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Career spotlight – Richard Davis

Richard Davis is Senior plant pathologist, Northern Australia Quarantine Strategy (NAQS), Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, Cairns, Queensland. 

What does a typical workday look like for you? 

NAQS plant health scientists spend up to a third of the year doing field work and a day in the field, for me, is spent examining food and other plants for disease symptoms and collecting specimens and samples to take back to the laboratory in Cairns. Whilst the aim is early detection of exotic target pests, we make regular collections of what we find to get a snapshot of current plant health status. Most field days are spent in the back yards of householders in remote communities in the extreme north of Queensland, including all inhabited Torres Strait islands. We regularly do the same thing in the village food gardens of PNG, Solomon Islands and sometimes also Timor Leste. 

In the lab., we use a range of diagnostic techniques to work out what pathogens we have collected. We try to cover all plant pathogen categories and we liaise with many other laboratories. Then we also have database and report writing obligations, of course.   

How long have you worked in this area? 

I joined NAQS in 1996, but after six years I left for an opportunity to live and work in Fiji, doing very similar work on a European Union funded aid project across the Pacific Islands for five years. By pure luck, rather than good planning, I was able to return to the same job in NAQS in 2007, where I have remained until today. 

How did you find yourself in this career? 

In 1986 I came to Australia from the UK to be a post graduate student, working on phytophthora at the University of Queensland and immediately knew I needed to stay in this part of the world. Whilst a student, I did some voluntary work for an Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR) project in Fiji. It was a pigeonpea agronomy project that hit a disease problem, so they reached out to our lab. for help. I went out to Fiji three times for field work, and each time did some backpacking around, and decided the Pacific was also a place I would love to live and work in.  

Back then, people on student visas had to leave Australia for at least two years before they could apply for permanent residency. So, when my visa expired, thanks to my Fiji experience and a lot of luck, I got a job as a plant pathologist in Tonga. I was employed there by the University of New England on an ACIAR project, also working regularly in Fiji, Vanuatu and Samoa. I stayed there for five years and managed to get my Australian permanent residency granted in that time.  

What roles have you held previously? 

After Tonga, my first job in Australia was on another ACIAR project at what is today Charles Darwin University, in Darwin. It was a project using what was then (1994-1996) the brand new tools of molecular biology to study phytoplasma diseases in Australia and Indonesia.  

What is your most memorable career achievement? 

This is definitely when we finally found out what was killing the kava in Tonga. The sole aim of my project was to find the cause of a devastating dieback disease of the kava (Piper methysticum) crops of the Pacific Islands, and develop control measures. No one had a clue what was the cause and losses of up to 60% of the crop had been occurring for more than fifty years. After eliminating various fungi, bacteria and nematodes we found that cucumber mosaic virus was the essential causal agent.  

The reason why we succeeded was probably because all previous efforts had been a little bit of poorly funded research here and there. Our project was the first time that good funding and a full time dedicated position was thrown at the problem. This was combined with great teamwork at the Research Stations in Tonga, Fiji and Vanuatu, connected to a broad network of technical expertise in Australia and New Zealand. This was all before the internet was a thing, and E-mail was just emerging towards the end! 

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

Do not get too hung up on academic achievements and definitely do not get obsessed with climbing any corporate ladders. Instead, think of your career as an opportunity to explore and apply for positions that might seem a scary step away from familiarity and career safety, -at the time.  

My first Pacific adventure happened almost by accident, -I was looking for a way to stay in this beautiful region of the world. The second one, however, was a deliberately chosen step away from a permanent Australian government job to go on what turned out to be a great family adventure. 

Sampling a coconut palm for phytoplasma in NW PNG. 

Sampling citrus for huanglongbing disease in the Northern Peninsula Area of Cape York Peninsula, Queensland.  

Checking out a banana planting in the Solomon Islands.