Robin Thompson symposium

The University of Edinburgh has conferred the degree of Doctor Honoris Causa to Robin Thompson for contributions to statistics, quantitative genetics, and animal and plant breeding. To celebrate this occasion almost 100 delegates gathered at The Roslin Institute in Edinburgh for symposium in his honour. The delegates came from Argentina, Australia, Finland, Netherlands, New Zealand, Mexico, Spain, Sweden, UK, and USA.

Robin Thompson is a pioneering leader in the fields of statistics, quantitative genetics and animal and plant breeding. He started his career in Edinburgh in the late 1960’s in the then Agricultural Research Council Unit of Statistics, later moving to the Animal Breeding Research Organisation, which ultimately became part of The Roslin Institute. He remained there until the mid 1990’s when he moved to the Institute of Arable Crops Research at Rothamsted as the head of the prestigious department of statistics, established by R.A. Fisher, who laid the foundation for much of modern statistics.

In the 1970’s, while based at the University of Edinburgh, Robin and Desmond Patterson proposed and developed a new statistical method which came to be called REML. The foundation paper from 1971, “Recovery of inter-block information when block sizes are unequal” is a citation classic with more than 3,700 citations to date. These days, REML is implemented in most widely used statistical analysis packages. In addition, Robin has made significant contributions to the development of computationally efficient algorithms to facilitate analysis of large datasets. One of these is the Average Information algorithm, developed in the 1990s. Together with colleagues he developed a versatile and efficient software package called ASReml that is the most widely used in animal and plant breeding across the globe today.

Robin has made a broad range of contributions to the development of rigorous science underpinning UK and global breeding programmes. His collaborations with the various Edinburgh groups had, and continue to have, particular impact in UK dairy, beef, and sheep breeding. Finally, Robin has made a major input to post-graduate education in Edinburgh. For many years, he taught components of the MSc in Animal Breeding and Quantitative Genetics. He was a formal supervisor of more than twenty research students and an informal mentor of many more. Robin has been incredibly generous with his ideas to both students and established researchers. Several of his former students now have high international reputations.

The symposium covered the various areas of Robin’s activities in five sessions. Each session started with a brief introduction by a chair, followed by invited speakers highlighting Robin’s contributions and their connection to current research and application. There were 14 speakers in total. The theme of the first session was Animal Breeding, which represents Robin’s practical background and his scientific roots. The session was chaired by Professor Geoff Simm from the University of Edinburgh. The second session touched on Robin’s contributions to statistics, chaired by Professor Esa Mäntysaari from the Natural Resources Institute Finland. The third session highlighted Robin’s contributions to plant breeding. Although originally an animal breeder, Robin’s passion for the application of statistics to agricultural problems led him to dedicate some time to work on questions in plant breeding. This session was chaired by Professor Brian Cullis from the University of Wollongong. The fourth session showcased Robin’s influence on human genetics. Robin did not work directly in the area of human genetics, but his students and colleagues have used his statistical methods to also push forward the frontiers in that area of genetics. The session was chaired by Professor Chris Haley from the University of Edinburgh. In the final session Professor William Hill from the University of Edinburgh introduced the inaugural Thompson lecture, where we could listen to Robin Thompson himself.

The sessions were interspersed with refreshment breaks where the delegates from different areas of genetics and statistics could exchange ideas and experience. It was a very vibrant and successful meeting that was fittingly crowned with an outstanding weather.

The symposium was supported by The Genetics Society, The VSN International, and The Roslin Institute.

Written by Gregor Gorjanc

Photographs courtesy of Norrie Russell, Roslin Institute, University of Edinburgh.