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Career spotlight | Callum Fletcher

This month the career spotlight is on Callum Fletcher, Manager - Biosecurity at the Grains Research and Development Corporation (GRDC) who has worked in entomology for 25 years.

What does a typical workday look like for you?

My day is usually divided into meetings and written work, along with a lot of emailing. There is some variation depending on whether I am working in the Canberra office or at home. The former involves significantly more face-to-face meetings and conversations with my colleagues and other stakeholders, while the latter will involve a much more written and reading focus for my work.

I manage a number of investments, most of which are Research, Development and Extension programs being run by State, Commonwealth or university institutions. Additional investments are made on an ongoing basis throughout the year, so there will always be something new in the process of being developed. These will provide a particular focus for my writing and reading work, while the ongoing management of current projects and the early stages of the development of new ones tend to provide the basis for the many meetings I am involved in.

I receive regular milestone reports that I read and then discuss with the authors. I also try to attend workshops and visit industry and experts around the country to be aware of new and relevant potential research opportunities there are. It also helps me to better understand the specific biosecurity and pests and diseases related needs of the grains industry and government.

I travel regularly and usually maintain the connections remotely to my work. The recent widespread embrace of functional remote working has really helped in this regard. Being based in Canberra, I make particular effort to meet regularly with relevant biosecurity focused staff from Plant Heath Australia, CSIRO and the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry whose offices are nearby and whose work aligns closely with mine.

How long have you worked in this area?

I have been working in entomology for 25 years since I started at Plant and Food Research as a technician in 1999, and in biosecurity since I arrived in Australia from New Zealand in 2015 and took the role of Biosecurity Coordinator at AUSVEG. 

How did you find yourself in this career?

My technical skills in entomology were particularly helpful when applied to the biosecurity space and that helped me get the role at AUSVEG. I had extensive experience working in vegetables and grains in New Zealand and this helped me to understand the complex structure of the biosecurity system in Australia and help represent the interests and needs of vegetable growers within their Peak Organisation.

Regarding my current role at GRDC, I had just come out of the COVID lockdowns in Melbourne and a secondment for a year with the Commonwealth in Cairns and was looking for a new career opportunity. I was encouraged to look at the role at GRDC and I thought that it was appealing. It involved a similar biosecurity focus, as my previous role, but had a wider scope and involved a significantly larger industry. An appealing factor was that it would allow me to have some impact on the direction of research and development investment into the biosecurity and pest and diseases management space across Australia. One of the most fascinating aspects of the role was that I would be interacting with many scientists who are working on advanced research into biosecurity preparedness, surveillance, diagnostics and response. This really interested me, so I applied and got the role.

What roles have you held previously?

Research technician in Entomology at Plant and Food Research in New Zealand where I primarily worked on aphids, thrips and psyllids in potatoes and grains. That work was primarily focused on research into Integrated Pests Management (IPM) approaches to production, as well as pest surveillance technologies. After that, I ran a private consultancy where I advised growers, agronomists and the large agricultural companies on the sustainable management of pests in their crops. Upon arriving in Australia my focus has generally moved out of the lab and away from fieldwork, and into biosecurity preparedness and response policy and practice. I led the biosecurity program at AUSVEG where we focused on grower extension, research program development and industry representation under the EPPRD. This role allowed me to centre my work at the intersection of industry, government and research. It also allowed me a lot of variety in my work as I needed to focus on key pest incursion as they occurred, while also addressing the general biosecurity preparedness of industry.

What is your most memorable career achievement?

Being a leading part of the initiation, application, implementation and management of the iMapPest project. It was a Commonwealth Rural R&D For Profit funded ($22m) program that involved State, Commonwealth, industry and university research and extension. It built a plant pest and diseases surveillance network around Australia. It was based on the systems I was using in New Zealand, but greatly increased the technical capacity and capability of the platform through the use of advanced technology and engineering. It was accompanied by an uplift investment to use of modern molecular tools (HTS and qPCR) to fast-track and expand the scope of the program’s diagnostics capabilities. It involved true collaboration across the States and other research organisations and achieved some amazing results over the six years it was being developed.

What advice would you give to others starting/changing their career?

Scientific and technical knowledge and qualifications are a necessary condition to get a start in a career in biosecurity, but developing the networks and connections with others is the pathway to successfully evolving and progressing in that career. I spend a significant part of my time meeting with members of the biosecurity community to maintain these relationships and better understand where and how things are going in this space. It is absolutely key to the successful functioning of my role. I would advise others to build and foster connections into this biosecurity community that we have in Australia and internationally. They are your greatest source of guidance, advice and learning, with the vast majority also being absolutely wonderful people. I think most of us are very proud of the work we do and would be happy to advise and support anyone who is looking at moving into this very important area.