Q&A with Dr Jenna Ross

Monday 11 February 2019

Today is the International Day of Women and Girls in Science (February 11). To celebrate women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) courses and careers, we had a quick chat with Dr Jenna Ross who was recently shortlisted as one of the top MBA students in the world.

Dr Ross, who grew up on a family farm in Tarland, Aberdeenshire, has also won four prestigious awards, as well as an opportunity to travel the world through the Nuffield Farming Scholarship Trust to gather global data to enhance farming methods in the UK.

She embarked on an MBA at RGU’s Aberdeen Business School to turn her passion for science and farming into a business concept and graduated with distinction last year. Since then, she has spent half of the year travelling the world looking at where her research fits into the bigger picture.

We asked her a few questions about her work in Science which may inspire others.

When did you first become interested in Science?

Having grown up on a farm, I was always very inquisitive about nature and the environment, but never thought of it as a career option. In fact, I was wasn’t very strong academically at school, and actually found myself failing standard grade chemistry. It was only thanks to a very supportive teacher, called Dr Campbell, who went the extra mile and gave me tuition at lunch times. I went from failing chemistry to getting top marks, all because she believed in me and gave me that little extra help. Dr Campbell helped turn this foggy subject, into something I not only understood, but wanted to pursue in life, so I am truly indebted to her.

What were your favourite subjects?

At school I was initially creative, and interested in music and art, however, after the extra help with chemistry, this refocused my interest towards chemistry and biology. I then went on to study Forensic Science as an undergraduate at RGU. Although this sounds like a specialised degree, it covered fundamental subjects, such as biology, chemistry, biochemistry and genetics, all of which were a foundation to my PhD.

How did you first become interested in your current research topic?

After completing my undergraduate degree, I worked for Grampian Police as a Scene of Crime officer, which was fantastic life experience. I attended various crime scenes, from murders through to bank robberies, but I soon realised that this wasn’t what I wanted to be doing, and soon the lure of agricultural life started to creep in. Farming is well and truly in my blood, with both my mum and dad coming from farming families, so I decided to go back to university to study a PhD in Environmental Science. The topic of my studies was very much inspired by a very enthusiastic academic at the University of Aberdeen, who was working on slug control using natural enemies. Slugs had always been something that fascinated me growing up, but I never imaged I could turn them into a career. But maybe having a background in forensic science would make me the perfect slug detective?

When did you realise this could become a career for you and how did you go about pursuing it?

When I finished my PhD, I was in the fortunate position to be involved with a programme called Knowledge Transfer Partnership, which links academia with industry. As part of this, I completed a Level 5 Chartered Management Institute Diploma in Management and Leadership, and this got me thinking about the commercial value of my research. I started looking at my work with a fresh pair of eyes, and after several years working overseas in Norway, South Africa and Tanzania, I returned to RGU to embark on an MBA with the aim of commercialisation.

Can you tell us a bit about your current research?

Over the last 10 years my research has focused on the biological control of slugs and snails, using natural enemies. Last year I spent 24 weeks travelling around the world as part of the Nuffield Farming Scholarship scheme, looking at where my research fits into the bigger picture. This got me thinking outside the box, and when I returned home I had gone from one business idea to 20 business ideas. The MBA gave me the confidence to pursue these ideas, and at the beginning of this year I accepted a position with Crop Health and Protection (CHAP), which is one of the governments Agri-Tech centres, with the aim of making these ideas a commercial reality.

Do you have any other research interests?

My research interest now encompasses a variety of areas including sustainability, productivity, artificial intelligence, innovation and collaboration within the agricultural sector.

What interests do you have out with you research?

I have a passion for education, especially after living and working in Sub-Saharan Africa, where education is a privilege not a given. It has made me appreciate how lucky we are here in the UK to have access to free high-quality education, and I feel a duty to give back. I am now a STEM ambassador and an industry champion for LANTRA, with the aim of getting more young people interested in science and agriculture, because we need fresh innovative minds working in the industry if we are going to feed 9 billion people by 2050.

What advice would you give to women and girls looking to pursue a career in any science related topics?

  • Never be afraid or embarrassed to ask for help, because your teachers and lecturers are there to support you. If I hadn’t asked for help from my chemistry teacher all those years ago, then I wouldn’t be where I am today.
  • There are some great science clubs out there, but if your school doesn’t have one, reach out to your teachers and get them to engage with a STEM ambassador.
  • If you can’t decide what to study, then speak to your careers advisor, or come along to the various university open days. 
  • If you want to travel, STEM subjects offer amazing opportunities. In fact, last year I travelled to Canada, US, Brazil, Kenya, South Africa, Czech Republic, Ukraine, Germany, Belgium, France, Italy, Norway, Denmark, Japan, Australia and New Zealand, all because of my career.
  • Push yourself out of your comfort zone and try new things. You never know where they will lead you.
  • Find yourself a mentor. Everyone should have at least two or three mentors in their lives!
  • Finally, there is no such thing as failure, only opportunities to learn. If things don’t go to plan, pick yourself up, reflect, learn and move on