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From Microscopic Views to Global Visions

Jphan with her fellow in genetics

“So you’re a graduate student?”

“Yes.”

“Soooo, what do you do and how is it useful?”

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This is a familiar conversation starter, a familiar question, a familiar facial expression that many graduate students are challenged with when we meet someone new, are networking, or just trying to explain to our grandparents what we do every day of our lives. And how does this, usually awkward, interaction end? With very contorted eyebrows from the other party, and us, the graduate student, feeling as if we have once again inadequately explained how our work contributes to the forward movement of developing the world.

I admit, I have experienced the aforementioned interaction too many times, and too many times I have left the other party speechless because they have no idea what I just said, I have felt the oncoming of the fight-or-flight response and the feeling of angst because I am making a fool of myself. But time after time, I have sought out these interactions, I have forced myself to confront this challenge and I will turn those contorted eyebrows into raised eyebrows of excitement that share my enthusiasm in what I am trying to achieve through my research. I dare other students to pursue the same communication challenge and in the remaining few paragraphs, I hope to convince you why!

“So what is the problem?”

As a graduate student in the School of Agriculture, Food and Wine and funded by the Grains Research and Development Corporation (GRDC, Australia), there have been multiple occasions for me to develop my skills as a science communicator, an educator and general fun-fact sharer (here’s one: wombat scat, commonly known as poop, is cubic in shape). At these occasions, university open days and science outreach events, I have noticed a common theme that resonates among many people: what ends up on your dinner plate is somehow not connected to the plants growing/animals grazing in the fields or the numerous people who have worked to deliver that food to your plate. If these people are choosing, at their own will, to remain ignorant than we cannot facilitate the matter, but if it is society that has shaped many of us to think so, or not even consider the question of “where does my food come from” than it is here that we can step up and make a change. Perhaps somewhat surprisingly to some, many scientists are also unfamiliar with food production where it is initiated and how they can apply their skills into the world. As a result, there is so much potential and so many genius ideas locked away in academic institutes that could be translated into the world to sustainably produce and ensure food security for the future. (Interestingly, in the English language words such as beef, mutton and pork describe what you consume whilst cow, sheep and pig are live animals usually associated with cute characters or farm animals kept as pets. In other languages, Vietnamese is one such example, they are the same. Has language caused some cultures to become distant from the origins of their food?).

“What can be done to make a difference?”

It is about communication, the key to a successful relationship, between two people or two disciplines, is to ensure that there is effective sharing of information and knowledge. Through communication at global events such as GCARD3, we will be able to include everyone, from consumers to farmers to scientists, everyone in the production line, with no one left behind, together we can work towards a sustainable world and food security.

“OK, that’s great that you’ve identified a way to make a difference, but how are you going to achieve a more unified field?”

As a graduate student trained in genetics, I have chosen to close the gap between fundamental research and food production by making myself heard, quite literally: at the same outreach events where I first realised the issue, I am reaching out and engaging students, the general public, the next generation of decision makers about current research that is happening to ensure that we can move together into a sustainable world where food is attainable for everyone. But engaging this switched-on generation is a challenging task. You must out-compete, be more entertaining than their smart phone! I was recently invited to speak at a GRDC research update, presenting my work in front of a mixed audience of farmers and industry workers. Faced with the challenge of not sounding like I was speaking a different language, I can proudly report to you that a farmer approached me after my presentation and acknowledged how they not only enjoyed my presentation but were also able to appreciate and understand the significance of my work and how it related to them, this reiterated in my mind how powerful it is to be an effective communicator. Being able to convince complete strangers that studying the “goo that comes out of some seeds” is worth spending at least 3 years of my oh-too-short life investigating (a story deserving of its own blog post) means that I am one step closer to uniting the field of agriculture, which includes you, me and everyone. I believe that being able to confidently answer the question “what do you do and how is useful?” to anyone that asks is closing the gap between what happens in science laboratories and the global impact that it has.

As I sit behind a microscope, hunched over, using tiny little needles to dissect the tinniest possible sample to then extract the teeny tiny RNA that is inside (RNA is like a messenger, translating the information stored DNA into a language that the cells’ builders can use to make everything that is life), I look forward to exploring other facets of agriculture for I am only familiar with one chapter of this complex story. At the GCARD3 meeting I hope to learn methods on how to translate meaningful research into impactful global changes and believe that my formal training in science will inspire me to tackle these issues with a cross-disciplinary approach. The global event that is GCARD3, will enable me to network with people from different sectors, collaborate with others to generate global partnerships and therefore aiding in the development of innovative ideas, finding compelling ways to transform our world, to achieve our sustainable development goals by 2030.

Jana Phan is a current genetics graduate student studying at the University of Adelaide, Australia, School of Agriculture, Food and Wine. Her parents migrated from Vietnam to Australia with the hope of raising their children in a world filled with opportunity. Achieving her Bachelor of Science with first class honours in 2012, Jana found a strong interest in agriculture and is eager to pursue a career path dedicated to developing a sustainable planet and ensuring food security.

This blog post is part of the GCARD3 Youth blogpost applications. The content, structure and grammar is at the discretion of the author only.

Photo credit: Trang Pham