Everyday plant health heroes

Simon McKirdy

Pro Vice Chancellor, Harry Butler Institute; Professor of Biosecurity, Murdoch University; Chair, Western Australian Biosecurity Council

Plant health to me is the effective management of invertebrates and pathogens to enable sustainable production and protection of our environment.

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

My current roles are progressions of where I started my career as a plant pathologist. I have always had a strong drive to work in research that protects and benefits our industries as well as the environment. An early
‘hero’ of mine was Harry Butler who had a mission to protect our valuable environment by demonstrating and educating both industry and the wider community that we can coexist. 30 years after starting my career I am now able to contribute to Harry Butler’s legacy and plant health and biosecurity are keys to achieving his mission.

How long have you worked in this industry?

My whole career has been linked to biosecurity. All of the roles I have held have enabled me to build skills across the full biosecurity continuum. Roles at the state and Commonwealth level, Plant Health Australia, the Plant Biosecurity Cooperative Research Centre, Chevron and now Murdoch University have all been focused on biosecurity.

What does plant health mean to you?

Plant health to me is the effective management of invertebrates and pathogens to enable sustainable production and protection of our environment. The importance of plants, and the need to keep them healthy, was ingrained in me early by a mentor who stated ‘humans and all other animals are simply value added plants’.

What are your greatest achievements in this role?

Rather than just focus on my current role my three greatest achievements span my career.

  1. Research on disease management in cereal crops is still used today by farmers after more than 20 years.
  2. The leadership of the Plant Biosecurity Cooperative Research Centre and its continuing legacy.
  3. The establishment of the Harry Butler Institute as a legacy to an Australian who contributed so much to protecting the plant health of our native ecosystems.

What does a typical day look like for you?

Today my role is much more than just plant health. My current role has a large research management focus and the governance that is needed for a research institute. It is an exciting role because it reminds me regularly that plant health is part of the whole system and is an integral cog in our life. The three institute model at Murdoch, one of which I lead, is built around the premise that ‘healthy people need healthy food, healthy food needs a healthy environment, and a healthy environment leads to healthy people’. In one day I can be engaged in research project discussions focused on everything from microbes, to AI, to water purification, to biosecurity risk through to whales. All of it focused on how we as humans can coexist with our environment while industry continues to develop.

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

Don’t feel you are limited your future career by taking a role in plant health. The skill set you will gain from working in plant health, and in particular plant biosecurity, will provide many opportunities. Biosecurity will not go away and if anything will become a greater focus of industry, government and the community in the future.

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