Who are you?
Hey! I’m Annelie Marquardt. I am currently doing my PhD, and also working as a Senior Technician at Sugar Research Australia.
How did you get into this job?
I did a Bachelor of Science at The University of Queensland with a major in plant science/genetics. Then did an honours research project working on Panama disease in Banana for a year afterwards.
I started looking for jobs while writing the thesis and found this position I am in now (at entry level) to start when I had finished the degree.
After working there for four years, and a relatively young employee of the sugarcane industry – management approached me about doing a PhD. Which was great, and related to investing in early career scientists to build their knowledge in the science of sugarcane in Australia.
What do you actually do?
For both my work as a Senior Technician and for the PhD study, I am looking at yellow canopy syndrome (YCS) of sugarcane. It’s a new condition that affects sugarcane in Queensland (QLD), Australia, and we don’t know the cause of it. Sugarcane is a $2 billion export industry for QLD so any yield losses are no small matter. And it affects the livelihood of sugarcane growers, which are the backbone of the industry.
We are looking at what is going on inside the leaves that have the yellowing symptoms – gene expression, protein levels, and metabolites. Using that information, we work backwards and compare it to other conditions to provide clues in finding out what the cause is. On top of that, it allows us to build upon general knowledge of sugarcane metabolism.
What type of building (or otherwise) do you work in?
At the moment I am largely in an office (attached to a lab). Because I am at the point of writing the PhD thesis, most of my time is at a computer (or two). I use my desktop computer, and also a high RAM Linux computer to process the sequencing information associated with gene expression analyses. You need a decent chunk of RAM because the number of sequences processed (RNA-seq) are around 50 million, for just one sample.
I also work in a wet lab, and a few times a year go out to the field in north QLD to collect sugarcane samples.
What STEM disciplines are involved with your work?
The main STEM disciplines I work with are plant science, molecular genetics, bioinformatics, statistics (graphs, specific programs), and little bit of code (command line to do analyses – fairly common in bioinformatics areas, a tiny bit of Python stuff, R).
What other STEM People do you work with?
Plant scientists, molecular geneticists, pathologists, technicians, researchers, and business managers.
What does a typical day for you look like?
Currently it is writing – thesis chapters/papers – so a lot of time in front of the computer. I can break it up by going into the lab to do any lab work I need to do.
During times when there is lab work to do, it generally involves things like RNA extractions, enzyme assays, PCR, gels, also a fair bit of liquid nitrogen/dry ice work. Without sugar-coating it (ha) it can be mundane with repetitive pipetting, labelling tubes, etc. but I enjoy the break from writing, plus you can do it with music!
I also have to think, way more than I normally would… About concepts, how to analyse/show data, how to make it understandable to others that will not have the background knowledge I have built up over time. It is surprisingly hard to think about those things all at once. And in the office, it looks a bit like you are day dreaming. But it’s necessary, and saves a lot of time in the long run because you stay focused on what the end goal is.
What do you like best about your work?
The people! I get along really well with my supervisor and teams, which makes the work so much more fun.
I find generally the people in plant science are really cool. But I may be biased…
I also love that I am encouraged to work follow curiosity, chase leads, and work new things out. It a buzz when you make a brain connection, or solve a problem. There would not be too many professions that let you do that.
What do you like least about your work?
When I’m out in the field – the mosquitoes, and the mud, when the novelty of it has worn off.
But it is actually hard to answer this question; I am a pretty happy camper. Though when I am knee-deep in thesis chapters it might be a different story?
At the moment, I do find it hard to handle the mental fitness required to write. There are endless distractions (social media, office chat, weekend planning etc.) which need to be ignored. Then adding the actual focused head-space needed to write… But just like with anything, practice means improvement. (Also noise cancelling headphones are fantastic).
What advice would you have for a high school student considering a career in the STEM field?
I know from my experience when I was in undergrad I found the thought of doing science quite intimidating. Especially because you are surrounded by smart people all the time; it can make you feel inadequate (imposter syndrome?). But as you finish study and go through the motions of starting work etc, you find that everyone feels that to some extent. It is important to remember you are at the start of your career and you are supposed to be the noob.
As long as you have the right people around you, you won’t be left struggling. And sometimes ‘having the right people around you’ can come down to your attitude about your work. If it is a case of ‘omg this is so hard to work out, I hate it’, it is hard to make good connections. Where as if it becomes ‘this is a challenge, come at me’ it makes it exciting, more absorbing, and a better environment for others around you too.
As a Scientist, you get to do some pretty awesome travelling and be on TV…
I had the opportunity to go to San Diego to present at a conference about sugarcane in January this year – called the International Plant and Animal Genome conference (largest AgGenomics conference in the world). Presenting was intimidating, but very worth it. And I was lucky that my principal advisor for the PhD helped me prepare in a way that made the whole thing seem achievable.
I also went to the University of Missouri to visit a plant science research group working on Maize. They look at sugar transporters in the leaves, and they make mutant plants to study that. Transporting sugar in plants is like humans transporting blood around the body. It is important research, and it was very cool to see.
I have been on the TV shows Scope and Catalyst (super briefly) because of our focus on yellow canopy syndrome (YCS). The work Sugar Research Australia is doing on YCS is very important for the industry, and as a result, is of interest for agricultural/science media in QLD and Australia.