Tuesday, June 11, 2019

John Sheehy, former IRRI senior scientist, passes away in UK

John E. Sheehy, 76, a crop ecologist and crop modeler at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) for 14 years (1995-2009), passed away last Friday (7 June 2019) after battling Parkinson’s disease and multiple system atrophy (MSA) for several years in Marlow, Buckinghamshire, UK.

For his entire time at IRRI, he headed the Applied Photosynthesis and Systems Modeling Laboratory. He was also head of IRRI’s Climate Unit and Systems Modeling Group and was adjunct professor in the Agronomy Department of the University of the Philippines Los Bańos.

At the turn of the century, he kick-started a project designed to make rice utilize photosynthesis more efficiently. It all started with a think tank that he organized, which was attended by a small group of elite modelers, systems analyzers, ecologists, and environmental and crop physiologists who were on a quest to reduce hunger by redesigning rice photosynthesis. The gathering was at IRRI in the Philippines, 30 November–3 December 1999. The result was a proceedings that became the “Bible” for a while as research got underway. It was superseded by Charting new pathways to C4 rice, published by IRRI and World Scientific, emanating from a 2006 follow-up workshop to catch up with the rapidly growing literature. 

In an interview (15:11) given at IRRI on 26 March 2013, Dr. Sheehy talked about the project’s concept. “C4 rice is the ultimate goal of rice scientists' attempt to supercharge photosynthesis, the process by which a plant uses sunlight, carbon dioxide, and water to produce carbohydrates—in rice so that it yields more grain. Rice, a C3 plant, uses these resources far less efficiently than C4 plants (e.g., maize) do. A C4 rice plant would use less water and fertilizer and produce at least 50% more grain.”

Dr. Sheehy appreciated that IRRI could not realize the dream of developing C4 rice alone. So, after the 1999 think tank, he set about persuading, and bringing together, a group of many of the best scientists worldwide to join in the C4 Rice Project. In 2008, he helped secure partial funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which continues support to this day. At the time of his death, and after 20 years of research, C4 rice is not yet a reality, but significant progress has been made. The ongoing Project is indeed an important part of Dr. Sheehy’s scientific legacy.

Before his time at IRRI, Dr. Sheehy had an impressive track record including being a Nuffield research fellow in developmental genetics, UCW, (1967–70); visiting scientist, Department of Physics and Physiology, University of Nottingham (1971); visiting scientist, CABO, Wageningen (1972); visiting scientist/lecturer, University of California, Davis (1978–79); Nuffield/Royal Society visiting fellow, CSIRO (1986); head, microclimatology, Grassland Research Institute (1972–85); biomathematician, Institute for Grassland and Environmental Research (1985–89); managing director, Creative Scientific Solutions (1989–95); part-time lecturer, systems analysis and information analysis, Business School, Bucks College, Brunel University (1989–95).

His interests in weather-crop interactions and instrumentation led him to co-author with Prof. Ian Woodward the textbook, Principles and 
Measurements in Environmental Biology. In the UK, the pioneering research of Dr. Sheehy’s research group uncovered a major error in the technique widely used for measuring nitrogen fixation. This was followed by the discovery of a mechanism controlling diffusion in legume root nodules. He built a theoretical model of a nodule with Dr. Fraser Bergersen in the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) while on the Nuffield-Royal Society Traveling Fellowship in Australia.

The opportunity to solve important problems relevant to the poor eventually brought him to IRRI in 1995. His somewhat unorthodox views concerning research, scientists, and organizations can be found in his paper, The Universe, the Evolution of the Perverse and a Rice Problem. For example, in the paper, he observed that “it is curious to reflect on the fact that much of our science is based on trying to explain in a rational way what we see or sense around us, yet our evolution seems to be rooted firmly in chance.”  He published about 100 papers in various journals and was a keynote speaker at many symposia on limits to yield, crop photosynthesis, and the effects of climate change on rice.

In a 2009 IRRI Pioneer Interview excerpt (5:57), as he approached retirement on the cusp of IRRI’s imminent 50th anniversary in 2010, he talked about the challenges for such a research institute. “When you've been at IRRI as long as I have, you take the institute to heart. The organization itself is wonderful. It provides scientists with a fantastic platform that, without it, none of us could achieve the things that we do. In the future, IRRI has to be able to focus the energy and intellects of people in advanced institutions around the world on real world problems. It has to give people the opportunity to use their science in a coupled manner to crack problems of great significance, whatever those problems are.”

On 14 February 2012, Dr. Sheehy was included in the 2012 New Year Honours by HM Queen Elizabeth II. In a formal investiture held at Buckingham Palace, Prince Charles made him an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) for services to agricultural research and development.

On 17 July 2014, Dr. Sheehy was honored as a Fellow of Aberystwyth University in Wales as an alumnus of the university who had been a scientist leading multidisciplinary teams in the public sector in the physiology of crops, their yield, and the environment. Dr. Sheehy earned all of his degrees at Aberystwyth—BS 1965 (physics), MS 1967 (electronics/telemetry of electrocardiograms), and PhD 1971 (agricultural botany/physics).

While at IRRI, Dr. Sheehy had taken enthusiastically to golf and could be seen almost every weekend out on the golf course south of Los Baños where he had become a member. He also had a great sense of humor. In the “about the author section” of his Perverse Universe paper, it states that: “John’s family has had a long connection with agriculture. His Cro-Magnon ancestors ran a small cave-painting business specializing in charcoal outlines of primitive cows. When the discovery of wooden hut construction destroyed the business, the family emigrated to the west of Ireland, where they concentrated on improving their DNA combinations. The result, after 20,000 years of tingling gene mingling, is the author of this publication.”

Dr. Sheehy is survived by his wife Gaynor and two daughters, Rhiannon and Isabel, and six grandchildren. Messages of condolence can be sent to the family at gsheehy@fastmail.fm

The funeral will take place on Friday, 21 June 2019, 12:30 PM at All Saints Church in Marlow. In lieu of flowers, the family requests that donations be made to Multiple System Atrophy Trust at https://www.msatrust.org.uk/.

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