Everyday plant health heroes

Kate Sparks

Senior Entomologist, Department of Agriculture, Water and
the Environment

Healthy plants are at the heart of almost everything that makes life liveable and supporting plant health is everyone’s responsibility.

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

I grew up on a bush block and have always had a deep interest in the environment, food systems, plants and animals and how they all interact. In a way, my first job out of university set the stage for the rest of my career. I had the privilege of working in a museum entomology collection which opened by eyes to the staggering diversity of insects and I never looked back.

How long have you worked in this industry?

I’ve had quite a diverse career in entomology spanning 20 years. I have discovered new species of native bees and
worked on projects assessing insect diversity in urban centers and organic vineyards. I also completed a PhD in ant taxonomy and, for a few years, I managed the South Australian Museum’s arachnid collection. Identification of insects and other related animals has been a common theme throughout and is a key part of my current role.

What does plant health mean to you?

Plants are crucial to all life on our planet. Not only do they produce our oxygen, feed and shelter us, they are the livelihood for primary producers all over the world. How much poorer would we all be without our street trees, our veggie gardens, footy fields or native bushland. Healthy plants are at the heart of almost everything that makes life liveable and supporting plant health is everyone’s responsibility.

What are your three greatest achievements in this role?

Some of the most satisfying achievements in my role have been around building the capacity of our biosecurity and surveillance staff or inspiring an interest in insects and plant health among the general public. This could be presenting pest identification workshops or developing tools to assist with targeting our surveillance and diagnostic resources. About a year ago I worked with a team to deliver a series of online courses on DNA based identification of insects and it’s been great to see the increased awareness of these techniques among team members around the country.

What does a typical day look like for you?

A typical day may start out with identifying insects that have been intercepted on imported cargo, or collected by our pest surveillance program, and providing advice to any associated risk. The diversity of insects that biosecurity entomologists have to identify is huge. I could be looking at a mite or aphid specimen on a microscope slide one minute and identifying an exotic timber beetle the next so keeping up to date with research across many different insect groups is crucial. The remainder of my day may be spent working on building our capacity for DNA based diagnostics, providing input into policy or operational documents or training biosecurity officers. And, if I get a quiet moment, I might spend some time curating insect specimens for the reference collection we have in our lab.

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

Choose an area that interests you. Biosecurity and plant health is a very diverse field these days with career opportunities in different levels of government, research and industry. It’s very rewarding but the challenges in keeping our plants pest and disease free just keep coming so prepare to be innovative and adaptable.

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