Professor Sue Hartley on sustainability, research ambitions, and some surprising things about Sheffield.

Just under four weeks into her new role as Vice-President for Research, we met with Professor Sue Hartley to find out about her ambitions for research here at Sheffield. Sue is a true champion of environmental sustainability and a trustee of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. She is soon to join our University’s Sustainability Steering Group, and has already uncovered what she believes is distinctive about Sheffield.

You join us from the University of York where you were Director of the Environmental Sustainability Institute and Research Champion for Environmental Sustainability and Resilience. How will this focus on sustainability influence your work here at Sheffield?
Sustainability is central to what a university does and here at Sheffield we are committed to making both ourselves and wider society more sustainable. The student body is increasingly interested in the climate emergency, so I think it’s important to embed sustainability issues in teaching and in our curriculum. We also want to harness all our research expertise to develop new ideas around delivering greater sustainability – whether that’s more ways of producing food that have less environmental impact or innovative ways to reduce emissions from transport or energy use in our buildings.

There are some pretty tricky targets to meet in terms of the net zero agenda. That’s going to need a real research endeavour. And of course, if you’re going to take a lead in that kind of research and apply it to solving global environmental issues, then it doesn’t look too good if you don’t apply it closer to home and make sure that the institution is working towards improved environmental sustainability here on campus.

You are a trustee of Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and a board member of Natural England. Can you tell us about this?
SH: The Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew is a really amazing place. People think of it as just a pretty garden in West London, but it does far, far more than that. It carries out some really exciting research on the conservation of plant biodiversity, identifying new plant species and finding new ways of using wild plants as crops or sources of medicines. So it’s a fantastic place and it’s a huge privilege to be helping to guide these activities.

Natural England is the government’s statutory body for looking after the natural environment within England, responsible for conserving landscapes and protecting biodiversity. Nature recovery is really what the organisation is about. But more than that, we are increasingly trying to demonstrate the benefits of nature for society and for health and wellbeing. The other big focus is developing ways to manage our landscapes, particularly post-Brexit when the farmer support mechanisms will change dramatically. We’re thinking about what we want farmers to deliver from our landscapes and how we can help them to do it. How can we make our farming more sustainable and less environmentally damaging but still provide a livelihood for rural communities? It’s a big challenge!

What are your personal research interests?
SH: I’m most interested in trying to make our crops more resilient to environmental stresses. I’ve done a lot of work on protecting crops against insect pests, but also some research on improving their tolerance to drought and salt stress. I’ve just been awarded a grant to work on agrivoltaics, a technology that combines growing crops with solar panels, effectively harvesting the sun twice.

The project is focussed in rural East Africa where using solar panels is the only way we can bring power and electricity to farming communities. But we want to make sure that they can still grow enough food, so the panels will be raised up and the crops will be grown underneath. The panels protect the crops from drought and heat stress and help the soil retain moisture, which increases the farmer’s yield and allows them to grow a greater variety of crops which they can sell for higher prices. You can also collect rainwater from the panels and use it to water the plants underneath. So this approach is a real triple win for farmer livelihoods, providing better food security, access to electricity and improved irrigation.

Why do you do what you do, what motivates you?
SH: I suppose, like everyone really, I want to make a difference. I want to make things better for people and for the environment. And in my own field, in environmental sustainability, there are huge global challenges. And if there’s something that I can do to try and address those, then I get really excited about that, whether it’s through work I do myself or whether it’s through supporting other people within Sheffield to do exciting and interesting research. I want this institution to be fantastically successful in research and will do what I can to help everybody working in research here to be the best they can be.

How would you describe your new role here at Sheffield to a friend?
SH: My role here is to oversee the University’s research activity. So I support people at the University of Sheffield to carry out exciting and excellent research, produce interesting outputs, and deliver solutions to global challenges. So basically my job is to drive research excellence and impact in every way possible, whether that’s through the exciting new flagship institutes, though supporting early career researchers and postgraduate students, or through ensuring that we have the mechanisms and facilities in place for academics to attract the research funding that they need. I want to make sure that we have the mechanisms and facilities in place for colleagues to do their best research.

What are your ambitions for research at Sheffield?
: I think the most important thing is that Sheffield is recognised as a world-leading research institution, and that the research it does is excellent and has real impact, that it changes lives for the better and delivers solutions to the key challenges that we have. That it’s somewhere where really excellent researchers want to come and work and a place where they can have ambitious ideas. That we train up young researchers to be the very best they can be. More pragmatically, that we’re a top ranked institution in the league tables!

I’d also like Sheffield to be known for its interdisciplinary research. I think the flagship institutes are a really exciting initiative and I want to make sure they will help people gain value from interacting with colleagues outside of their discipline.

What do you think is distinctive about Sheffield?
: With the experience of just a couple of weeks, I’ve been struck by the tremendous amount of enthusiasm, the candour, and that it seems like a very happy place. I like that people feel able to say what they think, feel part of the institution and are able to contribute. We’re all part of the same team.

What’s surprised you most about this university?
SH: The size of the institution has taken me aback a bit! It’s hard to get to grips with because it’s so much bigger than the universities I’ve worked in before. So there’s a lot more going on – the whole scale of the ambition here is very exciting. The loyalty to the institution is impressive too. A lot of people have been here a long time and really enjoy working here. It’s a great atmosphere and I’m really pleased and proud to be part of it!