Sir William and land-centred research and teaching at Bangor University

This collaborative initiative is funded by a generous gift from Sir William Roberts.

Sir William (1884-1971) was born into a farming family on Ynys Môn (Isle of Anglesey) and attended University College North Wales (now Bangor University) between 1902 and 1906, graduating with first class honours in chemistry. Joining the Indian Agricultural Service, he went on to have an enormously successful career first in academia, and then commerce. He was appointed the first professor of agriculture at what was then the Punjab College of Agriculture at Lyallpur (now the University of Agriculture Faisalabad), where he co-authored A Text Book of Punjab Agriculture and developed a long-lasting interest in cotton. For well over 30 years he then followed his commercial instincts playing a key role in the huge growth of the cotton industry in the region.

Initially, Sir William’s focus was on the importation and testing of new varieties of cotton in the Punjab’s increasingly well irrigated landscape. Subsequently, through various lease arrangements he was able to up-scale cotton growth across the region using high yielding crops over large areas. Following the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947, the area under Sir William’s tenure decreased and he eventually concentrated on seed production and distribution – establishing what is today RCA Seed.

Throughout his life Sir William remained engaged with his university. In 1957 he established an agricultural research trust that funded postgraduate studies and exchange between Pakistan and Bangor. Over 40 years, this fund provided training for a number of agricultural scientists who went on to hold senior positions in Pakistan. After returning to North Wales he served as Vice President of the College (1961–1966) and on the School of Agriculture Committee until his death in 1971.
Sir William’s legacy encapsulates the breadth and depth of land-centred scholarship at Bangor University that not only includes agriculture but also ecology, history, chemistry, conservation, geography, and more than a century of forestry. Along with providing a foundation for the for the Centre’s current work, the substantial endowment left by Sir William Roberts has supported a number of land-centred doctoral scholarships at Bangor University over the years.

Scholars supported by Sir William Roberts’ endowment

Prof. Dr Roland Bol was funded through his Doctoral studies at Bangor University between 1989 and 1992 and studied the effects of liming on phenolic compounds in the soil. His project investigated whether or not a pH increase in the soil due to liming would result in the release of phenolic acids in drainage water. This work found the enhanced microbial activity due to increased soil pH from liming was sufficient to negate the release of phenolic acids. Sir William’s endowment was the only source of funding for overseas students at the time and therefore enabled Roland to undertake his research in Wales. Since completion of his Doctoral studies he has continued to carry out research in soil science and related fields with great enjoyment in his position as the research leader in soil organic matter and elemental cycles at Forchungszentum Juelich (Germany) and part time Professorship in Biogeochemistry at Bangor University.

Dr Nathalie Fenner received a scholarship to complete her Doctoral studies at Bangor University between 1998 and 2001 and researched the effect of climate change on peatland carbon cycling. Her project investigated the changes in carbon storage, in particular greenhouse gas release, from peatlands under increased drought, increased temperature and elevated CO2 levels and attempted to explain long-term rising trends in dissolved organic carbon in water. This work suggested that all three climate change impacts (drought, temperature and CO2 levels) could increase carbon exports from peatlands, with implications for global warming and deteriorating water quality. The results of this work were published in high impact academic journals including NatureNature Geoscience and Environmental Science and Technology. Since completing her Doctoral Studies, Nathalie has worked on a number of Postdoctoral research projects and carries out teaching and research around aquatic ecosystems (including freshwaters, reservoirs and mangrove ecosystems) in her position as Senior Lecturer at Bangor. In her role as the Director of Graduate Studies for the School of Natural Sciences at Bangor, Nathalie continues to engage with and oversee a wide range of Doctoral research at the University.

Dr Andy Smith was funded by the Sir William Roberts’ endowment (alongside the Drapers’ company) through his Doctoral studies at Bangor University between 2006 and 2009 and examined the effects of atmospheric CO2 on biogeochemical cycling of temperate forest ecosystems. His project focussed on understanding how broadleaf tree species diversity and elevated atmospheric CO2 (at atmospheric concentrations predicted for the year 2050) affect forest ecosystem development and biogeochemical cycling. This work found that enriched CO2 levels reduced the overyielding of aboveground biomass (i.e., the amount of biomass yielded by trees in polyculture compared to the yield in monoculture) compared to ambient levels. This work also found that enriched CO2 levels led to greater overyielding of belowground biomass, suggesting that carbon allocation belowground and carbon sequestration is greater in diversity tree species communities. Since completion of his Doctoral studies, Andy has held research and Lecturing roles at Bangor University and the NERC Centre for Ecology and Hydrology and in his position as Reader in Forestry at Bangor University he continues to undertake teaching and research relating to forest ecology, biogeochemistry and plant-soil interactions.

If you were the recipient of support from Sir William’s endowment, please get in touch with us and tell us about it.