Everyday plant health heroes

Dr Brett Summerell

Director Research and Chief Botanist, Botanic Gardens and Centennial Parklands

As someone working to maintain a healthy population of over 17000 species of plants in some of the most iconic spaces in Australia plant health is critical and challenging.

How did you choose your job? Or did it choose you?

I had just finished a PhD at University of Sydney and a position as a plant pathologist was advertised at the Royal Botanic Garden Sydney. It was a new permanent position but with no lab, no program but lots of potential and I thought I would be able to give it a go for a couple of years to see how it was. 30 plus years later I am still here.

How long have you worked in this industry?

I have been a plant pathologist for 35 years and at the Gardens since 1989.

What does plant health mean to you?

As someone working to maintain a healthy population of over 17000 species of plants in some of the most iconic spaces in Australia plant health is critical and challenging. I also work on pathogens that affect most species of plants grown in agriculture and horticulture so the impact that plant disease can have on crops and communities is something I come into contact with regularly. Added to this I research diseases that impact our natural environments and see how this affects whole interconnected environments. It is critical that we maintain healthy plants to ensure healthy communities and healthy environments.

What are your greatest achievements in this role?

  1. Helping to establish new research facilities at the Botanic Gardens – the Australian Plantbanks, our PlantClinic and now in construction a new herbarium.
  2. Creating and establishing the Plant Disease Diagnostic Unit to focus on the diagnosis of diseases in amenity horticulture and natural ecosystems.
  3. Co-convening the annual Fusarium Laboratory workshops that over 20 years have trained nearly 800 participants from over 70 countries in the identification and diagnosis of Fusarium pathogens.

Plus being President of the Australasian Plant Pathology Society.

What does a typical day look like for you?

Currently a lot of writing – for both scientific and general audiences, meetings (bureaucracy is a curse as you move into management!), communicating the importance of science. Occasionally I get to look down a microscope or at a diseased plant!

What advice would you give anybody wanting to get into the industry?

Take every chance to learn new skills, be proactive in communicating about the importance of plants, about plant health and science in general, and when an opportunity presents itself grab it with both hands.


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