Mangrove forest
Mangroves from the Caribbean. Papyrus plants from Egypt. Frégate Island beetles from the Seychelles. Richard Preziosi’s corner of the University campus is unlike pretty much any other. In appearance, it feels more like a greenhouse or a laboratory than an academic office. However, its contents – housed in everything from glass tanks to aquaria and other vessels – tell the story of a rich and varied academic career.
“Everything that is in here serves a purpose,” Richard says. “They are a reminder of projects I have worked – or am working – on. But it is also about getting students and other visitors to think about the plants and their uses, or some of the insects that we share our planet with. What better way to do that than by letting them see physical examples of what you want to talk to them about.”
Science has been an ever-present throughout Richard's life. His father was an electrical engineer for NASA, moving to the United States in 1960 and later working on the Apollo space programme. From early childhood, Richard was hearing first-hand stories of humans going outside of Earth’s boundaries and the technological solutions that were making that feasible. He was four when Neil Armstrong first stepped onto the surface of the Moon. Tales of science and discovery were an intrinsic part of everyday life.
For Richard though, his passion was always biology. His mother, he says, would testify that he wanted to be a biologist from around the age of five. His primary childhood investigations focused on insects in the family back garden. Not any of the standard squishing or slicing, mind you, but pondering over the different characteristics of the species he could find and why some ants were bigger than others. That curiosity into differences in development is something that continues to this day.
Richard went to university in Canada, where he majored in biology but at the same time pursued studies in computer science and chemistry. The former satisfied his passion for technology, the latter his quest for logic that wasn’t always there in biology. From there, while volunteering in research labs, he was encouraged to pursue a Masters programme studying population genetics within pond skaters, a topic he wrote about extensively in the following years.
That then led to a PhD and a postdoctoral position studying how natural selection works to maintain differences between male and female body size, before academic positions in the United States, Manchester and ultimately Plymouth.
Professor Richard Preziosi with a parrot
Throughout his career, a key element of Richard’s work has been to focus on things he finds enjoyable and exciting (even if others may not instantly find them appealing). By his own admission, that is reflected in his primary research areas – ecological diversity and statistical genetics – which he acknowledges are not topics many people have might actively desire to engage with.
However, he adds: 
“When you go into a shop, there are fruits and vegetables that come from a very small number of taxonomic groups, sometimes many from a single species. But our choice of whether we pick up a cabbage or a cauliflower, a Brussel sprout or kohlrabi is down to our preference for one particular genetic variation of the same species. That is ecological diversity in action.”
Beyond the headline topics, Richard has always been fascinated by the relationship between different species and how genetic changes can impact those interactions across multiple species. As he explains it, you have different bacteria within soil in which you are growing different genotypes of barley. You then have different genotypes of aphids feeding on it, and are seeing different genotypes of wasp attacking them. It results in a huge number of potential genetic combinations and changes in fitness for each of the species involved.
Studying those types of interactions has resulted in him studying small bacteria, whale sharks and everything in between. The list of his 140+ research publications is testament to the breadth of his research interests. And he admits it is something he wouldn’t ever want to change, as he feels it gives him a very broad overview right across the biological world. It has also provided him with the opportunity to work with a huge diversity of communities and, he believes, to make a real and positive contribution to people’s lives and livelihoods.
AI to help detect changes within populations Getty
However, while biology has over the years become his primary focus, he hasn’t completely set aside his other initial academic interests. In fact, quite the contrary, with him having combined biology and technology in a number of projects. That has included using algorithms to detect illness within zoo animals, and printing graphene biosensors to detect diseases effecting frog biodiversity.
“I love technology and would always consider myself an early-adopter,” Richard says. “I try and combine technology with biology wherever I can, to study things like animal behaviour or whether AI can help us detect changes within individuals and populations.”
That range of projects and interests has resulted in research across North and South America, Africa, Europe, the Indian Ocean and many other parts of the world. And wherever he goes, Richard’s focus is always on both the science and the potential beneficiaries of it. Whether in the course of research projects or his teaching, he fundamentally sees science as a two-way dialogue where he understands what people want to gain from the work and then applies his expertise in whatever way he can.
Richard says that similar principles applied when he was considering a possible move to become Head of the School of Biological and Marine Sciences in Plymouth. He was attracted by the opportunity to build on the School’s existing areas of expertise and help it expand into new ones, at the same time connecting people with complementary interests who weren’t already working together.
As of January 2024, that vision has yielded spectacular results. Richard has become Director of the University’s new Centre of Research excellence in Intelligent and Sustainable Productive Systems (CRISPS). Funded by the single largest research grant ever awarded to the University – £5.7 million over five years from Research England – it will apply a systems level approach to addressing some of the key challenges of feeding a future global population in excess of 9 billion people.
CRISPS focuses around three complementary and mutually reinforcing themes – production health and welfare, agricultural technology and controlled environments, and soil health – the initiative will result in an increase in the number of researchers working in these fields, a significant investment in new facilities, the creation of new PhD studentships and new undergraduate and postgraduate programmes in an area of existing strength.
In Richard’s mind, the University is the perfect home for this project. Having scored highly for the theme in the 2021 Research Excellence Framework, the only aspect likely to hinder its future excellence was the number of people working in the field. The new funding provides an opportunity to change that for the better. Further than that, it will create a climate through which to drive innovation and collaboration in an area of critical importance to the South West region, and nurture the future generations of talent it also needs.

We are perfectly placed to drive this kind of innovation forward,” Richard says. “At a time when the demand for sustainable and healthy food has never been higher, the University has the tools to support those working across a number of important industries. We are also looking at ways to foster the next generation of skilled professionals. As opportunities go, this is one we are delighted to be leading.

Centre of Research excellence in Intelligent and Sustainable Productive Systems

Centre of Research excellence in Intelligent and Sustainable Productive Systems (CRISPS)

CRISPS brings together a vibrant community of transdisciplinary researchers, working towards addressing the challenge of sustainably feeding a global population of 9 billion. Founded upon research excellence in aquaculture, agricultural technology and soil health, and underpinned by investment in cutting-edge facilities, the Centre will create the critical mass required to ensure impactful research and real-world deployment in the UK and beyond.