Everyday plant health heroes

Elia Pirtle

Research Scientist (Entomology), cesar

To me plant health is about more than just plants, it means the whole ecosystem. You can’t have healthy plants without a healthy community of insects, and vice versa.

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

I actually never imagined I’d end up working in agriculture or biosecurity, but after a PhD in zoology (studying lizards) I knew I wanted to pursue research that had really tangible applications. So I looked for opportunities
within industry, in particular agriculture, because I always loved insects, and I found cesar. Without any real background in these fields, the transition was very challenging but has also been extremely rewarding. Working in agriculture and biosecurity has made me appreciate how easy it is to take for granted these ‘hidden’ systems we rely upon so heavily. Now I wouldn’t choose to be anywhere else!

How long have you worked in this industry?

This is my third year working at cesar on a variety of industry funded projects focused on pest preparedness and management. The project I am most proud of is a preparedness project for the exotic pest, the vegetable leafminer, which has kept me busy the last 3 years.

What does plant health mean to you?

To me plant health is about more than just plants, it means the whole ecosystem. You can’t have healthy plants without a healthy community of insects, and vice versa. Natural ecosystems can play a very important role in our biosecurity (for instance, strong communities of beneficial insects slowing down the spread of pest incursions!).

I think plant health comes from communication and empathy between the worlds of agriculture and conservation – worlds that are often unfairly assumed to be at odds with each other.

What are your greatest achievements in this role?

Every time I can get somebody (from growers to government bigwigs) a bit more excited about a beneficial insect is a big win for me! I am also very proud of the outputs of our biosecurity projects (such as management guides, experimentally supported surveillance protocols, and risk forecast tools). Thanks to all the time we’ve spent talking with and working alongside the intended users (including biosecurity officers in the Torres Strait who are a first line of response, government and industry leaders, and growers and advisors who would be affected), I know what we are creating addresses their needs. And lastly, my own personal growth has been a big achievement – becoming more confident, broadening my perspective outside of a ‘University bubble’, creating great collaborations with folks of many backgrounds, and learning more every day.

What does a typical day look like for you?

My days are really varied. Sometimes they are spent at my computer, and other times (my favorite days) I am out conducting surveillance, running field experiments to find the best methods for detecting, identifying, and controlling pests, or participating in training activities. This works takes me all over the country, from farms in Victoria to the Torres Strait Islands. I even get to put my side skills as an artist to use, to make our research as clear and user friendly as possible.

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

If you are new to agriculture or biosecurity, go to as many events as you can and talk to as many different people as you can, of all background and levels of industry or government. Don’t be too worried about asking ‘dumb questions’ – I have found within these fields there is a great culture of understanding that no one can be an expert on everything, and we all start somewhere. Also, really get to know the intended end users of your research – this is absolutely essential for any researcher who wants to see their work have an impact.


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