The week of 28 July to 3 August, saw several FABI postgraduate students, including PhD candidate Darryl Herron, descended on Boston, Massachusetts to attend the International Congress of Plant Pathology (ICPP). The congress brought together more than 2400 people - from almost every corner of the globe - to share in over 400 talks and 1,200 posters focused on the importance of plant health in a global economy.

The choice of location for this particular conference couldn’t have been more perfect. Boston and its neighbouring suburbs are filled with historical, cultural and intellectual sites. Across the Charles River lies Cambridge; home to both Harvard and MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) - two of the best institutions of higher learning in the world. We were fortunate enough to get to see some of Boston and these two amazing schools.

While touring Harvard and MIT, we were told about a souvenir shop that sold a variety of gifts and apparel with Boston, Harvard and MIT branding. This shop was tiny and packed wall to wall with everything from Harvard mugs to MIT-branded golf balls. In the corner of the shop, hidden beneath the Harvard branded T-shirts, I found a pile of bright green shirts with the words “Wicked Smaht” printed across the chest. Many may be familiar with the phrase, said in a Boston accent, from the movie “Good Will Hunting.” It is a common phrase used in New England and Boston that means “very smart”; quite appropriate, I think, for where we were and for the meeting. I bought one.

This simple novelty T-shirt put into perspective what it is that we need to solve some of the difficult challenges brought on by the global economy: smart people. This meeting brought together some of the best researchers on the planet to participate in workshops, strategy meetings, idea cafes and to present at more than 70 concurrent sessions covering diagnostics and extension, taxonomy, management strategies, policy making, plant protection, resistance, climate change, and pathogen-plant interactions, to name a few. 

I used this opportunity to attend a variety of sessions so that I could expose myself to policy making, new technologies, research, etc. While I was familiarising myself with some of the global plant protection organisations, getting more policy savvy, and learning about the microbiomes of onion soils, one important message kept coming up: the problems facing every stakeholder concerned with plant health - the people who grow, manage and use plants and their products - will intensify in the face of climate change, rising human populations and globalisation. Tackling global challenges will require the global community to work very differently than it has in the past. It will require a collective effort from not only scientists but governments, policy makers, businesses, growers and consumers too.

Science is often thought of as the solution to the problems facing humanity but, really, it is just a part. Science provides understanding and technology but it is ultimately the people (the collective) who ensure that the science is thought of, funded, done, published and translated into technology to help solve the problem it was intended for. We need to think of ourselves as part of a computer; in order for the CPU, RAM, motherboard and hard drives to work efficiently and effectively, they need to use the same language. Without language (code), the computer is useless!

There are many smart people out there, in various sectors, working on solutions but all the conversations we have at ICPP, in our labs, Government boardrooms, offices, in shops, in field or in the car coming home from your child’s soccer game mean nothing if we aren’t talking to each other. If we aren’t talking to each other, it is pointless to think that we will make any progress in addressing global issues. So, the language we need to develop should be one that everyone can speak; easy to understand; built on trust and inclusivity; and inspire unity to deliver meaningful solutions that provide a healthy world for all, now and in future. We need to change our lingo; we all need to be “wicked smaht.”