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.
Hear from two of our pioneering academics who have been working on the Desert Garden project over the last two years.
Dr Moaed Al Meselmani, Desert Garden Project lead
Meet the project lead, Dr Moaed Al Meselmani, a visiting researcher in Molecular Biology and Biotechnology, from Daara city in Syria. The Desert Garden project has the potential to help thousands of Syrian people now living in the desert in Jordan.
What led you to pursue a career in science and research?
Moaed: "I am a plant scientist with particular interest in understanding the influence of environmental fluctuations on crop species.
"In this very complicated world of global food shortage, poor access to food and the absence of food security - in many parts of the world - all these growing challenges require answers. This motivated me to think about what can be done to help the people who do not have enough to eat. Studying science has helped equip me with the tools I need to become a problem solver and tells me a lot about how things work. I thought by studying science I can contribute to answering some of the critical problems we face."
How would somebody close to you describe you in a sentence?
Moaed: "I am passionate about work, highly organised and a people person. I like making people feel comfortable in my presence and am an excellent communicator.
"I’m really passionate about the time I spend with my family, playing with my daughters, and I enjoy listening to them tell me about how they spent their day and what they did in school. Also, I spend time volunteering to help and support Syrian students and scientists to find opportunities to continue their study or pursue their career."
What brought you to Sheffield and what attracted you to the City?
Moaed: "I have lived in Sheffield for more than four years, having joined the University in November 2015 as a visiting researcher in the Department of Molecular Biology and Biotechnology. My initial project focus was evaluating the effects of reducing stomatal density on the physiology and biochemistry of wheat under drought conditions.
"Sheffield is not only a very beautiful green and safe city, it means a lot to me and to my family. We built our future dreams and hopes in this city. Sheffield now is our home. What I like about Sheffield is that it is a multinational and multicultural city and the people here are very friendly - every day you meet a lot of people of different nationalities, but they all share the love of this city, the harmony and the friendly environment.
"In January 2018, I Joined Dr Tony Ryan’s team in Zaatari, trying to establish and design different hydroponic systems that would fit the Zaatari refugee camp conditions, as well as, training the refugees in hydroponic techniques, so that they can grow fresh produce in the desert."
What are the benefits to the Syrian people who live in the Zaatari refugee camp?
Moaed: "The work we have been carrying out in Zaatari has provided the people in the camp with fresh herbs and vegetables, training opportunities and the greenery they have longed-for in a harsh desert landscape.
"The Desert Garden project gives people the tools and skills they need to grow their own fresh produce and gain future employment, as well as boosting their mental health - it connects people with home and gives them hope for the future."
Professor Duncan Cameron, Director of The Sheffield Institute for Sustainable Food
Meet one of the project founders, Professor Duncan Cameron, Director of The Sheffield Institute for Sustainable Food, and Soil Microbiologist. He explains how he became involved in the project.
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! Dr 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."
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!"