Researcher overwhelmed at the road ahead

Researcher overwhelmed at the road ahead

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Anjana Sharma wants to dig deeper into research that looks at diseases in wheat.

Anjana Sharma wants to dig deeper into research that looks at diseases in wheat.

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Inspired to work in the industry by her father, a Perth woman developed a love and respect for agriculture at an early age.

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WIND back the clock a few years and Anjana Sharma was in a paddock in her home country of Nepal, armed with a Master's degree in Agricultural Economics and five years of on-the-job experience.

Inspired to work in the industry by her father, who was passionate about agricultural development and the importance of the industry to humanity, society and their traditional farming country, Ms Sharma developed a love and respect for agriculture at an early age.

This respect grew into an awareness of the sensitivities and issues associated with the industry, as well as the role research could play in making it more sustainable, so it seemed only logical that she would follow her heart and turn her passion into a career.

Working directly with farmers in Nepal, where about a third of people are directly engaged in farming and agriculture and the industry contributes around a third of the country's gross domestic product, she would ask them about problems they were experiencing in the field already knowing the answer - crop diseases.

Now 34 and living in Western Australia, Ms Sharma has finished a second Masters in Dryland Agricultural Systems at Curtin University's Bentley campus.

She is a crop disease researcher with the Centre for Crop and Disease Management (CCDM) - a leading Australian research centre co-supported by Curtin University and the Grains Research and Development Corporation (GRDC) - and is thinking of doing a PhD.

When Ms Sharma first arrived in Australia and found herself in an Integrated Pest Management class run by CCDM's Fungicide Resistance Management and Disease Impacts Theme Leader Fran Lopez-Ruiz, she was somewhat overwhelmed at the road that lay ahead.

"I started out here from scratch and with very little confidence in my abilities," Ms Sharma said.

"Fran supervised my Masters project at the CCDM and he and the team are so encouraging and supportive," Ms Sharma said.

"I'm now realising my capacity and feel like I can do anything."

'Anything' includes using molecular genetics-based techniques to help the CCDM find new fungicide targets and help to reduce the issue of fungicide resistance.

Fungicide resistance is a growing problem for agricultural industries worldwide, resulting from their reliance on fungicides from the same modes of action to treat crop diseases.

The overuse of these chemicals is rendering them ineffective in the long-term.

CCDM co-director, professor Mark Gibberd, said Ms Sharma's story reinforces another important role of the centre in developing the next generation of agriculture researchers.

"We have a talented and passionate team of researchers, many of whom like Anjana have joined us from around the globe to help shed new light on important issues for the agricultural industry, including fungicide resistance," professor Gibberd said.

"Having world-class research facilities based in a university environment gives us a unique opportunity to engage and bring agriculture research to life for students and emerging scientists.

"We are proud to play an active role in the development of young researchers and provide opportunities for them to further their careers.

"Through their success we are helping to cement the future success of Australia's agricultural research industry."

CCDM is at the forefront of research in screening and detecting fungicide resistance and is a key contributor to the international research community's understanding of its causes.

The centre's work includes developing diagnostic tools to detect resistance more efficiently and effectively and improving fungicide management practices.

At the CCDM, Ms Sharma is researching the fungal pathogen Parastagnospora nodorum, which causes the disease septoria nodorum blotch in wheat.

She is investigating the function of a gene her team suspects could be a potential target for new fungicides using ribonucleic interference (RNAi) technology.

If the results are positive, Ms Sharma will investigate if they also apply to other fungal pathogens.

"In Australia, we're learning more about fungicide resistance and its management but in countries like Nepal, farmers know they have a problem but they don't know what it is or how to deal with it, " Ms Sharma said.

"Farmers there are increasingly relying on fungicide use for disease control which may provide short-term economic gains but is putting the long-term sustainability of farming systems at risk."

The potential for her research with the CCDM to make a difference on a global scale is not lost on Ms Sharma - in fact it's a driving force behind her work.

Her plan for now is to stay in Australia to dig deeper into her current research and look for results.

If successful, Ms Sharma would love to one day be able to apply her newfound knowledge to farming in Australia, Nepal and beyond.

"I feel proud to be working with some of the fast-growing technologies that are so important to modern agriculture and to have this opportunity to contribute to solutions not just one country but the world could benefit from," she said.

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