International Day of Women in Science: Suzanne Litthauer

11 Feb 2020
Dr Suzanne Litthauer

For International Day of Women and Girls in Science we’re introducing you to several female scientists from across the NIAB group. Read their blog posts or watch their videos. In this post, we hear from Dr Suzanne Litthauer from the Genetics, Genomics and breeding team at NIAB EMR, based at East Malling in Kent:

What does your job involve?

I’m an Assistant Molecular Breeder, having started at NIAB EMR in early January 2018.

My work forms part of the East Malling Rootstock Club (EMRC), and the East Malling Rubus Breeding Consortium (EMRBC). I also manage the DNA Fingerprinting service at NIAB EMR.

What are you currently researching and why?

The overarching aim of our breeding programmes is to develop and release new varieties.

The work I do with the EMRBC Rubus breeding programme involves largely classical breeding techniques for variety development, and I’m involved with controlled crossing, general husbandry, fruit quality evaluation, and a bit of pathogen screening.

As part of the EMRC rootstock breeding programme, my work mainly involves marker assisted breeding techniques, as well as pest and disease screening.

The DNA Fingerprinting service can be used for a variety of different fruits.   We currently offer trueness-to-type testing and  variety identification. For example, if you have a tree in your orchard or garden, you can send us some leaves, we can extract the DNA, generate a DNA fingerprint, and then match it against a database to identify the variety.

What question are you trying to answer? Any exciting developments coming up?

The EMRBC is currently expanding our work to include more blackberry material in addition to raspberry. There is also increasing focus on disease resistance and DNA marker development, particularly with respect to root rot in Rubus.
The EMRC rootstock breeding program focusses on a number of objectives, including pest and disease resistance and tree vigour. Vigour is an interesting one, you don’t want to grow a massive tree that you can’t pick from or plant enough of in an orchard!

We are in the process of performing marker-assisted selection on a broad range of material from our apple rootstock breeding programme. In 2019 we were able, for the first time, to perform our own fire blight (Erwinia amylovora) inoculation experiments on site, and we’ll be testing more material from our rootstock breeding programme in the coming year – it’s quite exciting.

How did you get involved in science?

It was a bit of a roundabout way, I think! I was fortunate enough to be aware of the world of science from an early age, as my father is a biochemist. I completed my BSc Hons and MSc in biochemistry at the University of the Free State (South Africa). My MSc research offered a fascinating glimpse into the world of life in extreme environments, and I even had the opportunity to sample water and biofilm deep underground in a gold mine. My interest in plant sciences led me to complete my PhD (Biological Sciences) at the University of Essex, researching the role of retrograde signalling in the circadian system of Arabidopsis thaliana. It was during this time I realised that my interest lies more with applied research, and I set my sights on horticulture.

Proudest achievement for NIAB?

This might seem a bit mundane, but I am quite happy that I was able to pick up where my predecessor left off without any major disruptions, particularly as I had no previous experience in horticulture or DNA marker techniques. Taking over the DNA Fingerprinting service was daunting at first, but I enjoy providing clients with quality results in a timely manner. I am lucky to have support from excellent team members, and I look forward to seeing what the future holds.
On a personal level, completing my PhD was a huge achievement. I always said I wanted to do a PhD abroad, and I did!

Biggest challenge and how did you overcome it?

See above! Writing up a PhD thesis is almost never easy, but writing in my second language was more challenging than I had expected. I overcame this challenge through a combination of dogged determination, focussed work, and support from my (very patient) supervisor.

Any tips for aspiring scientists?

Don’t think that science isn’t for you. Stay curious about the world around. And always keep proper lab notes!