Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO)
The enemy of my enemy is a friend: using fungal pathogens to fight invasive grasses

Are you eligible for Breaking Barriers Category:

SUMMARY

The overarching aim of my research is to find biological solutions for the integrated management of weeds. I want to reduce the time and cost associated with weed control and limit the environmental impact of herbicides. Ultimately, I aim to produce mycoherbicides (a formulation containing fungal spores or fragments) to replace or supplement chemical herbicides. I do this by identifying plant pathogens already in Australia which are damaging and specific to my target weed(s) and testing them in a series of laboratory, genetic, glasshouse and field-based experiments. I believe that my systematic, empirical, and evidence-based approach is essential for developing safe and effective biological control tools. I work closely with Biosecurity Queensland and am part of a wider biocontrol research team at CSIRO. We continuously consult with landholders, the Department of Agriculture, local councils, and other regulatory bodies to produce safe, cost-effective, and efficient solutions. 

BENEFIT – A description of the benefit of your work to Queensland (max 500 words)

In Queensland, farmers spend around $600 million a year in weed control activities. However, the total impact of weeds is much higher as they reduce available space for crop or pasture species,  cause toxicity in grazing animals and reduce ecotourism value. Weeds also socially impact already-stressed land managers, and herbicide use may have unintended off-target impacts to both humans and the environment. Thus, weeds significantly impact primary industries, natural ecosystems, human and animal health. 

My current focus are the giant rat’s tail grasses (a.k.a “GRT”) from the genus Sporobolus. GRT is native to southern Africa, the USA and southern Asia, and since its accidental introduction in the 1960s, these five closely related invasive grass species have established right across Australia. In Queensland alone, they have the potential to cover 60% of the land if left unmanaged. GRT produces massive amounts of tiny seeds (85,000 per square metre in a year), 90% of which remain viable for up to 10 years. For farmers, a GRT infestation can cause up to 80% loss of production due to reduced carrying capacity. This is because cattle don’t eat it, and if they do, the tough grasses grind down their teeth and have very low nutrient value. Eventually, GRT can outcompete desired (and more nutritious) pasture grasses. The economic impact of GRT to beef production in Northern Australia is estimated to be a loss of $60 million/year. The current management options include quarantining isolated patches of GRT, creating buffer zones around infestations, heavy grazing or slashing of young GRT, or repeated spot spraying with the herbicide glyphosate, or broader treatment with flupropanate. All of this is followed by years of ongoing maintenance to stamp out new seedlings, and restrictions on transporting stock between properties to reduce seed spread. 

But what if we could reduce the impact of the giant rat’s tail grasses, while also reducing reliance on herbicides? Biocontrol offers that potential. Our aim is to produce a mycoherbicide containing fungal spores or fragments. This formulation can then be selectively applied to our target weeds and cause a local fungal epidemic which impacts GRT thus reducing flowering, seed production, and population spread without using chemical herbicides. During surveys, we’ve isolated over 110 fungal pathogens from diseased GRT across Queensland. I’ve identified and tested them to ensure they cause disease in my target weeds. We’ve found over 20 new fungal pathogens of which I’ve so far named and described six. We test each pathogen isolate to ensure they are specific to GRT and thus safe to formulate into a mycoherbicide.  From 110, my team and I are now down to 7 prioritised agents which are undergoing further evaluation. Throughout this project we have been continuously visiting, consulting with, hearing from, and contributing to discussions with landholders, farmers and local council members to create a biocontrol tool that, if successful, will be widely and easily adopted. Our goal is to then work with the APVMA to produce a safe, effective mycoherbicide which can be used alongside or instead of current management and restoration efforts.


ROLE MODEL – Why do you think you are a good role model for women and girls aspiring to work in STEM? (max 500 words)

I’ve faced many challenges as a woman but have never shied away from them. My success is partly due to the help of my amazing mentors and the recognition that sometimes we need to lean on others to endure. I’ve grabbed every opportunity that comes by. I’ve been a rock-climbing instructor in Lake Tahoe, and a study abroad advisor in Melbourne. I’ve spent an entire Swedish summer surveying wheat and barley fields for wild boars, and I’ve volunteered at foodbanks in San Francisco. As part of Science Meets Parliament I got to see Chief Scientist Cathy Foley present at the National Press Club, and in 2016 I attended an American Politics conference in Atlanta just before the primaries that got Donald Trump into office. 

I love teaching, mostly because I get pure joy out of watching others learn and gain passion from their own discoveries. Being a visible and proud “science mum” to young women and girls is a hugely important part of smoothing the way for the next generation of scientists. But I make sure to share more than just course content - I want to inspire students to travel and study abroad. I purposefully chose to continue teaching in the lab while pregnant, even though my large belly would accidentally wipe the white board clean while I was writing up protocols for the class. I readily take up opportunities to talk about my career path, experiences, and research, aiming to inspire aspiring scientists to find their calling. 

I make sure to speak to young women and people who want families to show them what I’ve achieved, but also to share the difficulties of the process and find ways to improve things for whomever comes next. For example, it was my “crowd-sourced” suggestion that fast-tracked a change to the way CSIRO advertise new post-doctoral positions. Now, all applicants are aware of the flexible work options available to a successful candidate, whereas previously this was only discussed after an interview. I’m also part of the successful bid team to host the 2028 Conference for the International Society for Plant Pathologists (ISPP2028) on the Gold Coast, which will bring over 1000 international scientists to Queensland. One thing that made our ISPP2028 bid stand out was my insistence that it be a family-friendly event, with opportunities for childcare support and activities.

My most important role has been as a mum. I have two young daughters whom I hope grow up to be inquisitive and confident, and willing to challenge the status quo. I believe there are always way to grow, and my years of living abroad have taught me there are ways Australia can improve career opportunities for women and marginalised groups and enhance social and workplace equality. With the support of great managers, my series of incredible mentors, and a wonderful partner, I’ve been able to raise a family and build a successful career. I will continue to aim high, share what I’ve learned, advocate for anyone with aspirations in STEM.

ENGAGEMENT – Describe any STEM promotion or engagement activities that you have undertaken, including both scientific and non-scientific audiences, particularly with women and girls (maximum 500 words)

I am passionate about making science accessible to the public, reducing the prevalence of misinformation, and inspiring curiosity in young minds. I organise, promote and host a monthly virtual seminar series for the Australasian Mycological Society, of which I am President. I ensure we have a gender-balanced series of speakers to showcase mycological research from Australia and New Zealand. We have between 40 and 60 attendees from around the world for each session and the seminars are open to the public – a specific point I fought for to ensure maximum reach of this otherwise niche field. In March 2022 I participated as a panelist in a conference for Postdoctoral Fellows at CSIRO where I discussed the mentor-mentee relationship and its importance for early-career researchers. Last year I was the lead organiser for a successful national conference for early-to-mid-career researchers from CSIRO, held entirely online. We had over 100 attendees and ran a series of workshops, panel sessions, poster sessions and networking activities. Our committee won the CSIRO Health & Biosecurity Outstanding Collaboration Award for that conference. In 2021 I also won the Social Media Award (a.k.a. “Chief Twit”) for the Ecological Society of Australia’s Annual Conference, in recognition of my engagement with the public and other delegates on Twitter.

I was a delegate for Science Meets Parliament in 2021 which was run by Science and Technology Australia. In 2020 I was a STEM Expert and Mentor for the Asia-Link Youth Forum run by WA Education and University of Melbourne. I was also a recipient of the Advance Queensland Women’s Research Assistance Program (WRAP) Grant in 2019. I am currently the primary supervisor to a UQ Honours student, and in 2019 I was the project mentor for a group of 3rd year students at QUT. I was proud to employ one the young women as a research assistant (thanks to my WRAP), and a colleague recently employed another in a similar field. I also tutored at UQ for 4 years, and I won the award for Best Tutor in 2019 as voted by my students. Additionally, while in the US on my Fulbright Fellowship in 2015, I was a mentor for a STEM workshop at UC Berkeley called “Expanding Your Horizons” for young women in high school to learn about career opportunities in maths and science. 

As part of my scientific research, I have presented at multiple international conferences including the Ecological Society of Australia, the Australasian Plant Pathology Society (where my 12-week-old baby accompanied me!), the Australasian Mycological Society, and the American Phytopathological Society. During my PhD I won my Institute’s and then my University’s Three-Minute Thesis (3MT) competition, and I represented Western Sydney University at the National 3MT event in Perth (2014). This month I was awarded the Early Career Travel Grant from the Council of Australasian Weeds Societies to present at their annual conference in September. I will also be presenting my work at the Australian Biosecurity Symposium on the Gold Coast in May.

VIDEO