Everyday plant health heroes

Nicole Thompson

Principal Researcher in Biosecurity, Sugar Research Australia

A healthy plant is one that is growing to its best potential.

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

In the beginning, I think the job chose me. I completed a Bachelor of Science at Adelaide University and had an interest in genetics, so completed an Honours in plant genetics. The opportunity then arose to complete a PhD in plant virology – I had really enjoyed the virology course from my undergraduate studies, and this was a nice melding of the two. After finishing my PhD I moved to the USA to complete a post-doctoral appointment as a molecular plant pathologist for the USDA – a complete change in location and research subject which was a great experience.

I had very good luck in my current role! I was finishing up my second post-doctoral appointment and trying to get some more data to complete a paper. I called one of my colleagues who worked for BSES to see if he had any information, and then had a quick chat about careers. As it turns out, he was resigning his position to do a PhD, and I was looking for a new position! Perfect timing for me, so I applied for the role then moved to Brisbane to work with BSES – and this has evolved into the current job I have now with SRA.

How long have you worked in this industry?

I have worked in the sugarcane industry for 13 years, but if you count a PhD as ‘work’ it would be closer to 17 years. If you also include all the different roles in agricultural plant pathology that I have had, then that would be about 24 years.

What does plant health mean to you?

A healthy plant is one that is growing to its best potential. So for me, plant health has a lot of different aspects: it can mean managing pests and diseases to ensure that the plants grow well; improved plant health can mean a better production for farmers or growers; understanding the health of your plants can mean a better management approach; and understanding pests and diseases in your area (and beyond) can allow you to prepare and respond to new challenges. I think plant health also links well with lots of other areas, such as agronomy, climate studies, plant breeding, etc., so that’s probably why I have a broad definition of plant health.

What are your greatest achievements in this role?

I recently became the Chair of the Pathology Committee of the International Society of Sugar Cane Technologists (ISSCT), which allows me to collaborate with sugarcane pathologists all around the world.

A recent project in Indonesia that I was a part of has been able to determine the extent of an exotic viral threat to Australia’s sugarcane production through surveillance and working closely with our Indonesian colleagues. We also developed a diagnostic tool which I tailored for their laboratory: this is important so we can allow our colleagues to do their own diagnostics in a way that works for them.

Co-ordinating the SRA Sugarcane Diseases Workshop which trains field staff, researchers, growers, agronomists, or any interested staff in the recognition and control methods for the common sugarcane diseases in Australia. We run this workshop every 2 years and have run to capacity for the past 3 or 4 workshops.

What does a typical day look like for you?

I will describe today: This morning I had an early start to help the SRA Woodford team in processing sugarcane clones for disease resistance screening: some physical labour to start the day! I then attended a course for remote working and leadership (as we are in ‘The COVID-19 Times’), and answered a few questions relating to sugarcane biosecurity posed by a fellow researcher. After lunch I assisted with planting up the clones the team had been processing, before doing a quick visual assessment of some diseased plants to check on symptoms. I plan on reading a journal article about sugarcane phytoplasma before I finish up for the day.

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

The industry is big – bigger than you know! There is room for lots of different activities in the plant health industry. Find an area that you are passionate about, learn as much as you can and don’t be afraid to ask questions or for help.

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