Everyday plant health heroes

Dr Jordan Bailey

Leader Plant Pathology Curation, NSW DPI Plant Pathology & Mycology Herbarium, NSW Biosecurity Collections, Plant Biosecurity & Product Integrity

Strengthening our neighbours against plant pests and diseases reduces the pathways these threats can take to enter Australia, protecting not only our industry and livelihoods but our unique native environment too.

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

It very much chose me. In 2007 I was part of an internship with the National Herbarium in Sydney, this experience opened my eyes to the world of scientific collections. Little by little I fell into roles that would prepare me to curate the NSW Plant Pathology & Mycology Herbarium – a PhD in plant pathology, a herbarium position in the states, a post-doc working on phylogenetics and a lot of science communication and engagement. All perfect experiences for re-vitalising the NSW DPI Biosecurity Collections and raising awareness of plant biosecurity.

How long have you worked in this industry?

I started my Agricultural Science degree in 2005 and gravitated to the plant subjects, loving the tiny things like heath plants and moss, then I discovered fungi! It’s even smaller. So technically I have been in the agricultural environment for 15 years, and then mycology (fungi) for 11 years, experiencing different environments (government, academia) and all of that helped me work out what I liked and where I thrived.

What does plant health mean to you?

Two things come to mind. The International Year of Plant Health is very much big picture, the impact of plant health on humans – food security and poverty – but when you say plant health to me, I selfishly think about the plants I engage with every day, my own backyard. Since moving to Orange, we have bought
a large block with a beautiful established garden, watching things struggle in the heat of summer and drought and not being able to water them because of restrictions is heart breaking. I went mad stressing about reusing water – using all the safe detergents, pumping the laundry out, pumping my daughters bath water out, showering in a storage container… it really opened my eyes to how much water we waste.

And secondly, that we are so lucky here in Australia, with access to the most advanced and modern cropping technology. When you see how other nations farm and the struggles they face over the most fundamental aspects of agriculture – irrigation, seed quality, fertilizer, pest control – you realise that ‘feeding the world’ really means improving agricultural practice and education in these nations. Conducting outreach in these areas benefits their people and Australians, especially when we are talking about biosecurity threats. Strengthening our neighbours against plant pests and diseases reduces the pathways these threats can take to enter Australia, protecting not only our industry and livelihoods but our unique native environment too.

What are your greatest achievements in this role?

In my short 3.5 years with DPI, I hope that  I have managed to raise our profile, so that there is increased support for the Biosecurity Collections and a better understanding of our purpose. I have taken part in a lot of engagement activities, speaking at local schools, podcasting with Costa, holding exhibitions at the Orange Regional Museum, setting up a Redbubble store to sell our unique plant pest and disease artworks (redbubble.com/people/biosecuritycoll) and of course, I have things planned for the International Year of Plant Health – like 24kg of rock candy with the IYPH logo in it!

Digitising the Collections is major goal for us, and we have been focused on data-capture for some 300,000 specimens. To add to this, I was successful in getting a Heritage grant from the Office of Environment and Heritage, to image our heritage items and our type specimens. A type specimen is the reference specimen that was used to first describe a species, they are the most important specimens in any collection. We now have almost 15,000 images of these specimens and heritage materials that will be shared online soon.

Last but not least, this year I was appointed as the Director for the Orange Agricultural Institute, where the Collections are located. I am looking forward to extending my engagement activities to the whole site, raising awareness for all the teams at OAI and the great work that our staff and scientists do for horticulture, viticulture, climate, soils and water, invasive species research and sheep production.

What does a typical day look like for you?

At the moment a typical day involves Ugg boots, virtual meetings and working on content for Science Week but typically, the core purpose of the collections is to provide data and specimens for reference and research. We answer a lot of inquiries about pest and disease status for NSW, provide living cultures of fungi and bacteria for researchers and industry and loan our preserved specimens across Australia and around the world. Researchers examining the historic specimens to confirm records and also extract DNA for genetic studies.

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

The old adage “it’s who you know, not what you know” is so accurate. My first two positions out of my PhD were with someone I met at a conference and then with someone they had worked with. Having someone who can vouch for you does wonders, it is always hard to gauge someone’s personality and ability in an interview and you’d be surprised how many jobs are right place, right time – hearing things through the grapevine. Attend conferences, network, cold-call people about volunteering or interning. If you’re a student, work in your professor’s lab. Just get experience and contacts.

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