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This month the career profile will be on NPBDN member Tracey Steinrucken, a Plant Pathology Research Scientist (PIC) at CSIRO in Brisbane.

How did you find yourself on this career path?

I’ve always been interested in plants, and having been born in South Africa, I was initially drawn into biocontrol of weeds using plant pathogens because of the invasion pathways and research ties between South Africa and Australia. This morphed into my overall interest in Australia’s biosecurity, and I now focus on developing novel molecular diagnostic and surveillance tools for the early detection of plant diseases.

What does a typical workday look like for you?

You will find me either working with fungi and coaxing them to sporulate, growing and inoculating my plants, isolating and amplifying DNA and RNA, or analyzing results and reading, or writing about my research. I particularly enjoy getting groups together, connecting with others in my network, organising workshops and creating opportunities for others. I always try to make time for a daily coffee with my fantastic colleagues here in Brisbane.

How long have you worked in this area?

This will be my 14th year in plant pathology!

What were your previous roles?

I’ve been a scientific consultant for Australis Biological in Victoria and for QUT on the microbial ecology of pasture dieback. I have worked as a molecular biology, biochemistry, and plant ecology tutor at UQ, QUT and RMIT universities that I really enjoyed. Between my PhD and Postdoc I was a research assistant for CSIRO working with insect biocontrol agents in quarantine, and then my postdoc with Biosecurity Queensland and CSIRO involved the search for an endemic biocontrol agent for giant rat’s tail grass. My interest in biosecurity and the prevention of plant diseases eventually led me to a project on airborne eDNA surveillance of forest pathogens where I spent a month last year at ETZ in Zurish to learn the trade. Shortly afterwards I started my current position as Research Scientist with CSIRO’s newly formed Plant Health Diagnostics team, which I balance with my role as an Innovation Facilitator for CSIRO Ag & Food’s Hort Innovation Pest READI project.

What is your training/education background?

I completed a double degree (Commerce and Science) at Deakin in Melbourne. I then started working in plant pathology during my Masters at Lund University in Sweden with a biocontrol project on tutsan using tutsan rust (Melampsora hypericorum), which was combined with an Honours in Applied Science at RMIT. I then found a PhD with CSIRO and Western Sydney University on biocontrol of Parkinsonia acuelata, using the dieback syndrome that was affecting it across the country. I spent a year of my PhD expanding on this research on a Fulbright Fellowship at UC Berkeley.

What is your most memorable career achievement?

Most of my highlights have involved travel of some kind – UC Berkeley for my Fulbright scholarship, for example. More recently however, I’d say a major highlight was working in Switzerland with ETH Zurich and the Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Landscape and Snow (WSL). The results showed that we could accurately and quantitatively detect Ash dieback (Hymenoscyphus fraxineus) from airborne eDNA extracted from filters from air pollution monitoring stations. This has huge potential for disease surveillance across landscapes, so with the support of the Queensland Department of Environment and Science, I was also able to demonstrate proof of concept in southeast Queensland by targeting myrtle rust.

What advice do you have for someone starting or changing their career?

  • For those staring their career: you can never do enough data analysis, statistics or programming courses.
  • For EMCRs and anyone considering changing their careers: put yourself in the way of opportunity. If something looks interesting then apply, put your name forward, put your hand up. You never know where it may lead.
  • It doesn’t matter who you are, get a great mentor for your current life or career stage – someone who can champion you and help you see the bigger picture.

Links to professional profile(s)