In our Getting to Know... series, we interview key members of Liberty’s team with expertise in different aspects of vertical farming.
Today, Ross McKellar tells us a bit about his academic background, his work as Research Assistant, his unexpected journey into the vertical farming industry and what he finds most rewarding about his work.
What’s your academic background and how did you decide to specialise in AgriTech?
My love for science began in secondary school and my interest in it hasn’t
wavered since, partly because of how rewarding and satisfying I found it. I strongly believe that by understanding the world around us, we have real opportunities to improve everyday life for all individuals. For me, scientific endeavours and technological development form part of the puzzle of understanding the world around us and improving lives.
Before joining the team at Liberty Produce, my academic background was mainly rooted in biological sciences. In 2015 I left school and studied an undergraduate Biological Science course with honours at the University of Dundee. In the early days, I was unsure where my next steps would take me in terms of field specialisation.
My path became clearer in my final years after completing a plant science course where I began to understand the urgent need to build sustainable food systems for an ever-growing global population. This introduction gave me an epiphany: I knew I wanted to specialise in AgriTech to contribute to solving this problem.
Although I graduated in 2019, I remained in academia as I felt inexperienced in
practical laboratory skills because my previous modules were purely knowledge based. During my search, I was lucky enough to be accepted by the University of Dundee for an MSc by Research focused on AgriTech, studying under Dr. Edgar Huitema.
What did your MSc research involve?
My research took on a “know your enemy” approach as I studied to understand the dangerous oomycete pathogen ‘Phytophthora capsici’. This pathogen has a surprisingly short infection time and is not limited to seasonal changes – therefore it can proliferate continuously as long as a stable host source is close by. Because of this, the plant disease has been labelled a “worst-case scenario” problem due to its devastating capabilities on highly valued domesticated crops, such as tomato, cucumber and bell pepper.
I found this research very rewarding because my contributions to this project aim would provide future aspiring scientists with a foundation of knowledge to stand on and offer new, revolutionary ideas. I also viewed myself as somewhat of a pioneer in the field as not much was known about P. capsici, pushing me all the more to get stuck into my work!
How did you find yourself in vertical farming?
Vertical farming was first introduced to me almost by chance as I began my search for
employment. My expectations were to find work across a lot of areas in Scotland, from
Glasgow to Aberdeen. I was very surprised to find a fascinating industry opportunity so close
to my current place of academia.
My starting knowledge of vertical farming was limited, given its relatively “recent” development in modern scientific approaches. However, that was all the more fuel for my ambition to dive into a new and exciting field that can make a difference to the world.
I share the same ethos with Liberty when it comes to overarching goals; to respond to the ever growing food security crisis with the development of new technologies for controlling farming systems all year round. This would give a tremendous advantage to areas of the world who struggle with arable, non-favourable growth conditions.
What drew you to Liberty?
Since the beginning of my studies, I've realised the critical importance of global food security. The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the weaknesses in current domesticated crop growing techniques, therefore finding alternative, more efficient ways to provide food sources is crucial to sustaining global populations.
When I began my career hunt, I was especially passionate about finding a position that I both enjoyed and I knew was making a positive difference to the world, even in some small way. I was drawn to Liberty Produce as a company because I shared their ideals; creating a sustainable and efficient alternative to the large costs of traditional farming techniques. Liberty Produce also allowed me to further develop my scientific ideals as I was able to help create systems which can contribute to the larger goal of food security.
What do you find most rewarding about your job?
During my academic career, I was exposed to a large variety of biological topics, ranging
from neurology all the way to Thermodynamics. It was difficult to picture these lectures and
theories in practice in the outside world.
What I love most about my current job is that I finally get to put all my skills into practice in a new and hi-tech environment. It is always exciting to come in every morning and tinker with new scientific equipment to see how they work and how they can benefit vertical farming.
I also get to meet and work with like-minded individuals who stem from a range of disciplinary backgrounds. This lets us bring our own unique perspectives to the table
and further advance the overall designs for vertical farming systems. The job allows me to grow my practical skills and I’m able to meet some fun and interesting colleagues along the way!
Are there any successes you're particularly proud of?
Most recently, I was able to assist in the overall renovation and maintenance of our current vertical farming systems in the IHCEA. My practical skills knowledge and ability to adapt to new circumstances helped me to prepare the systems for future growth trials in an efficient time and to an optimum quality.
Prior to Liberty, last year I undertook my first large camping trip outside the UK to attend international festivals. It was a large step for me after University but, like my current position at Liberty Produce, I was very excited to jump into a completely new field and explore what it had to offer!
What have the challenges of this year taught you?
With the current ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, this year in particular has tested the
endurance of many agricultural workers. There is no clear end to the viral control in sight, making food security more important than ever. It’s been exciting to bring my varied knowledge to Liberty and my hopes are that my work will bring us one step closer to a stronger agricultural industry.
My employment in the industry has only just begun but I am looking forward to
kicking off my career in a field with vast potential for improving crop production and
providing food to even the most arable of conditions in the world. My journey into vertical farming has led me to realise how vitally important it is to facilitate a stable food supply for the growing population.
Finally, what are some of your hobbies and interests?
I've been a fan of the heavy metal genre ever since university; when I used to have a free weekend, I would go out with my friends to see concerts and other live events pre-COVID. The biggest live event I've been to so far is the Wacken Open Air festival in Germany (the 'holy land' for all things rock).
Recently, I have also taken up sewing (for band patches on jackets) and learning new languages such as German and Japanese.