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Young scientist recognised by GRDC for leadership and commitment

NSW DPI Research Officer, Toni Petronaitis, has won the GRDC Northern Emerging Leader Award for her work in minimising yield losses from winter cereal diseases.
Photo: Toni Petronaitis

In the first five years of Toni Petronaitis’ career as a research officer, she’s made a lasting impression on the northern grains industry, becoming renowned for her efforts to limit yield losses caused by winter cereal diseases.

Today, Ms Petronaitis was presented the coveted GRDC Emerging Leader Award at the Grains Research Update in Wagga Wagga, acknowledging her contribution to the northern grains sector.

Since starting with the NSW Department of Primary Industries (DPI), Ms Petronaitis has quickly adopted a leading role in understanding winter cereal pathogens and their activity, particularly looking at stubble-borne pathogens.

The work of Toni and her colleagues has shifted northern winter cereal disease research beyond the growing season and aims to understand pathogen trends after harvest and whether they’re making it harder to control prominent diseases like crown rot, common root rot and yellow spot.

GRDC Northern Panel Chair, John Minogue says Ms Petronaitis was quick to solidify herself as a trusted voice among northern growers, showing a significant commitment to communication and shedding light on new research opportunities that could generate better results for growers.

“What makes Toni stand out in her field, and the reason she was awarded the emerging leader award, is that she’s proven to be a forward thinker and has brought a new element to important research that could better the northern grains industry,” he says.

“Not only has Toni made a conscious effort to explain her work in a way that applies to farmers, she’s also gone out of her way to generate two-way communication avenues between her research and growers, allowing the industry to contribute to the direction of her work.”

“Winter cereal diseases impact the northern grains sector significantly, so we’re excited by keen researchers, like Toni, who have a passion for finding ways to improve our management strategies. We’re eager to follow her work as she makes her mark in this industry.”

For Ms Petronaitis, the most rewarding part of her job is establishing meaningful relationships with growers and advisers, whom she said play a huge role in bringing industry constraints to light.

“Having these relationships is the most important thing we do - it’s so motivating to discuss how my research could be applied to the field and see whether it’s going to work for the growers using the information.”

Ms Petronaitis says her research aims to determine whether growers could implement management practices to help control winter cereal diseases all year round - focusing on stubble management.

“While we know stubble management is important, there’s been limited research on what stubble-borne pathogens are doing after harvest in stubble and whether that increases disease activity during the season,” she says.

“I’m focused on the common cereal diseases found in the north and investigating pathogen activity in stubble to try and determine the conditions they need to grow and thrive.”

So far, Ms Petronaitis’ work has shown stubble height plays a role in encouraging and hindering pathogen growth - with shorter stubble reducing activity.

As part of her research, Ms Petronaitis has also been investigating a novel approach to controlling pathogens in the field using microwave radiation.

Ms Petronaitis says being recognised with GRDC’s Emerging Leader Award was a huge honour, and she was excited to be able to further develop her research with the assistance of the award’s bursary.

“It means a lot to be recognised by the northern growers and have the support of an organisation like GRDC.”

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