Australia's Chief Scientist

Planting the seeds for a career in science

What drew you to science in the first instance, and later into plant genomics?

No one major event influenced me to pursue a career in science. I always enjoyed science subjects at high school, in particular Biology and Chemistry. I was also lucky to have teachers who were enthusiastic and passionate about the subjects they taught. They encouraged me to apply for a place at the National Youth Science Forum (NYSF), a forum held annually for year 12 students interested in science and technology, and I was lucky enough to be selected. I thoroughly enjoyed my time at the NYSF in Canberra and realised how many different kinds of jobs there were in science and that there were many interesting people involved in science.

I went on to study a Bachelor of Biotechnology at The University of Adelaide and became interested in molecular biology. I was fascinated by the ‘basic’ processes that go on in individual cells and how complex they actually are. I went on to undertake an honours project in Professor Jeremy Timmis’s laboratory, in the Genetics department at the University of Adelaide, investigating a small component of the molecular control of cotton fibre development. I thoroughly enjoyed my time working in a laboratory setting, but it had all happened in the blink of an eye, so I decided a PhD project would allow me to explore working in a laboratory setting for a longer period of time whilst also gaining a higher qualification.

I had been to the Waite campus of the University of Adelaide on a tour during my undergraduate degree and I realised how diverse agricultural science was and that it included many opportunities in plant molecular biology. I had also spent a week at the Australian Centre for Plant Functional Genomics (ACPFG), which is based at the Waite campus, where I did some work experience. Later on during my honours year I met with Professor Mark Tester from the ACPFG and the University of Adelaide to talk about his research projects and I decided to do a PhD in his laboratory.


Could you please give a brief overview of your studies/work and its importance to Australia?

Salinity (the level of salt in the ground) is a major stress affecting crop plant production in Australia and overseas that is expected to worsen in the coming years. Crop plants grown in salty conditions are affected by two types of stress. The first, osmotic stress, results in an immediate reduction in new shoot growth while the second, ionic stress, results in the build up of sodium and chloride ions that can be toxic to plant shoots. Each of these stresses contributes to a reduction in overall plant yield.

One of the mechanisms a plant can use to reduce salt stress is to limit the amount of sodium that is transported from the roots to the shoots to reduce the toxic effects of this ion. My PhD project was focussed around this particular mechanism of salinity tolerance and in particular focussed on a family of genes, HKT genes, identified in many plant species, which code for proteins able to transport sodium .

I investigated the HKT gene family in two plants, rice and Arabidopsis, to understand more about these genes and how the gene products (proteins) may be involved in transporting sodium within these plants. This involved comparing the location and amount of HKT gene expression between different varieties, of either rice or Arabidopsis, which differed in salinity tolerance. It also involved comparing the DNA sequences of the HKT genes between two different varieties of Arabidopsis to look for clues as to how these differences in DNA sequences might influence the differences in shoot sodium observed. A better understanding of where and how these proteins are able to transport sodium through the plant, as well as information on differences between varieties, will help to develop plants that are able to limit the amount of sodium transported from the roots to the shoots and will therefore have the potential to be more salt tolerant.


You have just finished your PhD, an amazing accomplishment. How was your experience working towards the PhD and how does it feel to be finished?

A PhD was a very challenging experience!  I feel that I have gained many skills that will be invaluable to any future career I may pursue. These include the ability to investigate and think critically, communicate effectively and have good time management and multi-tasking skills.

I enjoyed the fact that my research project involved many different tasks and activities. These included; working in a laboratory, working in growth rooms and green houses to grow plants as well as attending and presenting at local, interstate and overseas seminars and conferences. While working on a computer is still a big part of a PhD, for example analysing data, designing talks and posters and writing the final thesis, I enjoyed the fact I was able to include many of these other activities in my daily work.

Science is a very international occupation. Through my PhD I have had the opportunity to work with and meet other students and scientists from all over the world which has been both challenging and rewarding.


What has been your most memorable experience along your career path to date?

Completing my PhD has certainly been the most memorable experience to date. It was exciting to receive such positive comments from two international examiners who thought my research was relevant, interesting and will be useful for future research into the molecular control of plant salinity tolerance. I was especially proud that both examiners believed that my thesis was worthy of special recognition, which resulted in me receiving a special commendation from the Dean of Graduate Studies. I am looking forward to graduation day!


Have you faced any challenges or hurdles along the way?

The PhD as a whole is one of the most difficult challenges I have faced to date. A PhD is one of those tasks where it feels like you have been working on it forever, but at the same time it goes extremely quickly. There are plenty of highs and lows during a PhD by research, particularly when it comes to experiments in the laboratory. Some experiments just never seem to work, for any number of reasons and they have to be repeated over and over again. In the end though it is very satisfying to get a final result, whether it is what you were expecting or something different is another story!


Do you have a scientific ‘dream’? if so, what is it?

For the moment I would like to be able to continue working in research laboratories and use the skills that I have acquired during my PhD. I am currently working as a post-doctoral scientist in the laboratory of Associate Professor Vladimir Jiranek (University of Adelaide, Waite campus) using my molecular biology skills on projects related to improving wine yeast.

There is the possibility to pursue post-doctoral research interstate or overseas, but for the time being I am very happy to be able to enjoy time with friends and family without the stresses of a PhD constantly lurking! I am also able to easily keep in touch and up to date with my PhD supervisors and colleagues in regards to further progress relating to my PhD project which will allow me to continue to write papers for inclusion in scientific journals.

In the longer term I could see myself moving into science communication and/or educational roles. During my PhD I was involved in secondary school science education programs including ‘Get into Genes’ and ‘National Science Week’ as well as practical demonstrating to university undergraduate students, all of which I enjoyed.


Advice to young people interested in science?

My advice to young people interested in science would be to study a broad range of subjects at both school and university to see which you enjoy. Subjects at university can be very different to those at high school. Participate in work experience when the opportunities arise, it can help you decide if you really do enjoy something when it’s hands on rather than when you just hear about it in a lecture or see it on TV.  While it is very cliché to say ‘find something that you enjoy doing’, it can take time to actually find what that really is, keep looking until you find it!