Entry for:2019 Queensland Women in STEM Prize
1. Project summary (maximum 150 words)
My research explores an innovative, non-chemical form of weed control. I use novel genetic tools to switch on/off one of the many plant domestication genes to eventually reduce the ‘weediness’ of agricultural weeds. For example, switching off the seed-shedding trait in weeds can significantly reduce the number of seeds reaching the soil, thereby suppressing the overall weed population on the farm. Apart from lab-based research, I am particularly interested in understanding the factors behind social acceptance and adoption of genetic technologies. I believe that early and effective engagement with the wider community on advanced biotechnologies is critical to the success, and eventually, translation of research endeavours.
2. How does your project benefit Queensland? (maximum 500 words)
Economic benefit: Weeds cost Queensland an estimated $600 million annually and have significant impacts on primary industries, natural ecosystems, and human and animal health. Genetic tools, such as these, offer the most promise to provide cost-effective management of weeds that are difficult to control though existing approaches therefore guiding the better management weeds in the grain production regions of Queensland. Also, unlike conventional methods of weed control these genetic tools are agile and can be quickly adapted to protect the profitability of primary industries and enterprises from the impacts of new and existing weed threats. This will help Queensland to protect and grow its trade and market access, both nationally and internationally. Next-generation weed management technologies, such as this will increase the productivity of crops and pastures in Queensland, generate knowledge-based jobs though industry uptake and finally, position Queensland as a science innovation catalyst, globally.
Social benefits: As part of my project, I am also studying methods of effectively engaging with the public on advanced biotechnologies. This is especially important as engaging early with the local communities – end users of this technology, will help us develop a better understanding of the factors behind social acceptance and adoption of genetic technologies. Through this research, I aim to develop a framework to inform policy and decision-making around the use of gene technology in invasive weed control. This will support initiatives of the Biodiscovery Act (2004, QLD) and help Queensland lead the way in responsible application of genetic technologies for invasive species management.
Environmental benefits: Overuse and an almost exclusive reliance on herbicides for weed control has resulted in weeds developing resistance. This overuse, has also resulted in herbicide residues being diffused and causing chemical pollution, therefore severely impacting Queensland’s environment and wildlife including the Great Barrier Reef. The genetic tools being developed in this project are designed to reduce the use of herbicides for landscape-scale weed management. This reduced herbicide use will translate into better environmental outcomes for Queensland.
Commercialization potential: Results from this project could be used to develop a spray-on application to switch on/off plant domestication genes at critical time points in the weed lifecycle. Regulatory approval of RNA interference-modified fruits has exemplified the acceptability of similar products and, placed this tool as a preferred technology for agribusiness companies such as Monsanto, BASF and Syngenta. These companies have experience in deregulation of chemicals and biological molecules and would be ideal partners to take the technology to market.
3. What STEM promotion/engagement activities do you do/have you done? (maximum 500 words)
I am passionate about improving diversity in science and have always strived to build connections and foster public participation in STEM through communication and outreach activities. Over the years, I have used my skills to communicate with a range of audiences (including farmers, subject matter experts, students and the general public) in a range of locations (from international conferences, to the classroom and science exhibitions). I have proactively participated in creating science engagement experiences like the Pint of Science. As the Event Manager for the first ever Pint of Science event in Canberra, I organized talks from local researchers and Nobel laureate (Dr. Brian Schmidt) for this 3-night global science communication festival. As part of The Smith family and CSIRO joint initiative, I helped in the design and delivery of a 3-day immersive learning experience focused at showcasing STEM career paths to secondary school students from disadvantaged communities in regional Victoria. I have presented my findings at Research Bites – a public seminar series held in Geelong on the occasion of World One Health Day. Past engagements include pro-bono work with Questacon in Canberra, designing infographic resources to communicate scientific findings for charities and non-profit organizations such as the Pint of Science, RSI & Overuse Injury Association ACT and Save the Children. During my PhD at the University of Queensland, I was the institute finalist for the 3-minute thesis competition and in my role as a tutor, I have taught mathematics to undergraduate Biomedical science students. Since my move back to Queensland in mid-2018, I have had the opportunity to participate in the IEEE Women in Engineering leadership summit in Brisbane and exchange ideas with leaders in STEM about addressing the gender inequity in science.
Cover image credit: Genetic Literacy Project.