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Department of Plant Sciences

 

Studying Plant Sciences at Cambridge can open up a wealth of career opportunities. In this series, we hear from Plant Sciences alumni about their experiences of studying here, how it shaped their careers and what they are doing now. 

If you would like your alumni story featured, please email us at alumni@plantsci.cam.ac.uk.

About Jen

Dr Jen Bromley completed her PhD in Plant Sciences in 2009 studying at St Catharine’s College. After her PhD she worked as a post-doctoral researcher at the Universities of Cambridge and Copenhagen, and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California before moving to industrial research. Jen now is Chief Scientific Officer at Vertical Future, a Controlled-Environment-Agriculture (CEA) technology and data company that designs, manufactures, and builds autonomous vertical farms.

What is your favourite memory from your time in the Department of Plant Sciences?

There are so many that it’s really difficult to pick one in particular. 

Academically it was such a stimulating place to work with everyone so open and willing to share ideas, techniques, and also the contents of their stock cupboards to enable me to try something new. Huge thanks to those in the Plant Metabolism group lab (M1 at the time) who helped me out with constructs and protein purification techniques that enabled me to prove the function of my protein of interest. 

Socially, there are a lot of great memories too – from conferences in ski resorts and attending plenary sessions ready to hit the slopes in the extended breaks; to regular beer hours and the Department descending on the beer festival; to getting to eat my lunch with some of the best minds in plant biology. I should also mention that I met my husband while we were both students in the Department. Maybe that should have been the first thing I said?

How did your time in the Department influence your career journey?

I started my PhD thinking that I would use it as a kick starter to move into patent law. I had explored this fairly seriously in my final year of undergraduate and had decided that a PhD would bolster my credentials. During my second year, I carried out an internship at a local patent firm and quickly realised that doing the research was the part of science that was most interesting and what I wanted to do. So, I flipped my planning and started to look for what I could do next. 

The contacts that I had built within both my peer group and the group leaders in the Department were what helped me find my first post doc position. Speaking with them I realised how transferable my skills were. I realised that I wasn’t destined to a life studying just potatoes, and that the sugar conjugates on plant growth regulators (PGRs) were my ticket into three post docs in glycobiology. The first just across the Downing site in the Biochemistry department and the latter two a little further away in Copenhagen and then in Berkeley.

What have you gone on to do since leaving the Department?

I’m happy to say I’m still working in plant science and still working with many of the people I met whilst in the Department. Having spent a number of years as a post doc I moved into industry. I have spent the last 11 years working for two companies, both of whom have had a heavy focus on plants for their business models. 

I’m now the Chief Scientific Officer for Vertical Future, a Controlled-Environment-Agriculture (CEA) technology and data company based between London and Bishops Stortford. We manufacture CEA systems, primarily vertical farms, and I have been heavily involved in both the design and specification of the systems and the collection of data to demonstrate their value in various sectors. This includes tree sapling production, CEA systems as bolt-ons to traditional glass house production of protected crops, and in the production of nutritionally differentiated ingredients such as high protein leaf tissue for the wider food sector. We’re even working on a project for the space sector.

What do you enjoy most about what you are doing now?

I love working with my team who are all so knowledgeable and share a love of plant science. I also enjoy collaborating with lots of others from industry and academia across various projects, including one where we are adapting our systems to be used on the first commercial space station! 

This project has also allowed me to collaborate with lots of other faces from the Department including Alex Webb, and fellow Plant Sciences alumni Matt Gilliham, Jenny Mortimer and Mat Lewsey. Our project meetings are so productive as there has been no ‘getting to know you’ phase. This was all done 15+ years ago! 


Photo: Jen Bromley at a recent trip to Axiom Space in Houston where the Vertical Future team worked with the Axiom team to specify design parameters for a CEA system in Hab Three – part of Axiom Station, the world’s first commercial space station due to launch in 2026.