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How a degree in plant science turned into a life on a cattle stud

Last month, to celebrate the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, the Tasmanian Institute of Agriculture (TIA) highlighted the significant contribution that our female researchers make to supporting the agricultural industry through science-based solutions and innovations.

One such researcher is Dr Tamieka Pearce, a Research Fellow at TIA who specialises in genetics and molecular plant pathology. Tamieka is also a mum to two young boys, Austin and Harvie, and together with her husband, Lachy, runs a cattle stud from their family farm at South Riana.

A self-confessed ‘science nerd’, Tamieka has always had her sights on a career in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics and medicine (STEMM).

In 2008 she was accepted to study Medical Research at the University of Tasmania but changed her mind and switched to Biotechnology two weeks before the semester commenced.

She later transitioned to study Agricultural Science with Honours (while retaining units in biotechnology and genetics) after discovering the breadth of the industry, the opportunities to apply science to achieve tangible outcomes, and the number and variety of jobs available. It was a defining decision in her life and one that she has not looked back from.

“Science was always the pathway that I wanted to follow. I loved it all throughout high school and college and was one of those students that went on science camps,” Tamieka said.

“My hope was always to come back to the North-West Coast [after finishing university] for a job in an industry that I see as really important. I believe that research needs to have impact and not just be done for the sake of it.”

Tamieka returned home to the North-West Coast to study her honours project on pyrethrum, under the supervision of TIA Plant Pathologist Dr Jason Scott.

She then briefly worked at Tasmanian Alkaloids before commencing a PhD project to better understand and help growers to manage tan spot, a disease which was an emerging threat to the pyrethrum industry at the time.

Throughout her PhD, Dr Pearce developed a good relationship with Botanical Resources Australia (BRA) that has led to further funding and research projects.

Ten years later, the 32-year-old has established herself as a respected early-career researcher in her field and continues to conduct important and research to support the pyrethrum industry’s productivity.

Around the world, women are still under-represented in the fields of STEMM and the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, an initiative of the United Nations, aimed to promote full and equal access to and participation in science for women and girls.

Tamieka said her experience as a woman studying and working in STEMM had been positive and she speaks very highly of the relationships she has developed with people working in industry and other scientists who have been nothing but supportive throughout the early years of her career.

However, she acknowledges the very real challenge of returning to work after having children and the juggling act that comes from being a scientist, a mother, a farmer, and taking on volunteer roles within the industry.

“Being a working mum in general is hard. Working in science comes with its own challenges as when you are working part-time, which many women do after having children, you don’t have the same amount of time to get papers written which makes it hard when you apply for research grants,” she said.

“The major challenge that I’ve faced has been dropping back to part-time hours after having children and learning to adjust the expectations that I put on myself. I’ve learnt to be much more organised and to balance my time, and I’m very lucky to have good technical support on my research projects and a supportive supervisor.

“It can be pretty full on having two young children while balancing research and the farm, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

Currently, Tamieka is working on three research projects to support the pyrethrum industry in Tasmania with co-funding from BRA and Hort Innovation. She has also recruited and will be primary supervisor for a new PhD candidate who is commencing early this year.

Through one of these projects, Tamieka is investigating the genetics of pyrethrum vernalisation with a long-term goal of providing industry with a mechanism to shorten the crop cycle of pyrethrum from 18 months to 12 months.

“There are so many potential benefits for pyrethrum growers if we can identify a way to create a shorter crop cycle. Growers may be able to grow an extra crop in their rotation and reduce weed pressure, which we hope will decrease the risk of the development of fungicide resistance,” Tamieka said.

Looking to the future, Tamieka has no doubt that she will continue to work in agricultural research and is interested in stepping out of her comfort zone to expand her focus to include other crops.

Tamieka’s advice to women considering a career in agricultural science is to get out there and give it a try.

“Until you try something you don’t really know if you will enjoy it. Get in contact with someone working in the industry and organise to have a day in the lab or out on a farm. Science is versatile and there are so many options for where you can go,” she said.

Image: Tamieka with her sons Austin and Harvie at their family farm at South Riana.

This article featured in the monthly eNews Alumni and Friends. If you are a member of the University of Tasmania community and would like to receive this publication, please provide or update your email address.

Published on: 09 Mar 2022 12:36pm