Everyday plant health heroes

Ron Southwell

Plant Pathologist, Science Services Group, Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment

… plant health to me means people’s health, both physically and mentally, and their lifestyle.

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

As a young person I developed an interest in plants and the microbiological world of fungi and pursued this in university studies. My interest broadened to include plant pathogens, nematodes and plant health. With these interests and an underlying aptitude for problem solving, it was a natural progression into a career in plant pathology, plant health and biosecurity.

How long have you worked in this industry?

My career started as a cereal farmer. Then, in 1973 I joined the NSW Department of Agriculture working in soil research but soon moved into plant pathology, undertaking plant health diagnostics and plant pathology research for 30 years. Following a period working with Queensland Forestry propagating Wollomi pine as tissue cultures and then, on cropping systems agronomy in NSW, I resumed as a plant pathologist in 2009 in my current role.

What does plant health mean to you?

During my plant pathology experience I have seen the negative impact of diseases (such as rust, Botrytis blight and nematode infestations) on plants and crops and their subsequent impact on growers, our agricultural and horticultural industries and, on native bushland. Consequently, plant health to me means people’s health, both physically and mentally, and their lifestyle. Plant health and biosecurity are high priorities for me.

What are your three greatest achievements in this role?

Plant disease diagnostics are ongoing and each time I detect an exotic pathogen I feel a sense of achievement. Historically, these have included citrus canker, plant parasitic nematodes and stone fruit viruses to mention a few.

Communication with the community and with industry, in conjunction with education, increases biosecurity awareness so to report on nematode interceptions at the border in a scientific poster was a ‘high’ for me.

My development of identification aids and resources to improve fungal disease and nematode diagnostics was exciting. This has provided additional tools for prompt identification and decision making for biosecurity.

What does a typical day look like for you?

In my role I diagnose plant diseases and give advice to clients on the biosecurity risks of imported goods. These goods may include live plants for nursery stock, fresh produce and various other commodities. Thus, I regularly use microscopes, do biological and immunological tests and search the literature to gain the information I need to give such advice. Important in my work is the reporting of disease interceptions and tests to substantiate diagnoses and for pathway analyses for pathogens. On occasions I train biosecurity officers on plant disease impact and recognition. Other things I do include mentoring and coaching collegues in recognizing and identifying plant pathogens to maintain plant biosecurity in Australia.

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

Always look at the big picture when investigating diseases remembering many factors can contribute to the problem. Use all tools practical to reach a diagnosis. Be persistent, sometimes pathogens are clandestine depending on the environment. Be flexible, consider the client’s needs, industry sustainability and how we maintain biosecurity. And, be prepared for change because this in inevitable both in terms of what’s required and how we do our job.


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