Meet the Sheffield Scientists behind the Desert Garden appeal

The Desert Garden project is a unique project born out of innovative science and is giving families displaced by war the opportunity to grow fresh food in the desert using discarded mattresses.

In 2018, Sheffield scientists travelled more than 3,000 miles – to the world’s largest Syrian refugee camp – to put their pioneering research into solving the issue of food shortages for thousands of people, living in the desert in Jordan.

The technique used to grow food in the desert has been developed in their Sheffield labs for many years. As world-leading experts in hydroponics systems, the team has been using foam from discarded mattresses found in the refugee camp, as a growing medium for the crops in a hydroponic system. In normal agricultural processes, soil supports a plant's roots, but in a hydroponics system plants are supported artificially and suspended away from the ground.

Here, Professor Duncan Cameron, a soil microbiologist in the Department of Animal and Plant Sciences, explains how he became involved in the project.


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How did you get involved in science and the Desert Garden project at the University?

Duncan: "I’m a soil Microbiology Professor and Sheffield graduate originally from north Nottinghamshire via Scotland.

"I’ve always loved science, a passion really encouraged by medic mum and engineer dad. We were always doing science experiments and going for walks in the peak district and looking at natural history with mum and dad as kids (I have four younger brothers) and I think my first science inspiration would be my parents so it was no great shock to anyone that I became a scientist.

"It wasn’t until my PhD that I knew I wanted to do research, I was fortunate to be supervised by another science inspiration, Dr Wendy Seel, subsequently a life long friend who made me believe in myself properly for the first time and helped me to not listen to my well developed imposter syndrome.

"Since then, I’ve had some amazing mentors, too many to name, but one of the most impactful in my life to date has been Dr Tony Ryan. We met when I was an undergraduate and throughout my career, he had been a constant source of support, Friendship and inspiration. His enthusiasm is infectious and that’s how he got us all together to create a desert garden."

How did you come up with the idea of using disused foam mattresses in the desert refugee camp in Jordan?

Duncan: "It was Tony’s idea from the outset! Professor Tony Ryan, Professor of Physical Chemistry at the University and Project Founder, visited the refugee camp first with his friend, the designer Helen Storey and set up an engineering hack to help build things the communities needed.

"Whilst in Zaatari Jordan, Tony was was taken on a tour and was shown a warehouse full of old mattresses that were a waste problem. That generated the most excited text message he has ever sent me, a hurried diagram of hydroponics using the mattresses as we had a joint project for over 10 years creating artificial soil from similar polyurethane foams that the mattresses were made from. He said “Will this work?”, and I said get a sample and we’ll make it work!

"The idea was born and so Tony’s team and my team worked together for several months to develop the methods that we eventually taught to the refugee communities that made the hydroponics possible and to make sure it was safe."

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How does it make you feel, to be able to carry out research and achieve results that has the ability to make a profound difference and impact on people’s lives more than 3,000 miles away from Sheffield?

Duncan: "I feel really humbled by the experience and I’m proud of what we’ve achieved. I feel really emotional when I think about it. I cried most of my way through my first watching of Victoria’s film and seeing Tony’s emotions at the end of the video resonated so strongly with me.

"I’m also excited, excited about where this will go from now and by the people I’ve met along the way. Getting to know Moaed has been really special and building a friendship and working with him to help his community has been an honour."

What is the next project you will be focusing on - will it be another joint venture?

Duncan: "The thing I love about being a scientist is working with a diversity of people, especially when those collaborators become your friends like Tony and Moaed.

"Tony and I are natural collaborators and we are always coming up with ideas. We do lots of research independently but increasingly are joining forces around issues of global sustainability - I think our next project together will be in that area, how we can reduce waste and help the food production system achieve net zero in terms of carbon emissions."

Did you have high expectations for the Desert Garden? Did you think it would achieve the media coverage it has received? 

Duncan: "To be honest, we just went into this seeing an opportunity for the things we knew and researched to do something practical to help people in need. The whole thing snowballed really."

When you are not at work, and thinking about changing the lives of people living the desert in Jordan, what are your interests?

Duncan: "Science is a vocation so you never really switch off, you think about science most of the time. Out of work I enjoy exploring science and natural history through art including as a performance artist myself. My other passions are for rugby, opera and real ale... a love that I’ve recently brought into my research working with archaeologists to study medieval brewing using chemistry - I really never switch off!"

Learn more about the science behind the Desert Garden project