Associate Professor Kathy Evans is an accomplished agricultural scientist and industry-research trailblazer who has grown the innovative capability of farms in Tasmania, Victoria, South Australia, and other regions. She is currently Director of TASAg Innovation Hub and formerly Head of Research at the Tasmanian Institute of Agriculture at the University of Tasmania.
After an undergraduate degree in agricultural science, Kathy joined Shell Chemical Australia Pty Ltd as a research and development officer in their graduate program.
‘I was put in the agricultural chemical division, which meant I had this wonderful opportunity to travel all around country Victoria to do field trials on farmers’ properties. I learned so much more about farming there than in my agriculture degree.’
Although the industrial work was rewarding, Kathy yearned to expand her knowledge and completed a master’s in plant pathology in the US before deciding to begin her PhD. She was attracted by viticulture, the cultivation of grapes, because she was a wine enthusiast herself. The Cooperative Research Centre (CRC) for Viticulture, which existed from 1992 until 2007, had recently started up and she commenced her PhD there with the University of Adelaide.
Kathy’s PhD project was an investigation into a severe plant disease which regularly affects grape cultivation. It was fundamental research which looked at the genetics of the causal pathogen and she made the important discovery that a new strain of the pathogen was prevalent in vineyards.
Kathy quickly built up a network of grape growers at whose vineyards she collected samples for her research. She and her fellow CRC researchers regularly shared their findings with these industry partners, who remained actively engaged as the research reached higher technology readiness levels.
‘In Australia, the wine and grape industry is quite an innovative industry, and they understand that researchers need to do this kind of fundamental work. They knew that we were working on a problem which mattered to them, even if they weren’t quite sure what it would lead to.’
Kathy described the CRC as a space where people came together from various parts of the supply chain, which leads to collaboration and knowledge sharing.
‘In a CRC, you can situate your work with an understanding of where it fits within the industry, and you realise that the problem you are solving is not isolated. It’s not a matter of creating some solution and thinking that industry will immediately adopt it. If you come up with new solutions, they must fit within the current business.’
After completing her PhD at the CRC for Viticulture, Kathy joined the CRC for Australian Weed Management, also partnered with the University of Adelaide, as a postdoctoral researcher. Weed science was a new field for her.
‘Even though I had never worked with weed scientists before, I had this whole network to tap into. It enabled me to become productive in that research very quickly… The CRCs create a culture where it’s okay to just pick up the phone and talk to someone, because you’re all in the CRC. It’s like an extended family.’
Later in her career, Kathy joined the Tasmanian Institute of Agriculture (TIA) at the University of Tasmania, where she set up a new program of research. A key part of this process was developing relationships with industry to bring them on as partners of the research projects. She said that her experience at the CRCs for Viticulture and Australian Weed Management gave her the confidence and ability to talk to industry and learn about their problems and eventually bring them on board.
Through creating a research program and taking various other leadership roles at the TIA, where she helped develop research impact and project design, she eventually became Head of Research. While in this role, she has gained leadership of the TASAg Innovation Hub, which aims to build the capability of Tasmanian farmers and rural communities to prepare for drought.
‘A thing to note over time, is that I’ve realised the human factor matters as much, if not more than, the technical things that we’re doing. At TASAg, I’m working in a much more interdisciplinary team which has greater involvement from social scientists.’
Considering her broad experiences in the CRCs, TIA, and TASAg, Kathy advised researchers on how to work with industry.
‘Understand that industry wants solutions yesterday. You’ve got to design your work so that there are some early wins, so that you can keep people engaged and feeling like they are learning something as well.’
She also emphasised the importance of communication.
‘Get your message down to three dot points and don’t be such an expert. When you’re having conversations with people, be humble and try to show genuine interest in their point of view. Get them involved, see if you can do the work on their sites, and spend time to understand their needs.’
Read more about Kathy’s research here.
Read more about the TASAg Innovation Hub here.
[KE1]Working with collaborators, not limited to these states or Australia