The making of a wine scientist

Dr Fiona KerslakeTasmanian Institute of Agriculture (TIA) viticulture researcher Dr Fiona Kerslake was one of 30 Australian women picked to join Science and Technology Australia’s Superstars of STEM program, aimed at developing science role models for girls.

The one-year Superstars of STEM program helps participants raise their profiles, effectively utilise the media and become online science influencers. Fiona said it was important for the agriculture and science sectors to develop more publicly-visible female role models.

“We need to normalise science. Children need to be shown the breadth of science, and for both boys and girls to be encouraged into whatever career they want.”

Fiona was brought up on a Central Highlands sheep farm. She considered a sport science degree at the University of Tasmania but decided to complete an agricultural science degree with honours looking at sheep drench efficacy.

“Although helping the family business seemed an obvious career choice, it was actually wine production that piqued my interest early on. In exchange for lending portable sheep yards, my parents used to get these awesome cases of wine – that was my exposure to wine growing up,” Fiona said.

Fiona was intrigued by Pinot Noir during a working holiday in Queenstown, New Zealand in the early 2000s. When she wasn’t snowboarding, Fiona was learning on the job about the intricacies of Pinot Noir production at a wine bar.  

“I finally understood it when I went to New Zealand – I understood the potential for Tassie,” she said.

After some encouragement from a University of Tasmania lecturer, Fiona applied for an industry-funded PhD scholarship at Tamar Ridge near Launceston. Twelve years later, Fiona continues to conduct research at a variety of vineyards and wineries, including Tamar Ridge, and has strong industry connections around the state.  

Throughout her research career, Fiona has travelled to England, Europe, Canada and even Estonia, where she presented her research about cider to a yeast company.

“Knowing that you can transplant yourself into a range of other regions around the world and you have the same viticultural issues – you need to collaborate,” Fiona said.

“I’m a big believer of getting people to leave the state, because once they leave, they’ll realise how good it is and want to come back. I’m always so glad to come home because of what we have here.”

For the last two years Fiona has been a full-time researcher at TIA, and there have been challenges continuing her career as a mother of two.

“It was difficult managing a project while on maternity leave, and challenging keeping in touch with staff and my role. It’s hard to re-enter the workforce after having children – and working part-time – you always work more hours than you’re paid for.”

Fiona’s husband is now the children’s “primary carer” and Fiona says she couldn’t have her career and be a mother of young children any other way.  

“There really isn’t an average day…­ it could be anything from pruning in the vineyard to out at one of our collaborators in the middle of the night testing their juice quality,” she said. “I also sometimes need to travel overseas to present my research.”

With the development and uptake of new technology, such as sensing equipment, Fiona hopes there will be more time for farmers to connect with family and also to network in person with other agriculture specialists.

“There will be more opportunity for work-life balance – we’re starting to reach a tipping point where we can use technology effectively. It’s a huge shift for the ag sector, which has been time-poor,” Fiona said.

“Social media is a great way for people in the agricultural industry to connect, but we also need to make sure we meet in person.”

This is the full version of an article that appeared in Tasmanian Country on 15 September 2017.

Published on: 15 Sep 2017 10:58am