Rebecca Ford is a plant pathologist in the Environmental Futures Research Institute at Griffith University.
Her research has previously included work on crop breeding and now focuses on how to ensure food security and productivity through novel tools and management options of major crop pathogens.
My research expertise is in applied plant pathology and the development of tools that enable plant breeders and growers to determine the best ways to manage diseases in their crops.
I knew I wanted to work in an area where I could help growers and farmers, doing research that is directly beneficial to the end-user. I grew up in rural UK so I had an appreciation of where food comes from, of the environments that farming creates, and the impact it has on the natural environment.
I wanted to contribute to developing cropping systems that are as sustainable as possible. I had an innate drive to try and reduce chemical usage by making smarter systems and providing tools for growers and breeders to reduce those external impacts on the environment.
I accepted an offer at the University of Melbourne and did my PhD there. I worked my way up from lecturer level through to Associate Professor. I was leading my own research programs and working closely with the Department of Primary Industries and several other institutes in Victoria and elsewhere. I was lucky to have made myself indispensable enough to be given a continuing academic position.
When I decided I wanted to move to Queensland for family reasons, the challenge was to lobby the Senior Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Griffith University and convince him that I could be indispensable to Griffith and persuade him to take that risk. Then the challenge was around re-establishing myself.
I was able to transfer a couple of grants from Victoria but I did have to leave behind quite a few other opportunities and I’ve had to develop new opportunities and liaise with a new kind of plant industry up here, a whole new group of growers. So that’s taken quite a bit of work.
There are always threats and risks, but there are always opportunities. I think it’s a matter of just having enough personal drive to believe in yourself and deliver the outcomes that are applicable and show how they’re taken up into industry. I’ve always walked this tight-rope between academia and industry and I’m quite comfortable there, but it does take effort to stay there.
In a pure research sense I’m really proud of a couple of things. Seeing the release of varieties I’ve had hand in the genetic makeup of which has made them as resistant as possible to the current fungal population. The lentil varieties that have been released over the last 20 years have had a resistance source in them that I first characterised in my PhD. I did that by working closely with a lentil breeder as well as a company that part-sponsored my PhD program.
Since then I’ve worked with chickpea breeders and papaya breeders to develop varieties that have disease resistance and quality standards so that they meet market demand. So I’m really proud of the practical outcomes of my research and seeing that put into motion. For example, with papaya we’re looking at various fruit quality traits and developing varieties that will taste much better than what’s currently available on the supermarket shelves.
I’m also really proud that I’ve had a hand in guiding the future career directions of my PhD graduates. Many of them now hold senior pathologist positions around Australia. Others work at various research institutes around the world in senior management positions.
I’m very honoured to have been part of their scientific education and their career progression. That has to be one of your main drivers otherwise, why are you working in a university? Wouldn’t you just go and work for a research company? I’ve always had a passion for education, but to see people take a little seed you give them and grow that into a career is really something else.
Impact and Legacy
I don’t consider myself as a “breakthrough” person; I see myself working quietly in the background to achieve change. My legacy, I hope, is that people consider me as having contributed to increasing the profitability of the Australian cropping system and to training the next generation of crop scientists.
Probably 50 to 60 percent of Australian pulse industry pathologists and some of the breeders have come through an education system that I’ve been part of, including as a direct supervisor.
Advice to Younger Researchers
Speak up and join in the conversations where you can to voice your ideas. Step forward and take credit for your achievements but do it in a humble way. Show your passion to seek answers through research, but understand that you’re never going to find the answer to every question that’s posed. Have a task in mind and achieve that task. There’s always going to be something else that spins on from that.
Find some mentors who you admire, not just because they’re brilliant researchers, but for their communication skills, their leadership and management skills. Observe how they interact with the people around them and start self-reflecting on your own communication skills. Be proactive and make a pathway for yourself, but at the same time be self-reflective and pick up the skills that you need by surrounding yourself with people who have achieved the recognition and reputation that you have a passion to achieve.
So, be inquisitive, be humble, but be heard and be recognised. Make networks with the people who value and seek your opinion. You need to get out there. Start talking to the people who are working in a similar area to you, or who would benefit from the outputs of your research, and make relationships with those people. Do it as soon as possible because you never know where that’s going to lead.