By Fernadis (Feddy) Makale, MRes, CABI
It all started with a single application email after coincidentally stumbling on a scholarship ad online. Landing in the UK at almost sub-zero temperatures I didn’t know what was ahead of me. I had successfully won a scholarship for a Research Masters (MRes) degree co-funded by CABI and Royal Holloway University of London, UK (RHUL). After going through all the bureaucracies involved in the getting a student visa to the UK with the strict deadlines, I knew pretty well that, whatever was ahead of me was not going to be a walk in the park.
Arriving late into the semester meant I had to play catch-up. This was not easy keeping in mind that I had to do an almost 1800 turn adjustment in terms of new culture, weather, people and even the mode of course administration which only remotely relates with that of my native country, Kenya.
With great support from staff at CABI and RHUL, School of Biological Sciences, I had little trouble catching up with the rest of the class and easily settled into the system. My MRes focused on the biological control of Himalayan balsam (an invasive plant in the UK) using a rust fungus (Puccinia komarovii var. glanduliferae). The rust was first released in UK in 2015 but the success that had been observed in quarantine lab and greenhouse studies had not yet been replicated in the field. I specifically studied the effect of fungal endophytes on the efficacy of the rust as a classical biological control agent of Himalayan balsam with respect to their effect on the growth of the plant. I observed that one endophyte (Colletotrichum sp.) was able to increase the size of the rust pustules on Himalayan balsam leaves. But when assessing plant growth (height, number of leaves, flowers etc) there was no significant difference compared to the controls.
I had two objectives when starting this project and indeed my MRes: perform well academically and gain enough knowledge and skills in conducting a scientific research project and biocontrol research of invasive species. The first was achieved by scoring a distinction in the final assessment of my MRes and I am still growing and learning about biocontrol.
My project was carried out at CABI’s facilities. This not only gave me the privilege of using state of the art facilities but also granted me the opportunity of working in a great mentorship environment with scientists who are at the forefront of biological control research. Working at CABI was an experience of a lifetime. The support, mentorship and opportunities I received here will stay with me for the rest of my life.
During my time in the UK I provided support to a number of different projects at CABI that further enhanced my skills, knowledge and experience. I worked with a variety of biocontrol agents such as the Japanese knotweed psyllid, a weevil, Stenopelmus rufinasus for controlling Azolla filiculoides, a weevil for controlling Hydrocotyle ranunculoides and a mite for controlling Crassula helmsii. All these tasks provided me with an opportunity to learn and earn as well!
Having come from a country with less advanced infrastructure and even fewer opportunities, especially for less fortunate families, coming to UK and working at CABI was an overwhelming blessing. Not just for me, but for my family and acted as an inspiration to humble families throughout Kenya, who I feel I represented. Meeting and working with people who are ready and willing to support and mentor you, was the culture at CABI – and is what motivated me to work hard. The opportunity to work on other CABI projects and to participate in training sessions were privileges I could not have been exposed to if I was working on campus (at RHUL) or my native country.
My UK trip wasn’t just work and studying though. I had the privilege to visit some iconic and historic places in the country. A tour of London, I visited palaces (Windsor Castle, Buckingham, Kensington, and Blenheim), the Natural History Museum in Oxford and various parks around the country. With summer comes parties and good food was aplenty! I was honored to be invited to barbeques, dinners and street feasts where I sampled different cuisines. This was made possible with the help of colleagues at CABI who were not just mentors but great friends and family.
My visa only allowed me to stay in the UK for a year. When it came time to go back to Kenya, I was mixed with emotions; happy to go and see my family after a long time but deeply sad leaving behind another family at CABI. With an emotional farewell party from colleagues, I knew what the massive task of finding a job and providing for my family lay ahead of me.
I was lucky enough to be offered an internship at CABI’s Nairobi office, to further grow in the field of biocontrol. I am now mainly involved in data collection and collation and field work duties relating to mapping invasive species in different countries in Africa. I am now doing mostly desk work compared to being in the lab, greenhouse or field (in the UK) but with the support of the team here, I am learning more and more each day about invasive species. It was, and still is, a blessing and honor for me to be part of the great CABI family and an opportunity that I do not take for granted. Special thanks to CABI in the UK and RHUL for believing in me and funding my MRes and to CABI in Kenya for the internship opportunity. I could not have asked for a better opportunity than as this!