An interview with Professor Gerry Saddler

February 2020

Professor Gerry Saddler is the Chief Plant Health Officer for Scotland and the Head of Scottish Advice for Scottish Agriculture (SASA), a scientific division of the Scottish Government, He is also a member of the Microbiology Society. In this interview he tells us more about his research focusing on plant pathogenic bacteria and how it can affect crop production.

Gerry Saddler
© Gerry Saddler

Tell us about your research

I have spent the last 30 years researching plant pathogenic bacteria, with a particular focus on the pathogens of potatoes in both developing and developed world agriculture. Most of this work has involved developing strain detection and characterisation methods, which are vital precursors in the development of control strategies.

What is your area of specialism and why is it important?

I started out my research career as a bacterial taxonomist but broadened out to develop wider skills in plant pathology. This area is important because 10–15% of the world’s crop production can be lost as a result of the actions of pests and pathogens. Continuing to study and understand how to control these pathogens is vital if we are to improve food security for the world’s growing population, and protect our natural environment.

What are the most important skills you need for your current role?

Pragmatism and the ability to listen to people such as farmers and horticulturalists, are both important skills for me. My current role is very much at the interface between science and policy, and there is little point in implementing policies to protect plant health if they are difficult to apply, as this in itself could cause economic hardship to the sectors and industries affected. Consulting and taking on board the views of others is vital if legislation to bring in new control measures is to be practical and commensurate the threat posed by pests and disease.

Multitasking, resilience and management skills – and the order changes daily!

I am currently Head of the Scientific Division of the Scottish government, and responsible for 170 staff members. I am also Chief Plant Health Officer for Scotland. Life is never dull, and no two days are the same. Maintaining a healthy work-life balance is vital as the volume of work on occasion can be overwhelming and never ending. Delegation is a vital skill– and one I confess – I am not very good at. I try to follow some of the advice I received from a previous manager; namely that I should only do the jobs that I can or must do; that is never easy, but it’s not a bad aim to have.

What qualifications did you obtain before starting this role?

I have a BSc in Microbiology from the University of Edinburgh and a PhD from Newcastle University.

What are the professional challenges that present themselves and how do you try to overcome them?

As a scientist and a civil servant, I am very much at the coal face with regards to how science influences government policy. Developing an understanding of the political and economic environment I operate in, is essential for my job. It was a hard lesson to learn, but with time I grew to accept that scientific evidence alone does not necessarily lead to implementing good policies; that wider societal influences need to be taken into account, and on occasion, might even outweigh what data suggests.

What is a typical working day for you?

Sadly, lots of meetings interspersed with all too brief periods to catch up on emails and read reports and papers and catch up with my team. I succeeded for long periods of my career to keep weekends free of work, but this last year, and for the foreseeable future, as we struggle with the implications for trade in plants and plant products as a result of leaving the EU; Sundays seem to be increasingly taken up reading some pretty dry stuff to build an understanding of World Trade Organization (WTO) rules and international sanitary and phytosanitary standards.

Tell us about your biggest professional achievement(s) so far.

As a result of the research I did with Ian Toth (James Hutton Institute), John Elphinstone (Fera Science); alongside colleagues at the Scottish Agricultural Science Agency (SASA) – in particular Greig Cahill– we helped characterize an emerging plant pathogenic bacteria sweeping across Europe in 2007–2010 which was later named Dickeya solani. This work directly led us to specific Scottish legislation, to keep this pathogen out of the Scottish production system. Since 2010, I am pleased to report Scotland has not had any findings of the pathogen in its potatoes.

You are an active member of the Microbiology Society, tell us more about your involvement

I have served on the Editorial board of Microbiology and was the convener of the Systematics and Evolution group of the Society (a component part and precursor to the Prokaryotes Division), and got a great deal from both. My current job does not allow me to get involved as much as I’d like, but I still take a keen interest in how our field is developing and go along to meetings when I can.

Why is it important to be a member of an organisation like the Microbiology Society?

I am really grateful for all the help I have received from the Microbiology Society (and its predecessor the Society for General Microbiology), particularly as a young scientist. When I got my first full time job after a period of being a postdoc student, I got a small grant to purchase a PCR machine and gel electrophoresis kit (it was a long time ago!). This really helped me establish myself as an independent scientist. I was also– still trying to be! – a regular attendee at Microbiology Society Symposia and meetings and received additional financial support from the Society to attend international conferences.  This was vital in allowing me to establish a global network of collaborators, something fundamentally important to every scientist’s professional life. 

Please tell us a little about the education and outreach activities you undertake in your role.

This year will be a busy year for us as it has been established by the United Nations as the International year of Plant Health, therefore SASA will have a stand at The Edinburgh Science Festival in April explaining the significance of plant health and the main threats from pests and pathogens. In addition, we will be engaged in numerous other events throughout the course of the year; host regular school visits; will have an Institute Open Day in the autumn, and many of our staff will serve as STEM ambassadors.

Where did your interest in microbiology come from?

If I am honest it was more accidental than destiny. I really wanted to be a zoologist but realised early on there was likely to be limited openings for animal behaviourists. Thankfully my undergraduate course was a mix of zoology and microbiology, and so it was relatively straightforward to change direction and focus more on microbiology as the course developed. I quickly decided against the clinical route and fully embraced environmental microbiology. I feel exceptionally fortunate to see the direct impact of my science on the sectors I serve in my current job, and I have never looked back and thought what if?

Why does microbiology matter?

In my area it matters because of the impact it can directly have on the quality and quantity of our food supply. There will always been new pests and pathogens that will attack our crops and plants in the natural environment. Studying them and developing control strategies to counteract their actions are vital to enhance our supply of food and protect our environment. 

If you are a member of the Society and would like to find out more about how you can get involved with Society activities and/or showcase your research, please email us at [email protected].