When Dr Barbara George- Jaeggli travelled to Australia from Switzerland, she didn’t expect to work in science again. She bought a small farm with her husband in Warwick, Queensland, but to her surprise, science was already waiting for her there.

It was a primary school teacher, who sparked Barbara’s initial interest in plants. “I always have loved birds and spending time outdoors, but I remember clearly a teacher who asked us to collect some plants, dry them, find out their botanical names and create a little herbarium, and I really enjoyed that”.

From that moment, a scientist was born, in a family where science was not really on the radar. Barbara’s family lived in a small town in Switzerland. Her father was a computer specialist, and no one in her family, apart from an aunt who was a GP, had gone to university.

“I have always been very interested in farms and farming. I actually thought about being a vet, but I didn’t like that you are dealing with sick animals rather than healthy systems, so I thought that biology was the best option.”

Barbara studied botany and ecology and chose agricultural ecology as her Honours thesis’ topic. The idea was to create corridors across cropping fields to bring back old weeds, such as poppies, cornflowers and corn-cockles that once were common place in agricultural fields in Europe, but were nearly extinct through herbicide use and other seed cleaning techniques. These corridors were beneficial for the wildlife and for the famers by rejuvenating the soil and stimulating beneficiary insect populations. “This was a really pioneering concept at that time, but when I was back in Switzerland recently, so many fields and paddocks across the entire country were criss-crossed with these colourful wildflower strips that I was studying a long time ago.”

After this, Barbara was offered a PhD in bird ecology, however, she met her husband and put off the PhD idea, leaving Europe for Australia, where they found a small farm in Queensland.

“I didn’t think I would work in science again. But then soon after we arrived in Australia, we had to go to the Queensland Department of Agriculture to get some cattle tags and I noticed the scientific posters they had hanging around. I simply asked whether they needed a biologist.” To Barbara’s surprise they answered:  yes in fact, we do!

A few weeks later she was able to start as a casual at the Hermitage Research Station in Warwick, Queensland, which was the beginning of her second career in science. The contrast to Europe couldn’t have been any starker. While cereal production in Europe was challenged by decades of heavy fertiliser and pesticide use and maximising production was less of a priority, the main challenge in Queensland was to increase crop yields under water-limited conditions and reduce the costs associated with drought. Finding genes or traits that give crops a yield advantage without increasing their water use has been the main focus of her recent work.

“We simply can’t afford to produce plants that yield more but need more water.”

Drought is particularly frequent in regions where sorghum is grown, like Africa and Australia. Breeding plants that are better at dealing with these conditions has the potential to contribute significantly to yield stability and economic returns in these regions.

Finding the genes responsible for these traits is a bit like finding a missing piece in a-million-piece puzzle. Fortunately, recent advances in remote sensing and other technologies help scientists to screen thousands of plants in the field, so they can look for specific genetic variation. Barbara, as part of the Centre of Excellence for Translational Photosynthesis, is using these methods – called high-throughput field phenotyping – to screen for photosynthetic traits in sorghum.

“I am very excited to be involved with the Centre. The Centre is very proactive in making people feel connected and it has been a great opportunity to meet other people working in photosynthesis, a topic which I find fascinating.”

 

Combining a scientific career with farm and family

“For the next five or six years after that visit to the Department of Agriculture, my husband, Peter, looked after our two boys and our small farm and I was the main bread winner working on various technical roles. Then I thought to return to the idea of doing a PhD and was offered to work on sorghum with a scholarship funded by the Grains Research Development Corporation (GRDC). Doing a PhD gave me more flexibility with my working hours, so I was picking up kids at 3 pm and worked on my project while the kids were at school and on the weekends. This also gave Peter the opportunity to go back to work himself.”

She says laughing; “I used to go to soccer and read scientific papers, I looked like a soccer mum, but I still don’t know the rules of soccer!”

“I can’t say that doing a PhD was easy, it took me nearly six years to finish. After the first three years, I took on a part-time position again, this time as a scientist. So trying to combine work as a researcher, with family and our small farm, while at the same time writing my thesis was a lot, but it helps that I have a tendency to focus. I remember one of the PhD advisors asking me; why do you want to do this? My answer was that it was about the journey, looking at something in detail. I don’t know how you get through if you don’t enjoy doing it, as you need a great deal of tenacity, persistence and enthusiasm.”

When asked about the attractions of a job in science, Barbara responds: “I love how versatile my day-to-day work is. I do so many different things: I work in the field, write up the results, get to meet farmers and then I also get the opportunity to travel in Australia and overseas. Now that I have my own project, I also feel a great sense of ownership of my work.”

Also, it is important to have a team of people you enjoy working with. “In science, you simply don’t have a chance to get anywhere or obtain results without working in a team, and I am very lucky to work in a team of different specialists who understand each other. But, on the other hand, I do think that you need to be able to think for yourself and be a problem solver.”

Wearing the multiple hats of education, art and women’s issues

One of Barbara’s passions is science education. She has been involved in the Schools Plant Science Competition for 20 years, an annual nation-wide event that is organised by the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries (DAF) in Warwick, Queensland, with the aim to stimulate an interest in science careers in primary and secondary school students.  In 2008, she won a Peter Doherty group award for Excellence in Science and Science Education for this work.

But Barbara’s talents don’t stop in science, arts has also always been a part of her life. She recently was the president of the Arts Council in Warwick, plays the piano, guitar and clarinet and sings in an A Capella choir.

“I am also passionate about women’s issues. Years ago I was part of a group advising the Director General in DAF on policies to increase the number of women in leadership positions. Now the Director General of DAF is a woman herself and the Department has made enormous progress on levelling the playing field for women. Today, I am part of the Queensland Alliance for Agriculture and Innovation (QAFFI) Gender Equity and Diversity group and hope I can contribute to greater gender equity in the university sector as well.”

Finally, I asked Barbara about homesickness and the challenges of living so far away from home. She quickly answers with a smile; “I think starting again is a challenge, but also an opportunity. Living away from where you come from is a chance to re-establish and reinvent yourself.”