It Comes Through the Air

Heidi Williamson’s poem ‘It comes through the air – a contrapuntal’ is a reflection on work by Vincent Were at The Sainsbury Laboratory, which explores the population biology of rice blast in Sub-Saharan Africa. The pandemic pathogenic plant fungus Magnaporthe oryzae (rice blast fungus, rice rotten neck) destroys crops that would otherwise feed 60 million people each year. It devastates smallholders, farmers and families worldwide, especially in food-deprived countries. Its spread is escalating across continents, and a related disease is a major threat to wheat. Scientific consortiums are urgently trying to curtail it. Heidi said:

‘A contrapuntal poem comprises elements that are distinct, but in conversation. The intention is to create a reading of dis-ease. The left column creatively tracks blast growth in a rice plant. The right contains words concerned with sickness prevention, occurrence and treatment.’

Heidi visited Vincent in the lab, and Vince’s research on developing rice lines with durable resistance to rice blast disease runs closely throughout the final piece.


(Click image to download PDF version of the poem)



Heidi WilliamsonHeidi Williamson is an Advisory Fellow for the Royal Literary Fund. She was Royal Literary Fund Fellow at the University of East Anglia in 2018-2020 and 2021. She teaches for the Poetry School, Poetry Society, National Centre for Writing and The Writing Coach. Her first collection, Electric Shadow, was a Poetry Book Society Recommendation and shortlisted for the Seamus Heaney Centre Prize. The Print Museum won the East Anglian Book Award for Poetry. Return by Minor Road (Bloodaxe, April 2020) revisits her time living in Dunblane at the time of the Primary School shooting. @heidiwilliamson

Vincent Were completed his PhD studies in Biological sciences at the University of Exeter and currently works as a post-doctoral researcher at the Sainsbury Laboratory. His research project is geared towards understanding the population biology of rice blast in Sub-Saharan Africa with an ultimate goal of developing rice lines with durable resistance to rice blast disease. He is also using molecular and live cell imaging as tools to analyse effector-host cell interactions during infection and to observe cytological changes. The aim is to determine sets of genes involved in disease process during plant-pathogen interaction, and to gain insight into the function of uncharacterised secreted proteins in Magnaporthe oryzae and on their putative effector host targets in rice.

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