In February we profile Michael Christie, Chair of the NSW Division of Ag Institute Australia. Outside of his role as Chair, Michael is a patent attorney at a large global law firm. He is quick to note, however, that his routes lie in scientific research and that he still feels like "a science nerd dressed as a lawyer".
Michael studied biotechnology at the University of Queensland, receiving the University Medal for his Honours research and the Dean's Award for his PhD. Early on in his studies, Michael developed a passion for genetic engineering. He recalls sitting in lectures and learning about how plants could be engineered to boost agricultural productivity: "I was captivated by the stories of golden rice, Bt cotton, virus resistant papaya, virus resistant cassava and the like. The applications and consequences of these technologies were mind boggling."
In addition to his scientific curiosity, Michael was interested in the how these new technologies could be brought to the market. A sucker for punishment, Michael juggled his PhD while working at the university's technology transfer office and studying part-time for a graduate certificate in research commercialisation.
After completing his PhD, Michael worked as a post-doctoral fellow at the Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology in Tuebingen, Germany. "That was an amazing experience. The institute brought together brilliant minds from around the world, with the odd exception, of course."
Michael made the most of his time in Germany, using cutting edge genomics to uncover mechanisms of gene regulation, and publishing much of his research in highly reputed journals. Being a proud Queenslander, though, his biggest challenge was acclimatisation. His solution, it seems, was stubbornness: "I applied the zero degree rule. If the temperature was above zero, it was shorts weather."
After completing his research in Germany, Michael returned to Australia to work as a patent attorney. Now he works at the interface of science, business and law. Michael believes that Australia is uniquely positioned to be a world leader in agricultural innovation, but says that "too much Aussie research gets left on the bench". As a patent attorney, Michael helps scientists to identify and protect their inventions with a view to helping them achieve commercial success.
Although he swapped his lab coat for a suit and tie several years ago, Michael maintains his love for science and for the research community: "I hold scientific researchers in the highest regard. They are intelligent, hard-working and passionate about what they do. It's not always a glamorous profession, but it's an admirable one." Still fascinated by the promise of using science to promote food security, Michael sits on the Advisory Committee of The Good Food Institute and Food Frontier, two non-profit organisations that support cutting edge research into protein technologies.
Michael has been Chair of the NSW Division of Ag Institute Australia since June last year. In that time, the NSW Division has seen a marked increase in membership, particularly among the younger generation. On what's driving that growth, Michael says "I'd put that down to the dynamics of the industry, and to the array of talent within the NSW Executive Committee."
Michael believes that agriculture will continue to employ a growing number of Australians with an ever expanding range of skillsets. He recalls an AIA careers night hosted by the NSW Division last year that was well attended by students and employers alike: "I remember one student chatting to a representative from a large ag company. A few days later, she'd landed a job!"
Michael has a Bachelor of Biotechnology (Honours), a PhD (Biochemistry), a Graduate Certificate in Research Commercialisation and a Master of Intellectual Property. He is a relatively recent addition to the AIA, having joined in 2017.
Michael has been Chair of the NSW Division of Ag Institute Australia since June 2017.
Dr Daniel Tan is an Associate Professor in Agronomy at the University of Sydney, where he has both taught and undertaken research in agronomy and farming systems. In 2009 he was a visiting academic at the University of Oxford in the UK, researching the bioenergy potential of Agave plants. He has also done research on heat and drought tolerance of wheat, chickpea and cotton.
Daniel is on the editorial board of the Journal of Science of Food and Agriculture and is also President of the NSW Division of Ag Institute Australia. He has been a member of Ag Institute Australia since 1991.
Why do you work in agriculture? I love working with farmers and crops. I get up every morning excited about working with innovative primary producers and clever students.
What are the most rewarding parts of your work? I enjoy developing new heat tolerant crops, knowing that these new heat tolerant crops will be made available to farmers in a few years’ time. I also find it rewarding when my students graduate and develop great research and consulting careers in agriculture.
How did you find your time at the University of Oxford? I spent 5 months at the University of Oxford during my sabbatical leave and enjoyed the mental stimulation of working with some of the best plant physiologists in the world.
What’s the most pressing issue(s) in agriculture from your perspective? I think that the most pressing issue in agriculture is helping farmers adapt to climate change and climate variability. For example, developing wheat crops that can maintain yields despite heat waves in spring.
If you weren’t doing agricultural research, what would you be doing? If I weren’t doing agricultural research, I would probably be in agricultural consulting.
Donna Lucas is a senior consultant with RM Consulting Group. Based in Tasmania, she focuses in particular on agricultural extension and consulting, farm business management and evaluation and working within agricultural and rural networks. She has been with RM Consulting since 2012 – prior to this she was an accountant and farm GST trainer and also spent several years working for RDS Partners.
Donna completed a Bachelor of Applied Science (Agriculture) with honours in 2007 at the University of Tasmania, and also holds a Diploma in Project Management from TAFE Tasmania.
She is past chair of the AIA Tasmanian Division and is currently on the Tasmanian Committee.
Why do you work in agriculture? I've always had a strong connection with agriculture - maybe it's in my blood. I worked in accounting for several years and I enjoyed that, but decided that agriculture is where my heart is.
What are the most rewarding parts of your work? Working with people to solve problems - I especially enjoy working with the younger generation of farmers, I learn a lot from them.
How is the season for your clients? It's been good for some crops/regions and not so good for others.
What’s the most pressing issue(s) in agriculture from your perspective? There are a range of issues and opportunities (e.g. increasing our competitiveness, using market intelligence, using resources efficiently). The main issue is having the people and skills to make the most of opportunities.
If you weren’t an agricultural consultant, what would you be doing? It is difficult to say because there are so many options but it I think I'd still be working with the land, rural people or rural communities.
Dr Don Burnside FAIA, who until recently was a Principal Consultant with URS Australia Pty Ltd, where he was involved in natural resource management and socio-economic impact assessments in rural and regional Australia. He is now semi-retired and does some consulting work as opportunities present.
Don holds the office of Treasurer on the National Board of Ag Institute Australia, and has been a member since 1981 (he thinks). He has been on the Committee of the WA Division since 1991, and was Divisional President for three years. He values highly his membership of AIA, which provides great networks and sources of information relevant to agriculture.
Why do you work in agriculture? Having a working knowledge of biophysical systems, and the farming systems and wider socio-economic systems that rely on these natural processes is endlessly fascinating and challenging. Making a difference is hard, but one keeps trying…
What are the most rewarding parts of your work? Working with people on programs and projects in the rangelands where I have worked off and on for 40 years. I have always loved getting out into the outback where I have made some great friends and addressed some thorny problems, alas not necessarily with success.
Where does your work take you? Given my main area of technical interest is in the grazed rangelands, that involvement and a continuing interest has taken me to outback areas in most of the mainland states and the Northern Territory. Apart from that, during my URS days, I also did a lot of socio-economic work for mining companies in the dynamic environment of the Pilbara. I continue to enjoy socio-economic work in other areas.
What’s the most pressing issue(s) in agriculture from your perspective? Agriculture has great potential – but that potential will only be realised with the right and sufficient mixture of capital, technology and people – and a policy environment that encourages and supports success.
If you weren’t doing agricultural research, what would you be doing? Sailing, browsing in bookshops, more sailing, and travel.