Emma – Plant Biosecurity Project Officer

Who are you?

Hello! I’m Emma Meyers, and I work as a Project Officer for Plant Health Australia (PHA) in the biosecurity sector.

How did you get into this job?

When I started uni, I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I knew that I really enjoyed Science when I was in high school and particularly Biology.

During my study, I found that I really enjoyed learning about plants and agriculture and I was very interested in plant diseases and the problems facing modern agriculture, such as the impacts of climate change. After I finished my degree, I decided to work as a research technician for my past lecturer to get some more experience. I got a job working in wheat breeding and learned a lot about cereal agriculture and got to do a lot of field work. I really enjoyed my research work and decided to start a PhD in wheat breeding and trying to understand the effects of drought on a severe root disease of wheat, called Fusarium Crown Rot.

Doing a PhD is very hard work. I got used to working 12-hour days and on weekends and holidays. Mostly I loved what I was doing, and I loved that I got to work on real-life problems and try to find solutions to them. However, research is difficult, and unfortunately I did not discover the answers to the questions that I had.

I realised that research was very important but it is not easy to find sustainable work as a researcher, so I decided to leave the university sector. I applied for a lot of jobs including graduate programs, jobs at plant nurseries and also as university tutors. But I learned about a potential position at a company that an old classmate worked at and I decided to apply.

What do you actually do?

At Plant Health Australia (PHA), I am a Project Officer. I work in the area of Emergency Plant Pest Response.

In Australia, we are lucky to be free from many serious plant pests that occur in the world. But it is a big job to keep exotic pests out, especially when there are increasing amounts of international trade and movement of people around the globe. Pests can also enter Australia via natural means such as through wind and water currents.

It is everyone’s job to help prevent the spread of weeds and pests. Government and industry work together in a number of ways to achieve this. PHA is the coordinator for the government-industry partnership for plant biosecurity in Australia. At PHA, we help industry and government to develop contingency plans for how to deal with potential pests if they arise, deliver training on biosecurity responsibilities and in the case that an actual outbreak of an exotic pest occurs, help to facilitate and provide policy advice to the affected jurisdictions and plant industries as they commence the process to eradicate the pest.

My job involves a variety of tasks including writing policy documents to help people understand the processes involved in Emergency Plant Pest Response, attend meetings for current Emergency Plant Pest Responses, write reports and various discussion papers for meetings, and help to develop and carry out a range of training activities and simulations for various government and industry bodies.

What type of building (or otherwise) do you work in?

I work in a regular office building in the city of Canberra. While my job does not take me out into the field, other colleagues get to visit regional areas sometimes to carry out plant pest surveillance activities or conduct industry consultations from time to time. We have a reasonably small but rapidly growing staff of 28 and everyone I work with is super friendly and helpful.

What STEM disciplines are involved with your work?

At PHA, there are a number of STEM disciplines encompassed in our work.

Plant pathologists, entomologists, virologists, bacteriologists, agronomists are just some of the professionals involved in our regular work but we also utilise many professionals in Information Technology, including GIS/Spatial mapping analysts and web/software developers to help with developing supporting tools, databases and training programs to assist in the delivery of projects and national programs to our clients.

What other STEM People do you work with?

In our work at PHA, we deal with many different types of people daily. Many of our industry representatives are growers themselves that have a vast knowledge about plant production systems and small businesses.

We also deal with plant pest experts and scientists from many institutions, including universities, CSIRO and government laboratories.

Agricultural and market economists, communications managers, policy and legal advice experts are some other types of people we have dealings with from time to time.

What does a typical day for you look like?

A typical day at my work involves coming in and checking email, responding to important requests for information and updating pest status response documents with new details/updates sent overnight.

I then usually have a few major projects that I am working on at any particular time and I spend most of the day working on writing reports/discussion papers, analysing data, organising and attending meetings with Emergency Plant Pest Response committee members, having team meetings and identifying priorities for training and improvements to the current processes.

What do you like best about your work?

I like working in the plant biosecurity sector! It is a great feeling knowing that you are contributing to agriculture in a very applied and proactive way and by working with growers to help understand how they can protect their crops from unwanted pests.

I am surrounded by a great team and we all work well together to help one another where we can.

I also enjoy being able to use some of my analytical skills I developed in my studies to collect and organise information and present it in a useful way for industries and growers.

It is also a very relaxed atmosphere and I rarely work long hours and have my weekends and holidays to myself again.

What do you like least about your work?

The least favourite aspect of my work is probably not being able to physically work with the plants anymore. I miss going to work in the glasshouses and fields.

What advice would you have for a high school student considering a career in the STEM field?

The best advice I can give to students considering a career in STEM is to firstly pick an area that you really enjoy because, even in the dull times, there will be aspects that you will find you are always curious about and that will allow you to stay motivated and enjoy what you do over the long term.

Secondly, your work team will have a huge impact on your job satisfaction. I found that although I really enjoyed my PhD research topic and was constantly thinking about the questions involved and experiments that I could do, I ended up having very little support for my research project and I felt very lonely towards the end.

Even if you are solving the world’s most important problem, it is a challenging and isolating journey to continue when your work is not being acknowledged or supported.

Remember that your network of peers and colleagues will be the most important source of information, advice and support during your career and can help you to achieve your goals.