By Katherine Hollaway
For Dr Ky Mathews, analysing plant breeding trials is not just about getting the numbers right, it is about feeding the world.
"When you see real poverty every day you realise how important it is to produce food," she says of her time working at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) in Mexico.
The University of Wollongong biometrician has spent the past 20 years playing an integral role in helping plant breeders to accurately identify the best-performing varieties for Australia's grain growers.
Living in Mexico you see real poverty every day and you realise how important it is to produce food. CIMMYT is the world leader in wheat research.
Now Dr Mathews leads the national node of GRDC's Statistics for the Australian Grains Industry (SAGI). The program supports the publicly funded plant breeding programs, as well as other research challenges such as late maturity alpha-amylase in wheat and blackleg ratings in canola.
Centre for learning
Her interest in CIMMYT, the largest supplier of wheat germplasm in the world, was sparked early in her career while she was investigating the adaption of wheat germplasm from Australia and CIMMYT with the University of Queensland and GRDC investment. After several years collaborating with CIMMYT researchers, and a few visits along the way, Dr Mathews jumped at the opportunity to move to its headquarters near Mexico City.
She joined the Seeds of Discovery program to characterise the genetics of more than 100,000 wheat plants in CIMMYT's genebank and make them available to the world's breeders.
While there, Dr Mathews took on the role of head of the Biometrics and Statistics Unit, with responsibility for more than 20 biometricians supporting work ranging from conservation agriculture to plant breeding.
Although the leadership experience was invaluable, it was the melting pot of cultures and knowledge that was of more importance to Dr Mathews.
Melting pot of cultures
"Everyone wants to work at CIMMYT," she says. "It is a huge organisation that collaborates with over 100 countries. You can meet the world at morning tea. I was lucky enough to meet Dr Norman Borlaug, the father of the Green Revolution.
"I also spent some time working at Wageningen Research University in the Netherlands, but it is a rich country, like Australia. Although I met a lot of inspiring researchers there, it is only in a place like Mexico that you can appreciate the real importance of genetic research."
Family matters led Dr Mathews back to Australia, but she has brought with her a different perspective and a world of valuable connections.
"There are so many different people and cultures at CIMMYT that you are challenged to think differently and to realise that your way is not the only way," she says.
"Australia is definitely at the forefront of statistical research in international agriculture, but it is important to maintain a global perspective. I am proud to be able to connect our researchers with international experts to enable them to expand their horizons and bring new skills to their Australian research."
Dr Julie Nicol, senior plant pathologist and pre-breeder, spent 14 years at CIMMYT in Mexico and Turkey working on soil-borne diseases of wheat.
She says it was a great time in her career working alongside experts from all over the world with wheat as their focus.
During this time, she delivered many high-yield adapted spring wheats back to Australia with resistance to both root lesion nematodes and crown rot, with GRDC investment.
"I met and worked with some of the most dedicated scientists, including word-class breeders and pathologists," she says.
Her international experience has been invaluable since her return to Australia, where - among other things - she now coordinates the CIMMYT Australia ICARDA Germplasm Exchange (CAIGE) project. This aims to improve Australian breeders' access to bread and durum wheat and barley germplasm.
"I am now using my skills and contacts to ensure Australian growers receive the best international lines from CIMMYT and ICARDA," she says.
Dr Nicol is also helping to build the capacity of agriculture in developing countries and has led several master class training programs in Turkey through the Australian Crawford Fund. "I gain great satisfaction being able to give back to Australia and also the developing world," she says.
Dr Nicol's colleague, and CAIGE project leader, wheat breeder Professor Richard Trethowan, spent 13 years at CIMMYT in Mexico and says his experience gave him a global perspective on wheat production and research.
"The contacts I developed have proven highly valuable since returning to Australia to work in wheat pre-breeding with the University of Sydney," he says.
"They have given me unparalleled access to international collaboration and genetic material. These benefits have both influenced my career and improved the scope and impact of my work - ultimately to the benefit of the Australian grains industry."