Everyday plant health heroes
Associate Professor and Associate Head of Research at the Tasmanian Institute of Agriculture, University of Tasmania
Plant health is also everyone’s business, because we can all play a role in preventing unwanted plant pathogens from entering our country, state, region or property.
How did you choose your job? Or did it choose you?
Plant pathology was my favourite subject at the University of Melbourne thanks to lecturer Doug Parbery. My first job involved doing field trials on commercial farms and orchards all around country Victoria to test new ways of protecting crops from pests and diseases. It was a great way to learn from and about farmers. After a few years, I jumped at the opportunity to train formally as a plant pathologist at Purdue University in the USA. It was here that I marvelled at the beauty of rust spores and learned how to quantify and understand plant disease epidemics in relation to the weather and crop factors. Back in Australia, I went on to do a PhD with the Cooperative Research Centre for Viticulture at the University of Adelaide. That set the scene for a future University-based research career with a focus on the diseases of woody, perennial plants – rusts, mildews, bunch rots and blights!
How long have you worked in this industry?
Decades! I started university in 1982 but my academic career (post PhD) started around 1996.
What does plant health mean to you?
Plant health is not unlike human health. A healthy plant will reach maturity and reproduce so that the next generation can continue to grow in the same place and/or migrate somewhere else. When disease takes hold in the plants that we value, then humans and other species suffer too. When it comes to food production, disease often reduces the amount of crop that can be harvested and/or affects product integrity e.g. colour, taste, size or appearance.
A plant disease becomes a big problem when it affects the livelihoods of farmers and people can no longer source the food they need for sustenance, good nutrition and/or to satisfy some other need (think coffee and chocolate!). Plant health is also everyone’s business, because we can all play a role in preventing unwanted plant pathogens from entering our country, state, region or property.
What are your greatest achievements in this role?
I could easily point to the publications (> 200) and the numbers of PhD candidates who I have guided to completion; however, my legacy will be around how I have influenced people’s thinking or shaped their decisions for better economic and environmental outcomes. In addition to contributing expert advice in various forums, the top three would be:
- Shaping the thinking of wine grape growers in Australia and elsewhere around the management of botrytis bunch rot and other diseases via industry-embedded trials, workshops, electronic tools and other extension outputs.
- Co-leading work to select and characterise exotic strains of a rust fungus in the Australian environment for the biological control of weedy European blackberry – a weed of National Significance.
- Guiding change within my own organization to help build mindsets and tools that enable positive impact from research.
What does a typical day look like for you?
These days my role is more about enabling research teams and helping the next generation to reach their potential. As we plan our research, I meet many interesting people from industry and government to understand their ‘pain points’ and/or opportunities to improve the current situation. Those who will benefit from our work help us identify the research questions that matter. I’m often working with teams who are developing grant applications or new initiatives where my role is often to help them think beyond ‘results’ but to also consider who will benefit from the research and how. Gaining these insights also identifies activities that we need to do to help position the research for uptake and use.
My academic work includes staying up to date with scientific literature and staying connected with colleagues nationally and internationally. When research is full steam ahead, I particularly enjoy having a meeting a PhD candidate or other team member to discuss some new and interesting set of data and/or to strategise on how we are going to frame or pitch a manuscript for publication. I still get a big rush every time a paper is accepted for publication.
What advice would you give anybody wanting to get into the industry?
Seize every opportunity to learn, whether that be about the industry itself or the people who work there. Ask what they do in the everyday jobs and the type of environment they work in. Ask them what makes them get out of bed and come to work every day. Does that excite you as well? Would you like to work with them and/or to help them in some way? Use this learning to find the people who can help pave the way for you but make sure it is not a one-way interaction. Think about things you can do with and for them to build trust and a good relationship. Engaging in some form of reciprocity can open doors you may have never previously imagined.