RAU students present their projects at UK’s first ever conference for agricultural PhD researchers

27 November 2023

Initiatives to improve the health and well-being of women in rural Bangladesh, and that of farmers in the UK, were among the topics that PhD students from the Royal Agricultural University (RAU) showcased at the Future Agricultural Researchers conference (FAR’23), the UK’s first ever conference for agricultural PhD students of all disciplines.

Organised by the Agricultural Universities Council (AUC), of which the RAU is a founder member, the conference which took place in Exeter, aimed to help agricultural PhD students from across the UK to network with peers, academic leaders, and industry experts, as well as learn more about careers in agri-science and how best to communicate their research.

More than 100 PhD students, from 27 different universities and research institutions, attended, including four from the RAU. At the start of the conference, some of the students were encouraged to present their work as part of a “3-minute thesis” session which the organisers likened to “PhD speed dating”!

Mahfuza Afroj, who is now in the second year of her PhD at the RAU, said: “I am exploring how involvement in food entrepreneurship influences the health and well-being of rural Bangladeshi women. Bangladesh is a developing country and, due to the socio-cultural system, women are not treated the same as men.

“Previous studies on women entrepreneurship have found that Bangladeshi women often have to work harder than men to become successful entrepreneurs as they are expected to take care of the family and do the household work. However, rural women are now thinking about financial and decision-making freedom as well.”

Meanwhile Jenny Howse, who is a Doctoral International Teaching Fellow Vice Chancellor Scholar at the RAU which means that she is working as a lecturer at the RAU while completing her PhD, presented on her PhD which is looking at supporting the well-being of farmers in the UK.

Jenny said: “There is overwhelming pressure on UK farming charities who are doing their utmost to offer support to farmers and avoid the consequences of poor farmer well-being which can include mental health challenges, farmers leaving the industry, and even suicide.

“My PhD looks to institutionalise farmer well-being support in the UK red meat supply chain and create an environment where mental health support for farmers is readily available.

“Events such as the FAR’23 Conference give us a valuable opportunity to meet other PhD students who are working across agriculture and the chance to hear about current and future research projects as well as the opportunity to showcase our own findings and research successes.”

The conference covered a wide range of topics and speakers came from academia, farming, and the media. Sessions were held on career paths, early career support networks, and the challenges facing agriculture and there were panel discussions around the communication of research, engaging with the farming community, and making research relevant.

Professor Simon Mortimer, Head of School of Sustainable Land Management at Reading University, is the Chair of the AUC and also chaired the conference. He said: “Gone are the days when we can focus on a single discipline, have our heads down and focus on our own experimental research approaches. We need to recognise the value of other people's work and approaches.

“At this conference, students have had the opportunity to look at how other people are tackling similar problems that relate to what they’re working on, maybe from a different paradigm or using a different set of research techniques.”

Two other RAU PhD students, Amy Lipscombe and Iris McCormack, also presented their work looking into “the motivations for students to study agriculture at undergraduate level and the influencing factors around their decisions” and “the welfare implications of virtual livestock fencing and workable protocols to safeguard livestock welfare and inform welfare policy” respectively.

Professor Tom MacMillan, the Elizabeth Creak Chair in Rural Policy and Strategy at the RAU, chaired a session about how to communicate research so that it can have an impact on the ground.

He said: “When we launched the AUC’s joint research strategy, one of the key pillars was around nurturing talent. Doing a PhD can be quite an isolated experience and, as far as we know, this is the first time PhD students have been brought together in this way.

“This conference has given PhD students a real opportunity to network, to discuss how to make research have a real impact, and to meet new people and hear fresh ideas. I hope that this will help breed closer collaboration between the PhD students and farmers, industry, and the wider community too.”