biology and about to start my PhD.
How did this all happen one might ask.
Well, here it goes!
Moving to Southampton (2014)
In my last year of secondary school in Hungary, I was committed to only apply to Marine Biology degrees abroad – and as the UK was the cheapest option (compared to Australia/US/Canada), I set my eyes on the University of Stirling in Scotland.
I was somewhat of a rebellious teenager (understatement of the year!), was slightly bored of school so I was a ‘private student’ in my final year of secondary school (i.e. ‘home-schooled’ but that just meant that I was preparing for A-level on my own in the central library in Budapest).
As luck would have it, I incorrectly filled out my first UCAS application. I did not add the Hungarian equivalent of A-levels, the system found inconsistency in my profile, so all my applications were rejected.
I re-applied to the University of Southampton to the Oceanography BSc course and luckily Io was accepted, having filled out UCAS correctly.
I packed up my bags and moved to Southampton in July 2014. I started looking for jobs in shops and term-time accommodation.
After a month, I still didn’t have a job. I was rejected to be a Customer Assistant at White Stuff because I was not ‘confident enough’ – which made me go into other job application like I was going into battle.
It became clear that I will not be able to pay rent from September.
I was/am an EU student, not eligible for any bursary/maintenance loan other than tuition fee loan (£9,000 per year).
Some people suggested that I go back to Hungary and try again next year.
But after a day of worries, disappointment and low self-esteem, I kicked myself in the bum and decided to brainstorm.
So, I started to look for anything Marine Biology related, part-time undergraduate degrees through Clearance (i.e. universities that still had openings).
Moving to Cambridge
I had some family friends near Cambridge who could put me up in their annexe for a few months. The only option I was left with was the part-time Marine Biology with Biodiversity and Conservation course at Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge.
Applied. Got accepted within a few days.
Packed my bags and moved to Whittlesford.
Before leaving Southampton, I applied to a full-time Catering Assistant position at the National Trust property at Anglesey Abbey, and I was invited to a team-based assessment three days after moving to into the annexe.
While I was watching my bank account like a hawk, I invested in a bain-marie at John Lewis, which is crucial to make perfect brownies.
The managers said that as soon as they saw me showing up to the job interview with tasty brownies – ‘I was in’.
(Anglesey Abbey 2014-2015)
Brainstorming in Cambridge, CABI and Namibia
So, this is how it all happened – within a few weeks, new uni, new job and new home.
That year, I was working five-six days while taking half days off to go to university.
In the first year, I continued to work at Anglesey Abbey, and I received my first scholarship in January 2015 to go to Namibia.
I had the chance to work at CABI again after finishing exams and lived in a tent to save up the money to go off to Africa.
In the summer I applied for the Winston Churchill Future Leaders scholarship which I thought was a good idea. I remember that the night before the deadline, I had about 30% charge left on my laptop and little mobile data to send off my application.
It was raining at the campsite.
I had to pitch an idea, how I would like to change the world.
I came up with. Brace yourself. A whole new research institute, built from scratch, to work on sustainable food production.
Once I started writing about it and how this institute would overcome some things which hold back older institutes, I could not stop!
To my extreme surprise, I was invited to the Churchill College in Cambridge for a day-long interview process with very, very impressive people.
As we had to sign a confidentiality agreement, I will forgo discussing the interview – unfortunately, I confessed that I will be in Namibia when the first leadership training week was going to be – so either because of my unavailability or ‘other stuff’, I did not get the scholarship, but man, just writing the application sent me down a path!
I flew off to Namibia with this idea stuck in my head and a notebook from Oxfam that had ‘Big Ideas’ on the front cover. I have that notebook wrapped, wrote so much ‘stuff’ in the Namib Desert, away from civilisation, away from any internet and with limited electricity.
I used to get up before 5 am at the camp to bake bread for everyone, and after lots of the best instant coffee [sarcastic tone], I would either do some yoga in the savannah or just pick a chair and write about ‘stuff’.
One morning, I wrote down… Global Opportunities for Ecological Sustainability (GOES). That sounded a cool name for that institute I pitched in the summer. (Will get back to GOES later…)
During my last week in Namibia, I emailed NIAB (National Institute of Agricultural Botany) in Cambridge if they are looking for a hand by any chance. It was a big surprise that I was put in touch with the Technical Support Team part of the Agronomic Crop Characterisation department. Arrived back to Cambridge, moved into a new room and got a 6-8 weeklong position to help on the Oilseed Rape cotyledon image analysis project.
I remember that on my first day, my colleagues were taken aback by my enthusiasm – and luckily their prediction that my positive attitude would decline was proven wrong.
Having worked at CABI, I already knew that planting plants was just fun and now I got to see how image analysis speeds up phenotyping. After about 4 weeks, a new position opened as my Team Leader moved up – so, they were looking for a Field Trials Technician and Team Leader. I applied and kept my fingers crossed.
NIAB takes equal opportunities very seriously – on the day of the interview, I had to come through the main entrance, had to shake the hands of my managers and answer questions such as ‘Do you know what NIAB does? Have you ever worked with oilseed rape and field trials?’. We kept straight faces while I was talking about – well, what we did yesterday together.
I remember NOT asking any questions from my managers after the interview, nor did I dare to enquire when I should hear back about the results…
One day we were driving back from the field with my manager, making small talk and getting closer to the main site, he asked, “So. Are you sure?”. I said, "I am". I made an awkward face.
He said “Good”.
I got to stay at NIAB. There might have been some dancing as I was walking home – knowing that I get to work with lovely crops and more lovely people.
And all of this was happening while I was completing the second year of my part-time uni course. My attendance at uni was about 25-35% but my lecturers understood.
The fact that for the first two years, all my off days meant that I got to go to uni led to my super-enthusiastic attitude at uni. I spent my off days studying what I loved.
Now at NIAB, I got to do what I love as well.
My daily routines varied but aimed to get to uni by 5 am, read and study until 6.45 am, then grab free Waitrose coffee and go to NIAB and after 5-6 pm, I would go home, shower and go back to the library until 8-9 pm.
Plant biology during the day, marine biology at night. Fun!
Mixture of pictures during my time at ARU
Scholarships and GOES
After my scholarship to Namibia in 2015, I reapplied to the same scholarship to go to Finland in 2016, for a two-week winter school of boreal and community ecology.
Once again, I received the scholarship, met amazing students and scientists at Konnevesi Research Station (University of Jyvaskyla) and to prove everyone’s scepticism wrong – I went canoeing on half-frozen streams and lakes with a local canoe instructor.
I cannot quite recall how, but I found the Golden Opportunities Scholarship by the American Tri-societies and randomly applied.
By that time, I had my ‘go-to pitch’ about a research institute called GOES, working with local communities and circulating scientists around the globe. I sent off my application early March.
I kept working at NIAB and one day, I astonished all of my colleagues by saying ‘Holy sh*t’ when I read the email that I got the scholarship.
I tend not to swear at work and have a bit of an ‘disapproving-teacher-attitude’ when I hear my teammates swear or talk about ‘inappropriate topics’ (they introduced the ‘what’s said in the field, stays in the field’ rule).
I was going to be flown to the big ASA, CSSA, and SSSA AGM in November 2016.
That summer I got diagnosed with Impostor Syndrome. Well. Self-diagnosed.
I thought that I just completely made up my application and I cannot recall the exact thought processes – but ended up deciding to start up a completely open-access magazine for students to publish in.
Drumroll. I named it GOES (https://www.goesmagazine.org/).
I believe I wrote 70% of the articles of the 18 pages long, first issue.
In September, uni started again while I kept working at NIAB.
I brought in the first issue in September and recruited students to put together the second issue. Within a month, we got it written up and printed! This time, I learnt an awful lot how to improve the design and texts and my classmates had fantastic ideas on how to improve it as well.
In November, I set off to the AGM, with £70 on my bank account and a few copies of the first and second issue of GOES.
While I already had life-changing experiences at CABI, NIAB and in Namibia, this AGM was one of those as well.
I had no idea how big it was going to be.
I had no idea how many people and how much money there is in agronomy-related research.
I turned up with my old backpack, in hiking boots, to the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Phoenix.
I have never been to a hotel like that ever before. I was a hostel/campsite-kind-of person who thought of B&Bs as ‘fancy’.
If you can imagine a heatmap of Impostor Syndrome, red being ‘high level’, at that point, it would have been kinda lava-coloured.
I met so many amazing people, took tons of notes from 7 am until 8 pm.
I learnt from the best PhD students how to conserve (=steal) as much food and drinks from a conference as possible.
While the scholarship included covering all the food and travels, I still only had £70 on my bank card. While other students and professors were going out to fancy restaurants, I walked 20 minutes to find a general store to get some sandwich lookalike for dinner.
I invited a fantastic scientist over to Cambridge to screen his new documentary about soil science – little did I know that I would be hosting him five months later!
I also had [awkward face] lunch with the Executive Editor of National Geographic who gave me tips on how to re-design GOES (more, more, more big pictures!).
The days went by and by the last night, both my bank accounts were in minus £1.
Hm. As I mentioned in another blog post, I ended up sharing a bed that night with a PhD student.
So, I arrived back in London super overwhelmed, jetlagged, in a skirt and sandals – without my backpack (which was stuck in Minneapolis). A friend bought my coach tickets to get home to Cambridge and well. I remained hungry until my salary arrived. I cannot thank enough for all my former colleagues who started up food banks for me.
I am very very stubborn, well about many things, but mostly about asking for help, and well... Money.
Pictures from my trip to ASA, CSSA, and SSSA AGM
Last year at ARU
As I entered the third year of my undergraduate course, it became trickier and trickier to go to university while working at NIAB – I kept thinking work comes first but my modules did require me to be in practicals and do weekly write-ups.
Thanks to some family stuff, I got – well, to my mind – a big sum of money in 2017 that I put into a savings account. It allowed me to finally become a proper uni student, if I kept on minimising any expenses, I could switch to full-time studies and work only part-time… But I could not switch to full-time studies at ARU because I was at that point 2.5 years in my degree.
I kept brainstorming and that year I started coming up with undergraduate dissertation project.
I knew that I wanted to do something with image analysis (because of my experience at NIAB) and evolution. Seashells. That would be fun.
But then, my course leader told me that ‘plants seem to be my thing’ and no one ever works with plants at ARU.
Look at ferns. While I have a lot of respect to ferns and their evolution, somehow, I was not ‘taken away’ by them.
My dear plant-y second supervisor then came with me into the library, grabbed books and we looked at different plant species and potential leaf or flower shapes for image analysis. We talked about oaks, ivies and others. But we got to brambles.
He shook his head and said that they are very troublesome. I made a note of that.
After doing lots of reading I pitched the idea of bramble leaf shape evolution to my two supervisors.
They said no. I said yes.
You can read more about coming up with my project here.
While I was getting started with brambles – the third round of the ARU scholarship came once again and I kept thinking how to top my former Namibian and Finish pitches.
Something about CABI and Plantwise… That would be amazing.
Cheap countries… Sent out a few emails. Nepal said yes to an internship.
The coordinator contacted the Plant Protection Institute which was part of the Nepalese Ministry of Agriculture. I also found an organisation which organised volunteering and living with Nepalese farmers. So I could live with farmers and do an internship with CABI. That’s a good scholarship pitch, right?
For the third time, they awarded me the scholarship. Little did they or I know that this was all leading up to a turning point.
Between February and May, I went onto competing for start-up funds for GOES, producing new issues, running a mini-module for my classmates funded by the Global Sustainability Institute at ARU. I ended up raising £2,750 in three months.
I also planned my summer. After exams, I would go to a weeklong intensive course on Geometric Morphometrics in Spain.
Hm. The Interrail Ticket was as expensive as the flight. Let’s go by train via France!
Due to a series of events, I ended up at deserted, dodgy stations, and on a train that was going into the garage. But in the end, I got to Barcelona.
At the end of this Geometric Morphometrics course, I ended up dancing with old Spanish men because I lost a bet. (Well, I still do not agree that I lost the bet but after about 15 fantastic PhD student/professors started hitting the table, yelling ‘Juniper’ and announcing my name at the karaoke bar… There was no escape.)
After all the dancing, I set off to Nepal via Turkey (there are some stories there too, but let’s not get lost in the details).
I wrote about Nepal in another post.
I got back on the plane after Nepal. Flew back to Cambridge.
I was jet-lagged and sickened by the wealth and complaints of healthy, well-off people.
I went to the library where I bumped into my supervisor.
I told him that I got back from Nepal last night and that…
I have to go. I have to work with plants.
He nodded and said ‘yes, you bloody well should’.
I started putting together the last issue of GOES and started Google-ing Plant Biology degrees in the UK.
Pictures from Nepal
Moving to Aberystwyth and more scholarships
Not 48 hours had passed when I started looking at Plant Biology degrees in July.
My credits would not be enough to skip second year. That means that I would have to practically have student loans for 3 x £4,500 (ARU) and 2 x £9,000. Brainstorm. Scotland and Wales have tuition fee reductions. Scotland universities were not available so late in the summer.
I applied to the University of Nottingham (Plant Science), University of York (Ecology) and Aberystwyth University (Plant Biology).
I got accepted to all of them, to enter the second year, but practically, I just picked the cheapest. For the first time in the UK, I was finally eligible for a tuition fee bursary in Wales, having lived in the UK for 3 years. So, I would get half of my tuition fees subsidised by the government. Yey!
In the meanwhile, a professor whom I met in 2016, posted on my FB wall about the ASPB (American Society of Plant Biologists) Conviron Scholarship. I quickly applied on a coach trip, once again pitching GOES and how I am switching to plants after marine biology. In September, I got the email that I was selected to be a scholar and got to attend webinars, discussions while carrying out monthly tasks.
Back in August, before moving to Wales to start my Plant Biology degree, I collected and imaged brambles at ARU, and in September, I set off to Hungary to do DNA extractions.
While according to my passport I am Hungarian, I have strong feelings about that country and its politics. While scientists are under pressure around the world - I would say, you would have to double the stress and half the rewards for Hungarian scientists.
I was really well trained in the lab there, tried to get everyone excited about brambles -naturally.
After eight days, our DNA amplifications worked (big YEY) and finished all our samples on the weekend. Came Monday and I flew back to the UK and moved to Aberystwyth. (Where incidentally, I had to change accommodation because of harassment from a deeply troubled 45-year-old, live-in landlord).
Nonetheless, my modules were very exciting for the first semester. I kept on applying to scholarships and funding, in January 2018 I got the word that I was the recipient of the C. Roy Adair Scholarship (advertised as ‘$5,600’ but that is a whole other story!) at the University of Arkansas, being supervised by a professor I met in Nepal. The scholarship consisted of a 10-week internship in the Plant Pathology Department.
In the meanwhile, while getting used to the new uni, I was also an ASPB Conviron Scholar and got to know the society and Plantae better. At the end of February, I started to work for ASPB on their social media and Plantae website, which I continue to do so and has opened a whole new digital world to me! We have been reaching 3-5 million people via our Plantae channels and our stats keep on rising!
Even though I got the scholarship to go to Arkansas in the summer, it was also high time to apply for some kind of scholarship from ASA in January 2018.
Well, I spotted the Undergraduate Agronomy Travel Award, which was for $5,000 to go abroad, do something agronomy-related stuff and learn in a culturally diverse environment.
As it happens, I wrote about the Green Revolution for my Applied Molecular Biology with Bioinformatics module, where I wrote a lot about introducing dwarfing genes into rice varieties at IRRI, in the Philippines.
Hm. Let’s look if I could go there. Hm. Courses, courses... and found the 'Rice: Research to Production', three-week intensive training from theory to the field.
That ticks all the scholarship requirements. Pitched it in my application.
I did not hear back about this scholarship until the beginning of May.
I was told that I would hear back from it earlier. Oh well. Let’s email them just to double-check.
Within a few hours, the reply came... ‘Sorry, we. FORGOT TO TELL YOU THAT YOU GOT IT’.
That does not happen very often in life!
Okay. So. I had a few weeks to sort out my internship visa… flights… accommodation in Arkansas. Oh, had to take an exam earlier so I can start my scholarship on time. Two exams on one day, in the afternoon my passport was delivered with the visa, following day at 8 am, my boxes were taken to storage and I rushed to Birmingham Airport to… Fly around the globe!
The summer of 2018
That about sums up that summer.
I had fantastic colleagues at Arkansas and worked with lots of plant pathogens. Sadly, there were… Mix-ups about the scholarship and how much I would actually get which led me to actually having to cover $2,500 that summer from my savings. Gulp. Acid reflux still gets worse thinking of it – but I learnt my lesson to be very thorough when discussing financials with universities.
But little did I know, that when I working with Fusarium (fungi that causes wilting of plants), that I would be working with that sneaky pathogen later on…
I had the chance to fly up to California with my very strict lab manager with whom – we were probably the two most troublesome people you could ever imagine! Like two children in a candy shop - just in a lab with Eppendorf tubes.
We visited spinach fields and Driscoll’s (huuuge berry producer) in California. This whole trip opened my eye to the wonder and well – insanity - of fruit and vegetable production. To see fields of spinach growing in a desert-like environment with loads of irrigation – escapes me how California produces 80% of the US’s fruits and vegetables.
Upon finishing my internship, I planned a two-night layover in… Vancouver… Where I dreamed to become a marine biologist as a teenager… Where orcas (my favourite animals) live. I booked two whale-watching tours and got myself lots of discounts. To begin with – Vancouver is a breath-taking place. The mountains, forests, islands and 18 Starbucks shops in the city centre just captivated me.
During our first whale-watching tour, we saw humpback whales. Five of them. Leaping out of the water. I could try to overuse adjectives but still would not do justice to describe how amazing it was.
In the evening, I just got on a random bus and found a beach. It was bliss. And me, the workaholic, unable-to-switch-off lady, quickly used my remaining 15% charge on my mobile to email a random professor at the University of British Columbia that ‘I’m here, there are brambles everywhere, may I have a chat about a PhD here?’.
As I got back to my Airbnb room, I switched on my phone and I got a reply – yes, come at 9 am! My flight to Tokyo was at 1.30 pm. So, with my suitcase, I turned up at the university, had a fantastic chat and was shown around the labs.
Man! I really do not know how these things happen to me. To randomly email someone who happens to be around, reads emails out of hours and would have time the following morning for a random student.
All I can say is – even though there aren’t too many tropical crops around Vancouver, it is still a lifelong dream to end up there for any length of time!
And off I went, to Tokyo and Manila, flying through a couple of exciting storms.
The following day, Manila was flooded.
I would like to highlight that it was monsoon time and you know - I wasn't there for the picture-perfect beaches but to get muddy (literally) and learn about rice! It was surreal when we were travelling through the country that there would be a huge, fancy resort and next to it.. Skinny children living in 'shed-like' homes.
Rice production - much like in Nepal - means survival for farmers and their families. It is not like e.g. wheat production by a seed company who wants to make money.
"Rice is Life", a crop that feeds half the world. Half the world!
Well, I was smitten after a month in the Philippines and will never look at rice the same way again. I will write about this trip another time!
After the Philippines... I had to fly to Dublin to start my uni module which consists of an intensive week of plant, lichen and moss identification and group projects.
I flew with Qatar Airlines which offered a free one night stay if the layover is over 12 hours in Doha. Overwhelmed with a culture shock from the Philippines to arrive in a man-made city in a desert, and got a free night at the Hilton. Aha. I still have pictures of my room was and that huge bathtub...
The final frontier - PhD hunt
I hope my love of brambles is clear to the reader. I loved my research project, proving people wrong... So last year, around March 2018 I also started emailing Australian professors to continue my research - detangling the evolution of plant phenotypic plasticity and added a bit of biocontrol and plant disease stuff. Australia is the only country where a biocontrol rust disease is used to control brambles and in 2017, the first population crash was reported. I could go on - in short, I wrote a 40 page PhD proposal...
And I was accepted to the Australian National University!
But. International fees in Australia are pretty steep.
I was still a full year ahead of graduating. I applied for the Northcote Trust Scholarship but looking back, even though scientists have proofread my application, I believe I wrote it in a way too technical language. I read the rejection email in October - so I started to look for UK PhDs.
Facebook post when I got accepted to ANU.
I must have looked at over 100 projects by the end of November.
There were days when I thought I better apply to random things in case I don't get anything... Then my sensible head told me to start coming up with a list of 'must haves'.
1. Partially done abroad, preferably in a developing country. 2. Food security - need to address something big. 3. Need lots of collaborators, from farmers to the industry.
As my list grew, the fewer projects were 'still in the mix'.
The most important criteria were, however... The people.
I have met so many inspirational scientists with whom I would love to work with - the subject would not matter because I would know that we will come up with an awesome project.
I loved my bramble research because of the people I got work with (/annoy).
So. After talking and meeting with potential supervisors, I narrowed further down where I applied. I was aback by how many people said that they would 'love for me to apply'.
I lived in a tent. I went to bed hungry. I could not go to the best universities.
But they must have seen something behind my CV.
Or I am just really good at writing BS in my cover letters. (The latter is most probable)
And then. Bananas happened. Literally!
I got the email that I got an amazing** PhD at the University of Exeter on my birthday (and I share my birthday with Darwin - which is probably the best fun fact of my life). I remember going into an empty lecture room at Aber and just pacing up and down saying 'Holy sh*t!'.
So this is how I got here. On a plane from Zurich to Miami. Going to the CORBANA International Banana Congress with a very last minute travel award and brand new "PhD student working on banana Fusarium wilt" business cards.
Naturally, I left out sooo many crazy stories. For one - I could be at Harvard/MIT right now working on Brachypodium phenotypic plasticity - but once again I could not afford to go to the best university in the world.
I could have re-applied to get Australian funding.
I could have been...
But I am here in Miami now! So I better stop rambling.
I would like to remind the dear reader that these are the ramblings of a half-asleep lady on a plane crossing the Atlantic, catching up with her thoughts and repressed feelings.
Picture from Publix shop in Miami
** Comment on 9 June 2020:
By December 2019, I re-applied to other PhD projects as I did not approve of my lab at Exeter and I am very excited to be joining the INSPIRE Doctoral Training Program at the University of Southampton in Sep 2020 to work with subsistence farmers in Papua New Guinea :)