Everyday plant health heroes

Murray Sharman

Principal Plant Pathologist, Department of Agriculture and Fisheries, Queensland

Working in this field of plant pathology means that the next new challenge is never far away, so the work is never boring.

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

I was always interested in flora and fauna and was a bit of a science nerd from primary school. Out of university an opportunity came up to work in the Plant Virology group of the then Department of Primary Industries. The mix of constantly changing research challenges, interactions with various primary industries and a chance to help growers manage disease issues has kept me hooked ever since.

How long have you worked in this industry?

I started out as a Technician in a 6 month temporary role in 1996, never thinking I would still be learning on the job 25 years later! In that time I’ve worked on a range of projects covering bananas, vegetables, oilseeds, cotton and grain legumes. I have to admit, I didn’t know much about plant viruses back in 1996 but I’ve learnt a few things along the way with lots of help from great mentors.

What does plant health mean to you?

Seeing a severe virus epidemic and the effects that has on growers, be they subsistence farmers to broad acre operators, has a big impact on motivation to help. The fact that all our lives depend on plants also means that any diseases that affect the plants we grow for food and fibre, will have an impact on us too. Good plant health is a key part to maximizing plant production and is most sustainably achieved with a range of tactics to minimize the use of chemicals. Increasingly, plant health is critical in our natural ecosystems also which often provide the sources of genetic diversity we need for better crops and the beneficial insect populations we need for robust integrated pest management strategies.

What are your greatest achievements in this role?

In the mid-2000s there was a mystery disorder causing widespread losses in sunflower and mungbean crops in Queensland. With the help of growers, agronomists and mentors, we worked out the causal agent, how it was causing such severe epidemics and how best to manage the disease so growers regained confidence to plant the next crop. I was fortunate enough to complete a PhD as part of this work which provided an opportunity to focus on several really interesting aspects of the disease epidemiology. More recently, it had been very rewarding to assist a new generation of plant pathologists in our group who work seamlessly across state borders and bring lots of fresh ideas.

What does a typical day look like for you?

Often quite varied. The necessary bureaucratic desk work is thankfully balanced with disease surveillance surveys, lab research and diagnostic development and working with insects and viruses in our glasshouses. It’s also great to work in a team and with growers and agronomists to solve problems. I’ve been very fortunate to have opportunities to travel to various production regions of Australia and overseas and learnt a lot along the way.

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

There is still so much we don’t know about plant viruses and how they interact with plants we grow and those in natural ecosystems. Working in this field of plant pathology means that the next new challenge is never far away, so the work is never boring. It helps a lot to know more about the various industries that may benefit from plant pathology research so you understand the priorities of the growers and what they really need. Find a mentor to support you in your learnings for all stages of your career.

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