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A journey of science, seeds and startups

Following her nose led one agricultural scientist to take a Tasmanian wildflower to the world

Fortunately, Hazel MacTavish-West, the ‘VegDoctor’, missed out on vet school by a whisker.

“I discovered plants and how amazing their chemistry is, and I never looked back. That was it,” she said.

Hazel studied agricultural science in Sydney and took on a fast-paced and creative international career that combined science with business.

In 1992, Hazel commenced a PhD at the University of Tasmania researching fragrance production in an endemic Australian wildflower called Brown Boronia (Boronia megastigma Nees).

Boronia flowers are highly scented, and the crop is grown commercially in Tasmania by Essential Oils of Tasmania, who supported Hazel’s PhD.

“The science behind how plants rapidly respond to a change in their environment, and how these changes can be harnessed commercially, remains fascinating to me,” she said.

Through her PhD in Agricultural Science and subsequent postdoctoral work, Hazel applied chemistry and plant science to challenges that helped establish Tasmania as an innovative player in the international aromatics and essential oils world.

She relocated to the UK in 1999 with her young family, and after a stint in academia, moved into more commercially focussed, applied research by joining an agricultural and environmental consultancy.

“I was doing diverse projects like assessing Narcissus fragrance on the Isles of Scilly, and growing marshmallow hydroponically so the roots could be extracted and used in face cream,” she said.

“I think working so closely with industry and academia here in Tasmania and the ‘can-do’ attitude we have here, meant that in the UK, I just got on and did stuff.”

Just doing “stuff” opened doors for Hazel.

In 2004 she attended an international ‘Flavours and Fragrances’ conference in Manchester.

Over a coffee with some delegates, she explained the amazing fragrance that comes from Brown Boronia, and was invited to take a sample to their company headquarters near Durham.

The company had a brief to recreate rose scent for a new shampoo, but the budget wouldn’t cover real rose oil, which is eye-wateringly expensive.

To recreate the scent of roses less expensively, they found out from Hazel that they could add a tiny amount of boronia oil (‘absolute’, as it’s called) to a comparatively inexpensive geranium oil.

“Even though boronia absolute is also expensive, it has an amazing ‘bang for buck’ in terms of impact,” Hazel said.

The company bought substantial volumes of boronia absolute from Tasmania, and the shampoo made its way to every corner of Britain.

Hazel was thrilled to close the loop with Brown Boronia, and she learned this self-discovered wisdom along the way:

“If you have a vision, and you can explain it passionately and back it up with delivery, people will get behind you.”

In 2017 Hazel was awarded a Winston Churchill Fellowship to explore food innovation across the UK and Europe.

Upon her return, Hazel created the vision and secured the funding for Seedlab Tasmania, an incubator that helps innovative Tasmanian food, drink and agritourism startups to take their businesses to the next level.

“I’m passionately committed to making Seedlab successful and helping Tassie businesses have great outcomes,” she said.

“I’m also thrilled that sponsors, including Woolworths and the University of Tasmania, have come on the journey with us.

“I have absolutely found my thing.”

This article featured in the 2020 edition of the University of Tasmania Alumni magazine. You can read more stories here. To receive news about your alumni community, including the monthly eNews Alumni and Friends, please update your email address.

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Published on: 23 Mar 2021 4:57pm