Rebecca Thistlewaite – Plant Breeding and Genetics

In the New South Wales Southern Highlands, at the end of a long country driveway, spread the brilliant green paddocks dotted with black cattle where Rebecca Thistlethwaite’s love for growing food was kindled.

Having grown up in Sydney’s Sutherland Shire, the then 13-year-old’s life had mostly revolved around school, friends and the beach when her family bought a farm a few hours’ drive from the city. Her weekends and school holidays were suddenly filled with trips to the farm, where Rebecca was quickly immersed in the world of riding horses and showing cattle.

Today the 25-year-old is based at the I.A. Watson Plant Breeding Institute in Narrabri, NSW, where she is completing the third year of a PhD in plant breeding and genetics with the University of Sydney, funded by the Grains Research and Development Corporation (GRDC).

On top of PhD research Rebecca works part time for Pork CRC, is a 2014 Art4Agriculture GRDC Grains Young Farming Champion and volunteers with Meals on Wheels and the local Riding for the Disabled group.

So how does a girl from the beach with an interest in show cattle end up in the bush studying crops?

“My Dad had always had a bit of a passion for the land, so I think he thought it was a big adventure for my brother and I, to experience that way of life on the farm,” Rebecca says.

“He always had it in mind that he wanted us to be involved in an industry that would always be there and have a really strong future – people will always need to eat.”

Soon Rebecca had her own stock horse, travelling to shows and events across the state. She says studying Agriculture at Sydney University was the easiest decision in the world, and it was there she met up with other regulars on the show circuit. Friends with farm blocks in western Sydney taught her the ropes of leading and parading cattle.

“I loved it and I went to the Sydney Royal Easter Show for five years in a row, along with a lot of regional shows. I used to travel to Glen Innes each year just so I could compete in their show every year with a local farmer,” Rebecca says.

“When I first started I had no idea that such small changes in nutrition or environment could influence the performance of an animal… I didn’t really know how much planning, preparation and effort goes into it. I enjoyed how finite it is.” she says.

In the classroom Rebecca was leaning towards a career in animal agriculture. Only a handful of her subjects were plant genetics based, until her final year. “I ended up doing an honours project that was based around plant genetics and I found it really interesting,” she says. “After uni I moved to Armidale to work as an agronomist for a pasture feed company. And I loved it.”

When funding came up for two students to complete a PhD on heat tolerance in wheat at the Plant Breeding Institute, Rebecca jumped at the chance. With the final season of data collection ahead of her, followed by post-harvest collection and thesis writing, she aims to finish the project mid-2016.

In simple terms, Rebecca’s research looks at which varieties of wheat genomes are more superior to others in regards to heat tolerance. Her small team plant crops of 120 wheat genotypes, replicated twice across four different sowing dates, all planted a month apart. Polycarbonate “heat chambers” – designed and built by the University of Sydney – with generator run air conditions sit over the wheat plots to control the air temperature, encouraging heat stress and heat waves. All the plots are irrigated identically to ensure the only variable is temperature.

“For example, we’ll put them on 35 degrees for three days in a row and then take them off and do all the same data collection as we would normally,” Rebecca says.

“The results are really showing up which I think is pretty cool. We have a subset of 20 genomes which have already shown to be either really superior or inferior. It’s so nitty gritty. It’s getting really down to the finite stuff, which I do like,” she says.

“Some weeks in the season are really busy because we’re trying to move the chambers on and off each plot. During the season each day I go out to collect date and check on everything. Part of my week is spent analysing data, part of it is spent writing.”

After her thesis is handed in she plans to spend a few months in the Panama highlands helping to build infrastructure projects in a remote village. As an undergrad she visited farms and villages in Laos, a trip she says was eye-opening to the struggle of developing countries. Helping others and building community spirit are both close to Rebecca’s heart and travel is something she’d like to do more of.

“The wheat that is involved in my research project comes from areas in the world that are in a lot of heat stress and there are many production problems, so if I could help breed and commercialise varieties that work well in developing countries and then eventually go to see them growing, I would love that,” she says.

Sharing knowledge of the science behind food production is another passion of Rebecca’s, one she goes out of her way to peruse. At the University of Sydney she was involved in an Ag Ambassador program which saw agriculture students visit local primary and secondary schools to engage with children about what is involved in food and fibre production.

“We’d play games we’re I’d have petri dishes of 10 different grains and see who could pick which grain came from which food. I found it really surprising how many students didn’t know some of the grains,” Rebecca says.

“We also had the Cheese and Vegemite Sandwich game where I’d have all the raw ingredients and everyone had to work out where each grain fits into the sandwich. It was really fun and it just brought up so much discussion, which was the real aim, talking about things that they hadn’t really come across before.”

At the end of the ambassador program Rebecca decided to continue the idea off her own back. She contacted old school friends who were now teaching at local schools and asked if she could incorporate some extra-curricular agriculture activities into their classrooms. “I went to three schools regularly, every month I’d visit and play games and talk to the year 3, 4, 5 and 6 classes,” she says.

Recommended by friends, applying for the Art4Agriculture Young Farming Champions program last year seemed like a natural progression. Despite her experience and enthusiasm to get involved, Rebecca says she lacked confidence in her communication and public speaking skills. “I thought the YFC program would be an awesome way to gain those skills – and it was!” she says.

“The main things I took away from the workshops were how to talk to the media, how to promote my industry the best way I could, and ways to better communicate science to a younger audience while still being informative and fun at the same time.

“I loved being involved with the other YFCs and all the opportunities that have come from it. I love that I was able to meet and be supported by like-minded people and be an ambassador for my industry and young people.”

As part of the YFC training workshops Rebecca and her fellow Grain YFCs created a one minute video showcasing the Australian Grains Industry. Rebecca narrated the original video and later reworked it to enter the Royal Adelaide Show ‘Seed to Store’ video competition. The team took out first place and won $1000, which went towards further Art4Agriculture YFC video animations. Rebecca says, “It was a great way to show how innovative our industry is and how as a result we are world leaders in food production.”

Thanks to her sponsorship from GRDC Rebecca went on to represent the grains industry as a Young Farming Champion at Elizabeth Macarthur High School, Narellan, for the 2014 Archibull Prize competition. She engaged with agriculture and art students, playing new, “older” versions of the grain games.

Rebecca says the school visit was rewarding. “They showed me around their own little farm, we had a really good discussion and the majority of the kids wanted to get involved and ask questions,” she says.

“They showed me all the plans for their Archibull cow artwork while I was there. One student had drawn all these incredible plans herself, it was amazing. They ended up growing wheat seeds across the backline of their Archie and then collaging coloured seeds on one side with a story board of the history of grain production on the other – it was really clever and they made it into the finals!”

In Narrabri Rebecca is involved in the Small Schools Science Program where schools from small towns in the region meet for a day to participate in science games and engagement. In Sydney she has another school growing a wheat crop.

“My friend who is a teacher contacted me asking for ideas of projects she could do with her students to share the process chain or where food comes from and what happens to it,” she says. “So I’ve sent them all the seed and they’re planting it this month. Then they’re going to hand thresh it, send it back to me and I will mill it, bake it, and put a resin on it so they can have it in the classroom.” It should be ready to harvest in October.

In a perfect world, she says, she’d love to enter a postdoctoral fellowship after her PhD, still in the same field of research. She’d love to travel. And she wants to get back into the world of hands on food farming, perhaps growing organic grains, fruits and vegetables for niche markets in the city.

“It’s a big picture thing,” she says. “I’d love it if in 10 years’ time I could have my own little property somewhere to grow food… but who knows?”

What she is sure of is the reason why she truly relishes what she does: the people. Her close-knit team involved in the wheat heat tolerance project, the 40 strong staff of brilliant researchers and students at the Plant Breeding Institute, and everyone she meets along the way.

“The people in agriculture are the best,” she says. “They’re the most humble, gracious people you’ll ever work with. The more I’ve become involved and met different farmers and producers and witnessed what it takes to work in agriculture, the more I have to give them credit for what they achieve, because they’re pretty amazing.”

Hear more from Rebecca in her interview with ABC Radio:

Image sourced from GRDC Groundcover. 

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