GRDC spotlight shines on communicators

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Fighting stage fright as well as technical headaches such as soil-based constraints, frost or pod-sucking bugs is all in a day’s work for three of Australia’s latest Seed of Light award recipients.

2014 Seed of Light award winners

  • Dr Mark Conyers – principal research scientist at the New South Wales Department of Primary Industries.
  • Dr Ben Biddulph – research officer at the Department of Agriculture and Food, Western Australia.
  • Hugh Brier, entomologist with the Queensland Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry.

With a trench digger waiting for him on site, Mark Conyers was grumpily dragged to Temora in southern New South Wales for a recent GRDC Research Update wondering why he had to go: “I wasn’t presenting and this digger was expensive so I was a bit irritable.”

All became clear when he saw his CV flash up on the big screen. “Suddenly I was embarrassed about my impatience to get away.”

Dr Mark Conyers, principal research scientist at the NSW Department of Primary Industries, had just realised he was being presented with one of three annual Seed of Light awards.

The remaining two 2014 awards were won by the west’s Dr Ben Biddulph, research officer at the Department of Agriculture and Food, Western Australia (DAFWA), and the north’s Hugh Brier, entomologist with the Queensland Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry.

A man wearing a hat in a paddock with crops

Hugh Brier in a well-grown crop of field peas at John and Tom Champney’s farm, Wooroolin, in Queensland’s Burnett region, in September 2009.

The awards, presented at recent GRDC Updates, are granted to grains researchers with outstanding skills in communicating research outcomes to the industry.

Although he describes himself as “not being a natural at talking on stage”, Wagga Wagga-based Dr Conyers has got somewhat used to speaking at grower and industry events during a long career.

GRDC Southern Panel deputy chair Chris Blanchard says it is Dr Conyers’s way of taking a technical subject and presenting it in an entertaining, engaging and easy-to-understand manner that the award acknowledges.

“While he is an excellent researcher who is regarded highly by his peers and the scientific community, Mark also goes above and beyond the call of duty when it comes to communicating with growers, advisers and the broader grains industry.

He is often controversial and not afraid to challenge traditional thinking, and that is what we as an industry need if we are to progress and prosper,” Mr Blanchard says.

When not presenting, Dr Conyers is busy researching. His research interests are in acidic soils, limestone and liming, nitrogen fertility, soil carbon, soil phosphorus and salinity. He is involved in several major GRDC-funded initiatives, including a five-year project on the strategic use of tillage.

He credits his masters degree supervisor, the late Brian Davey from the University of Sydney, and a fellow researcher, Brendon Scott, for helping his public-speaking efforts but hopes his next audience does now not expect too much: “Are they going to expect a good talk from me all the time?” 

Like Dr Conyers, the west’s Dr Biddulph realises the value of being able to communicate with a wide audience and says the award inspires him to continue to talk openly and honestly with growers and industry “about where the research is up to, what we can adopt now and what it is likely to deliver in the future”.

Two men in the field with microscopes

Dr Ben Biddulph (right) discusses development stages susceptible to frost with Tom Whittwer, a grower from Cuballing in Western Australia.

PHOTO: Simon Eyres, DAFWA

Dr Biddulph, who is responsible for DAFWA research into abiotic stresses, including frost, drought and pre-harvest sprouting, says although he was shocked by the award, he also feels inspired in the knowledge that the “industry appreciates the hard work and effort that goes into frost research”.

It is an effort appreciated by the GRDC Western Panel chair, Peter Roberts. He says frost is the west’s number-one research priority and is estimated to cost the national industry more than $360 million annually, making researchers such as Dr Biddulph crucial.

“Ben helped develop ‘frost-phenotyping’ methodology, allowing researchers to accurately measure and quantify the effect of frost on varieties in the field, regardless of environmental conditions. Breaking through this research ‘brick wall’ has allowed the GRDC to lift its investment in frost research to more than $3 million annually and to increase its focus on other areas of frost research, such as farming systems.”

He credits Dr Biddulph’s farming background as a key component of his excellent communication skills. “Ben is originally from a farm at West River [40 kilometres west of Ravensthorpe on WA’s southern coast]. He understands WA farming systems and can communicate very effectively with growers.”

Respected by growers and grower groups for his ability to distil complex information, Mr Roberts says Dr Biddulph is equally skilled at communicating research results to the media and fellow scientists. “The GRDC relies heavily on scientists like Ben to conduct and then communicate the research in which it invests.”

For his part, Dr Biddulph says he rarely turns down an opportunity to speak: “I’ve had the privilege of learning from and presenting with other skilled and entertaining speakers such as Peter Newman, Bill Bowden and Ben Curtis.”

Two men standing among a crop

GRDC Southern Seed of Light Award winner Dr Mark Conyers (left) with colleague Dr Simon Speirs.

The north’s newest Seed of Light recipient – Hugh Brier – also credits practice as helping to make him a better public speaker. “I was shy in my early years, but numerous field days and workshops gave me the confidence to communicate more freely with growers and to think on my feet.”

Knowledge of the subject and the audience also helps: “Working most of my career in a small, country-located field station with close contact with growers and industry helped me to speak the language and to gain people’s trust through being honest, avoiding spin and seeing the world through growers’ eyes.”

Enthusiasm about his research – summer pulse entomology – and humour are also vital. “There is an old ‘show biz’ saying – if they’re laughing, they’ll come back for more.”

Jokes aside, Mr Brier says the Seed of Light award makes him feel honoured and appreciated, but he acknowledges the support of the many hard-working technical and farm operations staff at Kingaroy’s J. Bjelke-Petersen Research Station who have worked with him over the years.

Mr Brier moved to Kingaroy, Queensland, in the mid-1970s where a variety of legume pests have kept him busy ever since. He assisted with the original survey work on peanut white grubs and began testing US soybean genetic material with host plant resistance to Lepidoptera.

His passion for integrated pest management (IPM) underpinned the development of IPM courses for mungbean and soybean growers and agronomists and he has played a key role in the development of Queensland’s coastal soybean industry, to which he delivers IPM courses – underpinned by GRDC-funded research – from the Burdekin to the Riverina.

Pivotal to communicating results have been strong links with the Australian Mungbean Association, Soy Australia and Pulse Australia, as well as networking with complementary GRDC projects, consultants and regional grower groups.

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