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LOGO: Queen's University Belfast


IPSAM conference hosted in Belfast

The Irish Plant Scientists’ Association Meeting (IPSAM) returned in style with a recent meeting co-hosted by Queen's University Belfast and the Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute (AFBI). Below, a delegate reflects on a successful gathering.

Delegates at the 2023 IPSAM conference, outside Queen's University Belfast

After a two-year break brought on by the Covid pandemic, the IPSAM event brought plant scientists from all over the island of Ireland, providing a forum for postgraduate and postdoctoral researchers to present their findings and share knowledge.

Ireland has a vibrant and wide-ranging community of researchers in the plant sciences spanning phytopathology, plant genetics and genomics, ecology, plant phenology, horticulture, forestry, soil-plant interactions, and rhizosphere science. IPSAM’s primary focus is to provide a forum to share research in the plant and crop sciences among the research community, particularly for early-career scientists, and to foster future collaborations with industry stakeholders.

The Irish Plant Scientists' Association was initiated in the early 1970s by Matt Harmey, a former Professor in University College Dublin (UCD), and Eric Simon, former Professor of Botany at Queen's. The two met at a conference near Wageningen in the Netherlands and regretted that, although close geographic neighbours, they had to go to the Netherlands to discuss common interests.

They resolved to establish a common forum for all botanists on the island of Ireland and this resulted in the establishment of the first ‘Irish Botanists Meeting’. These meetings were held annually until 2020 when Covid regulations necessitated a break.

Members were delighted the 2023 event could go ahead in Belfast. To make the most of the opportunity, the hosts decided to hold the conference across multiple venues. Day one of the conference was hosted by the Institute for Global Food Security (IGFS) and the School of Biological Sciences (SBS) at Queen's. This meeting covered a range of topics, from plant pathology to new phenotyping methods, and the soil chemistry underpinning plant growth. This was followed by a canapé reception in IGFS/SBS foyer where students presented their research in the form of posters. Over 85 delegates joined proceedings to hear presentations from early-career researchers and more established scientists.

The second day of the meeting was held across two AFBI sites. The first session opened in AFBI headquarters at Newforge Lane, with a keynote speech from the Head of Sustainable Agri-Food Sciences Division, Dr Elizabeth Magowan, who is also an Honorary Professor at Queen's. Prof Magowan gave an enthusiastic account of the current research in her division and her visions for the future, highlighting the importance of plant research to the future of the Northern Irish economy.

Dr Jim McAdam, also an Honorary Professor at Queen's, who retired from AFBI in 2018, was invited to speak on his agroforestry work which has been ongoing since 1988. This work is an interesting example of how sustainable land use and profitable agriculture can co-exist to the benefit of the public. The theme of sustainably feeding the island of Ireland ran through many of the sessions at the conference, where researchers were excited to present new techniques in plant sciences which can improve lives across the country.

The final session of the meeting was held at AFBI’s Plant Testing Station in Crossnacreevy and coincided with the annual AFBI Arable Crops Open day with the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB). This session focused on plant varieties, the key research area in AFBI’s Plant Testing Station. Researchers presented work on topics including combating crop stressors and investigating multi-species swards before heading out to the field to see variety testing in action.

Dr Lisa Black (Head of AFBI Plant Testing Station) presented an update on the progress in the InnoVar project, a H2020 project spanning 14 countries, and which is coordinated by AFBI. This project aims to incorporate new technologies to the plant-variety testing system and improve efficiency.

The future of IPSAM looks promising with researchers from all aspects of plant science enthusiastically planning upcoming collaborations. As Professor Fiona Doohan from University College Dublin told the attendees, "You have to look to the past, to develop new technologies which will feed the future".