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The University of Southampton
Biological Sciences

A blossoming career in research

Published: 27 April 2009

In the world of trees, the poplar is the “white mouse” of the tree world.

Mat Tallis grew up with a talent for science and a passion for trees. He is now relishing post-doctoral research at the School of Biological Sciences into how poplar trees respond to increased levels of carbon dioxide, a study that could have important implications for research into climate change. ‘I’ve always been fascinated by trees,’ he said. ‘They are beautiful and there is so much to learn about them.’

He grew up on a farm in the Midlands, taking A Levels in Biology, Chemistry and Geology before heading north to the University of Sheffield to enrol on an undergraduate degree in Biochemistry and Physiology. ‘I was always interested in environmental science and the natural environment, probably dating back to my childhood,’ he explained. A Masters degree in Environmental Science at Aberdeen followed before he moved to Southampton for his PhD.

Although Mat is now committed to a career in research, he combined academic study with hands-on work with trees earlier in his life: ‘After my first degree, I got a job with an arboricultural company for two years, I enjoyed climbing as well, which helped. Then I went on to set up my own company after completing my Masters. That means I have wide experience of trees, both theoretical and practical.'

calibrating the colours seen by aircraft to measure canopy senescence
Calibrating colours

Mat chose to study for his PhD in Southampton because of the reputation of Gail Taylor, Professor of Plant Biology. ‘Her work was inspirational and I knew that Southampton was the right place for me,’ he said. ‘Research is very satisfying, I love the thrill of discovery, finding out something new. Trees are very complex and there is still a lot to learn about them. But the poplar is an ideal species as the entire genome of the tree has been mapped, it’s the “white mouse” of the tree world. Increasing our knowledge is more important than ever as we explore the role of forests in reducing atmospheric CO2 levels and of biofuels in easing energy needs.’

His PhD was an examination of how extra carbon dioxide in the atmosphere affects poplar leaf fall in the autumn. Evidence suggests the growing season is longer if more CO2 is present. It involved work at an Italian plantation near Rome where some of the trees had been deliberately fumigated with carbon dioxide. ‘I’ll admit researching in Italy was pretty special,’ he smiled. ‘I received a grant from the European Union to help with my studies and I worked alongside scientists from several countries in Italy. It was a great experience.’

While writing up his thesis, Mat secured a year-long contract with the School of Geography at the University of Southampton. ‘Dr Jadu Dash and his team were working on satellite development with the European Space Agency, taking images from space of how much chlorophyll there is in forests, especially in the northern hemisphere. This research added an extra perspective to my work ... and increased my fascination with trees,’ he said.

After graduating with his PhD, Mat changed direction and became a secondary school teacher in Winchester. ‘I had always wanted to go into teaching and enjoyed working with the pupils,’ he explained. ‘But research was in my blood and I found myself missing my work at Southampton. I kept in touch with my University colleagues while I was teaching and heard about this post-doctoral opportunity. I jumped at the chance of a two year contract in the same area of research and was lucky enough to get it.’

Mat is now hoping his future may lie in higher education, combining continuing academic research with teaching duties, and enthusing undergraduates about science.

Checking the tree canopy

Professor Gail Taylor's work [with poplar trees] was inspirational I knew Southampton was the right place for me.

Dr Mat Tallis - speaking of his choice of supervisor for PhD research
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