A beaming Minister without Portfolio in the Ministry of Economic Growth and Job Creation Dr Horace Chang (right) greets equally beaming UWI, Mona graduate scholars Dr Sandra McCalla and Dr Dale Rankine. The occasion was The UWI’s Evening of Excellence at the Mona Visitors’ Lodge where McCalla and Rankine received awards for Most Outstanding Thesis.

Grad students recognised for excellence in research

PERSEVERANCE, A STRONG belief in God, and a natural tenacity to the task at hand, made two doctoral students, Dr Dale Rankine and Dr Sandra McCalla, stand out as 2016 awardees for their outstanding theses by The UWI, Mona.
Not even a near-death experience could deter science thesis awardee Dr Rankine from being recognised for his tremendous work in agriculture to boost yields for Jamaican farmers titled: “Assessing Yield Response to Water in Root Crops in present and future climates: An application of the AquaCrop Model for Jamaican Sweet Potato, Ipomoea batatas”.
“Two years into my research, my vehicle was written off one day while I was heading to the sweet potato fields with my two children,” Rankine said in an interview with UWIMONA Now.
Still shaken up about the accident, but grateful that their lives were spared by God he said he told his wife that “I was going to leave my studies and go and buy my family a car because I was going to school full-time. I was crestfallen that the result of my scholarly endeavours would leave my family without a car”.
His wife encouraged him to continue his research, and through collaboration with other colleagues, he even developed new software – called the Automated Canopy Estimator (ACE) during his 3.5-year record research time – to assist agronomists worldwide to more accurately model and ultimately predict crop yields.
Like Rankine, McCalla also encountered numerous obstacles. “To tell you the truth, I had so many challenges working on my thesis, many times I thought I could not go through with it. Then I realised that my hard work did not go in vain.” Her thesis examined the philosophical link between performance enhancing drugs and athletes’ freedom and responsibilities.
“There were times when my supervisor sent corrections to the thesis with all the red marks, and when I opened the computer I just closed it. I would often take a break before tackling the thesis once more.
“There were times I had to call for prayer. I have a brother-in-law who is a pastor overseas and I had to call him,” McCalla recalled.
“My focus was on finishing my thesis, and I had a supervisor who does not settle for mediocrity. I had to work hard to complete the task, and when I thought my paper was okay to be submitted for the oral exam, he said it was not ready,” she added.
But the philosophy lecturer and former physical education teacher never gave up.
For equally hard-working Rankine, choosing to study the world’s sixth most important crop – the sweet potato – in specially selected regions of Clarendon, St Catherine, Portland and Manchester was significant and deliberate.
“The sweet potato is resilient and drought-resistant and there was no model in the world to give predictions of yields of various Caribbean varieties of sweet potato and no one used to do predictions under various scenarios of climate change with extreme conditions,” said Rankine, who holds a Master’s degree in Natural Resource Management (specialising in climate change).
“My research had to establish field trials. I had to grow the sweet potato crops myself in different locations, and some areas had an abundance of rainfall and others had very little rainfall. We had to test the robustness of the model.”
He had the opportunity to work with Bodles Research Station, the Christiana Sweet Potato Farmers Association, Ebony Park Heart Academy and the College of Agriculture Science and Education (CASE).
“When I started the thesis I questioned myself many times, whether I should continue especially in the difficult periods. But as I continued to write, and got the opportunity to present my draft thesis to Caribbean and international conferences, and met people who created the model, I recognised it would make an original contribution in the area, especially of its application to root crops and would generate knowledge especially relevant to the Caribbean, and also that it was never done before,” he added.
“On one occasion I went to the field and all the non-irrigated crops died, and I felt exasperated. Then in other areas it was waterlogged and we lost crops too. But my supervisor would tell me that I was getting good results because I was seeing the water tolerance limits of the crop first-hand.”
Another plus of Rankine’s studies was the FAO AquaCrop model which has now been customised for predicting yields of sweet potato, which uses canopy cover – and not leaf area – to track canopy development.
“Canopy cover is the percentage of ground covered with green leaves, so instead of tediously measuring leaf area, the data capture was done by taking digital photographs, and we used the ACE developed, one of the most accurate software now available to measure the canopy cover right throughout the crop season. ACE markedly improved the AquaCrop model’s performance and will also enhance application of this model to other crops globally,” Rankine said.
For her part, McCalla encouraged future doctoral thesis students to stay focused, have a clear plan, pay attention to details and choose topics that are of “great interest” to them.