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Published: 11 Feb 2022

Tamieka Pearce

On International Day of Women and Girls in Science (11 February), the Tasmanian Institute of Agriculture (TIA) is highlighting the significant contribution that our female researchers make to supporting the agricultural industry through science-based solutions and innovations.

Dr Tamieka Pearce is a Research Fellow at TIA who specialises in genetics and molecular plant pathology. She is also a mum to two young boys, Austin (1 year old) and Harvie (3 years old), and together with her husband, Lachy, runs a cattle stud from their family farm at South Riana.

A self-confessed ‘science nerd’, Dr Pearce 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 swapped 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,” Dr Pearce 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.”

Dr Pearce 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, aims to promote full and equal access to and participation in science for women and girls.

Dr Pearce 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.”

“We identified Tamieka as someone who has a lot of talent for research early on, so we’ve worked hard to foster that talent, and we’re now seeing the pay off as her academic career blossoms. Her ability and drive has meant that she has not needed much direction in her career, just encouragement and support,” said Dr Jason Scott, TIA Senior Research Fellow and Plant Pathologist.

Currently, Dr Pearce 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, Dr Pearce 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,” Dr Pearce said.

Looking to the future, Dr Pearce 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.

Dr Pearce’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.

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

This article was published in Tasmanian Country Newspaper on 11 February 2022.