ACT Committee: 2015 Scholars

ACT Committee Sponsored Scholars
Click on the links below to view scholar bios and conference reports.

Naveenkumar Athiyannan, CSIRO
Ritika Chowdhary, CSIRO
Sam Malfroy, Plant Health Australia
Elena Martin Avila, Australian National University
Hannah Osborn, Australian National University
John Rivers, Australian National University
Sahibzada Shafiullah, Charles Sturt University
Kimberley Tilbrook, CSIRO
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2015 ACT Committee sponsored scholars
2015 ACT Committee sponsored scholars

Naveenkumar Athiyannan

Naveenkumar is a Master’s (biochemistry) graduate from India currently undertaking a PhD at CSIRO and the University of Queensland. He was working on a research project entitled “Genetic engineering of crops for insect resistance through cry genes of Bacillus thuringiensis”, at Tamil Nadu Agricultural University, India. He is a recipient of an International Postgraduate Research Scholarship funded by the Australian Government to undertake Doctoral studies in agriculture. Naveen’s PhD research examines the molecular-genetic aspects of plant defense mechanisms that protect against wheat rust diseases.
Fungal rusts are major diseases of wheat that threaten global food security. Naveen’s career goal is to make a valuable contribution to agricultural production, particularly in developing countries like India. The Crawford Fund 2015 Annual Conference will be a wonderful opportunity to network with like-minded researchers and leaders.

Conference Report
It was great pleasure to take part in 2015 Crawford annual conference “The Business of Food Security: Profitability, Sustainability and Risk”. The conference started with Sir John Crawford memorial lecture delivered by Dr Cary Fowler, vice chair of Global Crop Diversity Trust, highlighted the importance of crop diversity and conservation to double food production for rapidly increasing human population.
On the conference day at parliament house, it was interesting to know about the commitment of Agri-food companies to sustainable agriculture around the world. The keynote lecture by Her Excellency Ms Gerda Verberg the Netherland’s permanent representative to UN, on increasing the food production with decreasing resources highlighted the awaiting challenge in global food security. Besides, an inspiring quote by Dr Lim Jung Lee, Director Syngenta Indonesia “trust the partners, bring together the resources, and serve better the farmers” clearly indicated the role of partnership in encouraging the agriculture and increasing food production.
Finally, the scholar’s day commenced with the inspirational talk by Dr Martin Kropff, Director, CIMMYT and the experiences shared by the Crawford volunteers to international agriculture. It created passion in me to contribute significantly to international agriculture. The documentary film “Seeds of Time” delivered the message about the importance of preserving the biodiversity. It also visualized the effort by Dr Fowler and team in setting up the Seed Vault. It was complete inspirational to everyone who watched the documentary.
Starting from the networking dinner to the end of scholar’s day it was full of opportunities to network with renowned scientists, young scholars contributing to international agriculture and to know our role in overcoming the challenges in global food security. Overall this conference deepened my vision to contribute to global food security. I am extremely grateful to the Crawford fund and ACT committee for the award of 2015 Conference scholarship.

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Ritika Chowdhary

I am Ritika Chowdhary, an agricultural scientist from India and a John Allwright Research Fellow in plant science. I am conducting my PhD research at the University of Sydney and at CSIRO Agriculture Flagship in Canberra, Australia. Presently I am working on the ACIAR Indo-Australian project on root and establishment traits for greater water use efficiency in wheat. This research is particularly relevant to improving crop productivity in India and Australia, where wheat is one of the most important food crops.
My aim to attend this conference is to know about new problems arising in today’s food nutrition, its production, transport, security, ethics and also about the various community resources from different parts of world that can be can useful for our future. This would definitely help me in exploring more networks and new areas of agriculture research and to enrich my future career.

Conference Report
A glance at the business of food security: It was a great experience to attend the 2015 Annual Parliamentary Conference “THE BUSINESS OF FOOD SECURITY: Profitability, Sustainability and Risk” organized by The Crawford Fund on 10 – 12 AUGUST 2015, Canberra. On the first day, with full enthusiasm I attended the networking dinner at Realm Hotel, which not only included superb food, great personalities, 46 rocking scholars and opportunities to network but also had an informative memorial addressing session in honour of the remarkable Australian Sir John Crawford, who passionately contributed and supported international agricultural research for development in Australia and other countries like India.
There were presentations from The Hon Tim Fischer AC, former Deputy PM and chair of the Crawford Fund and current vice chair of the executive board of the Global Crop Diversity Trust and followed by Dr Cary Fowler, biodiversity conservationist and former executive director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust, who explained the value of the “Seedbank” in Svalbard for safety of our natural germplasm which may be extinct soon due to excessive use of modern cultivars and technology. He said “expose yourself to diverse thinking, no problem in the world is going to be solved by a single discipline and must have collaboration between science & business”.
On the conference day, at the beginning they said common issues that everybody knows like “more than 1 billion people around the world go to bed hungry each night” and “by 2050 the world will need twice as much food with less natural resources”. However after that they presented their thoughts as leading thinkers.

  • Food waste: Visy’s contribution suggested to food security the food added value and mainly to avoid food waste in the food system (crop disease, storage and unprocessed food) for e.g. In India 10% of food is only processed. (Mr Anthony Pratt, Executive Chairman, Visy Industries).
  • Nutrition security: Her Excellency Gerda Verburg, Chair of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on Food and Nutrition Security suggested building Partnerships in food security pay off in nutrition security. She said “Bring the people together via trust in Multi-stakeholder collaboration who don’t like being together and all invest in a common solution. You cannot grow grass faster by pulling it, must be patient with uptake of research and change”. On Q&A session she put stress on to adopt the holistic in our approach to food security and she said that “your story is clear to you, but may not be so clear to others, just keep coming with snipets for leadership. Agriculture cannot operate in silos”.
  • Partnerships for Impact at Scale: Dr Marco Ferroni, Executive Director, Syngenta Foundation for Sustainable Agriculture said plant breeders need to respond to market-led demand. Calls for greater collaboration to tackle food security, challenges the pervasiveness of “peasant romanticism” that locks subsistence farmers in poverty.
  • Animal Source Foods and Sustainable Global Food Security: Elanco, Jess M Ramsden Leader for Market Access, Asia gave a take away key message that everyone has an important role to play in total efforts. e.g. Animal sourced foods have key nutrients: 1 serving of chicken provides more than 50% daily value of protein.
  • Finally, the scholar’s day commenced with the inspirational talk by Dr Martin Kropff, Director, CIMMYT and Nick Austin, Chief Executive Officer of ACIAR shared experiences about their life and being a volunteer to international agriculture. Great & informative speech at Questacon by Minister Ian Mcfarlane MP said science solves the problems of agriculture and productivity. Now and in the future, we need less pure politics and more science. The inspirational documentary film “Seeds of Time” showed Dr Fowler’s team effort in setting up the largest Seed Vault in the world, North Pole, 500 seeds per box, 5000 species, -18degrees, no tech input and finished with an inspirational quote by Dr Fowler about careers “It is more important to figure out what you want to DO, as opposed to what you want to BE”. Lastly I want to thank Crawford ACT committee, which provided me such a great opportunity to see, learn and also to network.

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    Sam Malfroy

    I have a Bachelor of Horticultural Science (Hons) from the University of Sydney (USYD). I have worked for the Department of Agriculture in Canberra, and for the last 3 years I have been at Plant Health Australia (PHA). PHA is a not-for-profit, private company that nationally coordinates the government-industry partnership for plant biosecurity in Australia.
    In addition to this role, I have been working with USYD researchers on an AUSAID/DFAT project to promote extension and education activities in SE Asian countries on agronomy, beekeeping and mushroom production. My particular area of interest is related to bees and the improved yields and quality of produce which can be obtained through appropriate pollination. I am particularly interested in food security R&D initiatives that are being conducted around the world, as well as meeting like-minded colleagues.

    Conference Report
    The Crawford Fund Conference was an incredibly valuable 2-3 days of learning more about future food security challenges, as well as meeting like-minded people who are interested, or who work in this area.
    Throughout the conference we heard numerous times from the speakers that we will need produce around double the food that we produce now, for the estimated 9-10 billion people by 2050. In addition to producing double the food, we need to produce it with less resources, such as land, water and nutrients, as well as produce this food with less outputs, such as carbon.
    This is all at a time with a burgeoning global middle class demanding more protein-rich food, increasing complex and strategic circumstances, such as geopolitical factors and fragile environmental conditions and climate change which will increasingly threaten the supply of land, water and nutrients.
    It was interesting to hear more about how these challenges are complex, intertwined, and as the conference discussed, how it needs the involvement of all sectors working together if we are to have any hope of achieving the end goal. This includes policy support from governments, large scale and coordinated implementation from private industry, technical specialist staff and the involvement of research organisations, as well as adequate money to be invested from both the government and private sector.
    Some of the thoughts and ideas that I took away from the conference include:

    • I found one comment by Dr Marco Ferroni very interesting – it was ‘In this area, we need to accept that profit is good. We should get out of this romanticised view of subsistence farming in third world or developing countries’. I had never considered this before, but upon reflection, it does seem that many of our considerations when we talk about agricultural R&D in developing countries involves this view. Although we obviously need to be considerate of historical farming techniques and practices in different regions, we also need to work towards lasting yield and quality improvements through advances in plant breeding and technology and to implement these practices in developing countries.
    • Listening to representatives from companies such as Syngenta, Bayer, Elanco and WWF it was very interesting to learn more about how these organisations are already starting to form collaborative partnerships in an effort to resolve these challenges.
    • It was interesting to hear more about the role that an organisation such as CIMMYT plays in this area, as well as learn more broadly about the extensive benefits that international agricultural research has for Australian producers. For instance, it is estimated that CIMMYT research has provided > $30 million per year in benefits to Australian wheat producers over the last 25 years.

    For a young agricultural scientist, who is keen to pursue research and work in this area, it was an amazing opportunity to meet people who work in this area and be inspired more about agricultural research in Australia and around the world. It was also a good opportunity to understand more about the challenges we face, as well as learn about meaningful change that is currently being implemented around the world to improve food security.

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    Elena Martin Avila

    My name is Elena Martin Avila and I am an early-career Postdoctoral scientist working at the CoE for Translational Photosynthesis (ANU). My research explores novel approaches to improve the catalytic efficiency of the CO2-fixing enzyme, Rubisco, as a target for supercharging photosynthesis and with the final goal of improving crop yield potential.
    I believe that adopting a trans-disciplinary approach is crucial to stimulate and greatly enrich the considerations and discussions needed to overcome the actual challenges surrounding food security in a sustainable but affordable manner. That’s why I am really looking forward to this outstanding opportunity to enrich my knowledge and understanding across a variety of food security topics.

    Conference Report
    Last week I was one of the 45 fortunate young agricultural scientists to receive a scholarship from the Crawford Fund to attend their Annual Parliamentary Conference “The business of food security: Profitability, sustainability and risk”.
    As a researcher in plant biotechnology I have always looked at food security under the same viewpoint. So for me, one of the main highlights of the Conference was the exposure to an assortment of people, stories and backgrounds, all tackling the same issue from many different angles. It was that same multidisciplinary environment that made the Conference so vibrant and brought to the table the realisation that food security won’t be solved by a single discipline. The diverse training of scholars and other participants allowed room for lively conversations during coffee breaks and network time. I had the chance to have a conversation about the role of genetically modified crops (GMOs) with someone with a politics background, and her observations and comments on such a controversial topic were extremely valuable and completely new to me.
    It was also fantastic listening to leaders from a broad range of multinational Agrifood companies talking about the need for partnership and collaborations not only between themselves, but also with researchers and agencies. The willingness of the private sector to engage with smallholder farmers and keep investing in food security research and technology was encouraging. As a female researcher, I was also reassured by the balanced gender participation of speakers, and despite the acknowledgement that there is still a long way to go to gender equality in international agricultural research, I was pleasantly surprised to see many young women amongst the Scholars.
    Another major highlight for many of us was the attendance of Dr Fowler. His life story and achievements are inspiring for the new generation, and emphasize the importance of funding gene banks and breeding programs in order to preserve biodiversity and food security under the threat of climate change. He also talked about a subject that I am very interested in: the importance of maintaining orphan crops, which have a big nutritional and cultural impact in the lives of many small farming communities, mainly in developing countries.
    And of course the scholars day! I tried to make the most of this great networking opportunity we had; not only among the scholars, but also with the speakers for the day. We were motivated and inspired by the broad range of potential opportunities available for us to be involved in international agricultural development that I was not aware existed.
    The Conference has, by far, exceeded my expectations and it has been an overall informative and enlightening experience. I was thrilled to be surrounded by so many like-minded peers working or studying in such diverse areas towards achieving a common goal, Global Food Security, and I look forward to meet them again in many occasions throughout our careers.

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    Hannah Osborn

    I’m a 2nd year PhD candidate at ANU studying CO2 diffusion in plants. Specifically, I’m trying to characterise CO2 permeable aquaporins in a model grass species. I became interested in plant science due to my upbringing on a vegetable farm in the Hunter Valley, NSW. I completed a Bachelor of Biotechnology (Hons) at the University of Newcastle then went travelling for a year, mainly Africa and Spain, before working at CSIRO Land and Water in Sydney in environmental toxicology and genomics. Now I am a PhD student working in the laboratory but in the future I’d like to be involved in communicating science to the general public and implementing science advancements in the field. I am interested in attending this conference so I can broaden my outlook from the laboratory bench and learn more about food security issues.

    Conference Report
    Attending the 2015 Crawford Fund conference “The business of Food Security: Profitability, Sustainability and Risk” was a very rewarding experience. It was great to discuss food security issues with people who have very different experiences to my own, as a PhD student in molecular biology. The conference highlighted that the challenge of feeding 9 billion people will only be achieved through a multifaceted approach involving collaboration, partnership and good policy development.
    Particular highlights for me included listening to Dr Cary Fowler’s experiences in setting up the seed vault in Svaldbard. This seed vault, set 150 m into the permafrost, provides a backup storage centre for over 864,000 seeds in order to safe guard crop diversity and prevent the loss of genetic diversity upon which agriculture will depend on in the future. Her Excellency Ms Gerda Verberg, one of the keynote speakers for the conference was another highlight. She raised the interesting aspect of food nutrition often overlooked when speaking about food security.
    A large portion of the conference was dedicated to private industry, for me the most interesting speakers were Dr Marco Ferroni and Dr Martin Kropff. Dr Ferroni, Executive Director of the Syngenta Foundation spoke passionately about developing public-private cooperation in agriculture in developing countries. Dr Kropff, Director General of CIMMYT, the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre, spoke about the advances in crop research through breeding which are helping smallholder farmers as well as farmers in Australia.
    In addition to the Parliamentary Conference I also attended the Scholars day at Questacon. This was a motivational and inspiring day where we again heard from Dr Kropff and Dr Nick Austin, CEO of ACIAR, the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research, about their experiences and career path. Throughout the Scholars day there was a strong emphasis on volunteering in developing countries to gain experience in international agriculture. We also had the opportunity to speak with the Crawford Fund Committee members about their career paths. All together this was a valuable and motivating addition to the conference and I really enjoyed being able to interact with the other Crawford fund Scholars as well as with the Crawford Fund Committee members.
    Finally, I really enjoyed hearing some of the speakers, as well as the Minister for Industry and Science Hon Ian Macfarlane speak of the importance of genetic modification and current scientific advancements in reaching food security. I feel this will be an important tool, along with traditional plant breeding techniques in reaching and maintaining global food security.

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    John Rivers

    I’m currently a PhD candidate at the ARC Centre of Excellence in Plant Energy Biology, Research School of Biology, Australian National University. I previously completed a Bachelor of Philosophy (Science) at the ANU. My current research concerns the biochemistry of the plant carotenoid pigments, and how this may affect plant productivity and crop nutrition. I’m also interested in the potential for public and private-sector biological/chemical research to contribute to improving food security and the environment: this interest in the ‘bigger picture’ was what piqued my interest in the Crawford Fund and this year’s conference.

    Conference Report
    I can’t thank the Crawford Fund enough for supporting me to attend the 2015 Crawford Fund Parliamentary Conference: The Business of Food Security. It was eye-opening to hear from so many agribusiness companies: the scale of multinational companies such as Olam International (represented by keynote speaker, Mr Chris Brett, Senior Vice President and Head of Corporate Responsibility and Sustainability), are staggering. The extensive engagement that agribusiness companies have with both farmers and consumers reinforces their important role in supporting food security.
    The importance of agricultural research was also reinforced. The World Bank’s Development Report 2008 found the average return on investment for agricultural research, development and extension in developing countries is 43%. At this year’s Crawford Conference, Anthony Pratt, Chairman of Visy Industries, reminded delegates of the importance of agricultural research for adding value to farm produce. As he went on to say, such added value improves livelihoods of smallholders in developing countries, by raising and stabilising income. This will help make such farmers more resilient in the face of instability: from both markets and the world’s climate.
    The work of NGOs, exemplified by Memorial Address speaker Cary Fowler is also essential. Dr Fowler was instrumental in establishing the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. This bank contains varieties of seed from over 4000 crop plant species. Many of these seeds are from varieties of so-called orphan crops, largely overlooked by agricultural research and grown predominately by farmers in developing countries. The far-sighted work of Cary Fowler and others will be essential for improving performance of these crops.
    But where do we start with orphan crop research? How should I, as an agricultural plant scientist, prioritise research into orphan crops and other crops essential for global food security?
    The Crawford Fund Conference suggests to me that agribusiness companies, with their extensive supplier and consumer networks, could be an effective partner for scientists, helping us understand the needs of both farmers and consumers (smallholders, often fit into both categories). Greater collaboration between the private agribusiness sector and the public and NGO-research sector could improve the effectiveness of agricultural plant science research.
    This year’s conference has reaffirmed my choice of research field: I can use analytical chemistry to better-understand the compounds present in plants and thus help improve food security. The Crawford Conference has convinced me the skills I’m acquiring from my PhD studies are in demand. In future I hope I can help add value to farm produce by uncovering and quantifying the flavour, fragrance and nutraceutical compounds that are present in crops. The Crawford Fund Conference has whetted my appetite: for seeking out collaborations with agribusiness and other scientists, and helping improve food security.

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    Sahibzada Shafiullah

    I have nine years of experience working in animal production and the veterinary field. I have more than seven years’ experience in academia and extension; I have worked as a lecturer, researcher, and trainer. I have been attached with the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR) since 2009 working within the Agriculture Sector Linkages Dairy program (ASPL). I have been assigned as a focal point for Australia and New-Zealand by the dairy science park, Pakistan (DSP). My role is to seek potential collaborators down under to work for the uplift of smallholder farmers in Pakistan, especially in the war effected areas. Currently I am doing a PhD at Charles Sturt University in veterinary epidemiology, public health and biosecurity. I am working on antibiotic resistance.

    Conference Report
    It was really a great experience—the best I have ever had at any conference. I believe the best part of the conference was the wide-ranging opportunity for networking and I got the best out of it. I have made a lot of links with other colleagues, which of course will be very helpful for future collaborations. I got the opportunity to personally meet with world leaders working in international agricultural sciences. For instance, I got the opportunity to meet Dr Nick Austin, CEO ACIAR, and had a discussion about a possible collaboration to start a project for the support of smallholders in war-affected areas in Pakistan. Currently, I am working on developing a project for that. I also got the opportunity to talk to Crawford Fund officials, and got to know the process for acquiring funding. I will soon start work on a pilot project for the capacity building of scientists and experts working in agriculture and livestock production in Pakistan. It was great to see young emerging talent in the form of RAID.
    Listening to the experts and scholars, I learned that one should keep oneself open to any opportunities at any time, and never cast off an opportunity just because it might be out of their comfort zone.
    Another excellent part of the conference was meeting Dr Cary Fowler—what a humble and inspiring personality. His unique ideas and vigorous efforts are immensely appreciated for saving genetic diversity of crop varieties, in particular I refer to the Seed Vault.
    The scholar day was just amazing and full of excitement. After listening to the stories of young scholars working voluntarily in developing countries, I am fully convinced that I will grab any opportunity for international exposure working in agriculture and livestock sectors in any developing country. Watching the documentary ‘Seeds of Time’ on the scholar day was so inspirational and emotional.
    I found the concept of farm intensification (which was dominant amongst a few presenters at the conference) a bit challenging and tricky, especially for developing countries where millions of people are directly related to smallholder farming. No doubt farm intensification could be one of the prime requisites to feed 9 billion people by 2050, however, it could phase out a large number of smallholders from the playground. Ultimately, they would start coming to big cities for job hunting. So, along with agricultural intensification, we need to think about accommodating those millions of farmers and reducing the burden on our big cities and slums around those cities. It was good to listen to both aspects of the farm intensification debate, for instance, some were agreed that this concept could push producers towards hormonal and antimicrobial usage which could have unpleasant outcomes like antimicrobial resistance. The United Nations has already called antimicrobial resistance a global threat for public and veterinary health.
    I hope that next time the conference would also cover some specific and interesting topics on animal production aspects, to increase the participation of people working with production animals like dairy, beef and poultry. Food animal and agricultural scientists together can cope with the food insecurity challenges in 2050.
    Once again I am very thankful to the Crawford Fund, especially to the ACT committee (including Tony Fischer), for providing me with such an unforgettable opportunity to meet world-renowned scientists and young blooming professionals engaged in international agriculture research and development. I am looking forward to staying connected with all those I met at the conference.

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    Kimberley Tilbrook

    I received my PhD from the University of Queensland in 2011, where I investigated the potential of targeting plant peroxisomes as production sites for polyhydroxybuturate, a bacterial carbon-storage polymer with applications as a bioplastic. With a desire to gain more fundamental research experience, I then joined Professor Roman Ulm’s group at the University of Geneva as a post-doctoral researcher working at the forefront of molecular UV-B perception and signalling in the plant cell. During this time, I developed a keen interest in the link between UV-B exposure and acclimation of the photosynthetic apparatus. I returned to Australia in 2014 and am currently an OCE Postdoctoral Fellow working in the Plant & Oil Engineering group at CSIRO, Black Mountain. I am excited to attend the 2015 Crawford Fund Conference to gain further insight into the nuts and bolts of the agricultural industry. Also, I am looking for inspiration regarding current agricultural issues as I develop my own research path.

    Conference Report
    I greatly appreciated the opportunity to be a scholar attending the 2015 Crawford Fund meeting. I feel that my current walk of life differed to the majority of other scholars, in that I am already working full time in agricultural research. I wanted to attend the Crawford Fund meeting to broaden my awareness of global agriculture and food security, and was seeking general career inspiration. I attained all of these things and then some, and feel that I could not have spent a more rewarding two days. The opportunity to network with fellow scholars and other meeting delegates was invaluable. Also, to learn how the careers of some very notable people in field had progressed was very beneficial. Simply becoming aware of so many organisations that do such impressive work and that inspire me to be actively involved was fantastic.
    If I were to choose a single message that resonated with me from the meeting, it would be the words of Her Excellency Gerda Verburg, who during her speech “No more Business as Usual for Food Security and Nutrition: Our Shared Responsibility” really emphasised that significant impact would come about by partnerships between individual entities, be they private or public. I think that are not enough organisations such as the Crawford Fund and meetings such as they host which I believe bring the right people together to directly encourage such partnerships.
    Throughout the meeting, I was humbled, yet encouraged, by the constant acknowledgement and thanks to the scholars present at the meeting. I felt a real sense of appreciation for us as we become involved in various aspects of agricultural industry and carry on the efforts of those before us. I left the meeting more knowledgeable, motivated and with extra inspiration to draw on in my current research role. I would like to deeply thank the Crawford Fund and the ACT committee for allowing me the opportunity to attend this meeting, and look forward to being part of the Crawford Fund scholar alumni.

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