Who we are and what we’re responsible for…
Dr. Manikkath Haridas: I am the Lead Plant Scientist at IAG, Dr. Deepa Manikkath Haridas. I hold an agricultural bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree in crop physiology, and a doctorate in biological sciences.
As a plant scientist at IAG, I help create planting schedules for the farms and trial designs to examine various plant growth parameters to optimise crop output, quality, and flavour. Utilising a variety of analytical methods at the IAG lab onsite, the nutrient levels in the irrigation water are monitored, coupled with flavour profiling of various crops. Based on results from microbiological tests, the plant science team oversees keeping track of the suitability of crops for human consumption. In addition, I help prepare grants in conjunction with our academic partners and other businesses to explore the suitability of our system for commercial purposes.
Felix: I’m Felix Trimmer, a plant scientist here at IAG. I have a bachelor’s and master’s degree in biological sciences. I’m really interested in computing, and so I love to find ways to combine both subjects – I’m currently undertaking a PhD with Royal Holloway in collaboration with IAG to investigate the use of machine vision in studying plant growth.
Each day we check over the farm and ensure everything is running smoothly. In the plant science team, we run and oversee various trials to improve our crop yield, flavour, and quality. Our new lab also enables us to use biochemical techniques to perform basic analyses of the crops, so we can further quantify our research.
Our job is important because…
Dr. Manikkath Haridas: To improve resource use efficiency and ensure the economic feasibility of vertical farming systems, it is critical to make data-driven decisions. Our knowledge and ability in designing trials, collecting, and interpreting of different physiological and biochemical parameters is crucial in understanding the full potential of the system and to economise the cost of running the system.
Felix: The expertise of the plant science team is invaluable to the company, as our insights into plant physiology and response are key to improving the system and pushing the limits of what we can achieve. Our technology is at the forefront of growing techniques, and it demands speciality at the forefront of research to further development and take advantage of the potential at the heart of the design.
Our career journey…
Dr. Manikkath Haridas: I come from a farming background and was always fascinated by crop science. I’ve worked as a researcher in the agriculture sector for more than ten years, both in academic and commercial settings. My PhD was in the study of soil-plant-microbial interactions, and most of my works focus on the links between soil, plants, and water.
Felix: I really enjoyed both electronics and biology at A-level. I loved tinkering with hardware and software in my own time, but I found a special calling in the academic study of biology. I undertook a BSc in molecular biology at Royal Holloway, where I achieved a first-class degree with honours. My special project towards the end of my study showed me the potential of combining both computing and biology, something I was always keen to do, and as such I took on a Masters project analysing high-throughput phenotyping data of mutant tomato plants. I enjoyed my time during the course, but wanted to move beyond simply analysing data someone else had acquired, and I realised that IAG’s system offered the framework to develop a software and hardware solution for plant growth monitoring.
We wanted to be plant scientists because…
Dr. Manikkath Haridas: I think it’s crucial to study plants to feed the world’s population. There are numerous elements of plants that are still unknown. When I worked as a research scientist in several settings, I was fascinated by how plants communicate with one another and the bacteria around them to defend themselves against biotic and abiotic challenges. The secret to meeting the demands of a growing population in a sustainable fashion is to understand this communication.
Felix: Unlike you or I, if a plant is being bothered by something, it can’t just get up and find somewhere else to live. They’ve got amazing molecular techniques to deal with all these stresses, and they provide so many things for us, from the clothes we wear to the gases we breathe. I’ve just got a lot of respect for them; they deserve to be studied!
We love our job because…
Dr. Manikkath Haridas: The way that crops adjust to their shifting environments is remarkable. I was attracted to the research potential this job offered to me as a plant scientist. I am happy to be a part of this vertical farming system because I think it has the potential to revolutionise agriculture.
Felix: I love being able to come in on a morning and see how all the plants are growing and how they deal with growing in an unconventional system. I particularly enjoyed seeing our tomato plants growing from seed to fruit.
How does our role as a plant scientist working in vertical farming vary from a plant scientist working in traditional agriculture…
Dr. Manikkath Haridas: In contrast to traditional farming, where you are dependent on the weather, controlled environmental agriculture (CEA) gives you more control over your growing environment. Under CEA, there are more crop cycles, which gives scientists more data points for statistical analysis in less time.
Felix: We all love plants, it’s just that we don’t get as wet when it rains.
In a traditional agriculture setup, you need to be especially aware of the outside environment, as it is uncontrolled and must be accounted for. Indoors, we control the environment, so we must be more stringent with our PPE policy but have fewer unknown factors we must worry about.
Advice to others… (What advice would you give to others who want a role like yours?)
Dr. Manikkath Haridas: Growing plants is not the only aspect of vertical farming. This is an intriguing intersection of plant science, engineering, and computing. It has limitless potential, and I believe the journey has just begun.
Felix: My route into this field was because of a niche that I particularly enjoy. I would suggest that you really explore your interests in your field to their limits and find your own niche too. The key thing is to investigate what you love.Get in Touch