By Tamaya Peressini, ACIAR Graduate Research Officer
If it weren’t for COVID-19, I would currently be in the Philippines working with local and Australian researchers integrating ways to manage Fusarium wilt in smallholder banana production. While the work and research are continuing at a distance, the pandemic has provided me with the time to reflect on the last 18 months working at the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR).
I joined ACIAR in February 2019 (it still feels like yesterday) and since then it’s been a whirlwind of experiences, learnings, and a whole lot more of everything still to do! Joining ACIAR from an honours project centred around crop genetics at the University of Queensland and then joining a workplace with the best and brightest minds in agriculture research for development (AgR4D) tends to have that effect.
On my first day, my mentor, Irene Kernot, Research Program Manager for Horticulture, asked me ‘So what brings you to ACIAR?’ Simply put, I want to help ensure there's enough safe and nutritious food to feed the world sustainably.
That hasn’t changed. But what has, is my view on the way forward in my research career and how I best proceed with a better understanding of smallholder horticultural systems.
Here’s my insight on three experiences and learnings that have helped to kick-start my career in AgR4D...
1. Learning from farmers and researchers on the ground
I’ve been incredibly fortunate to have visited ACIAR projects in the field throughout various stages of the project cycle – during the scoping, inception, middle and end.
My work has taken me from Bangladesh, Laos, the Philippines, Fiji, Samoa, Vanuatu, Tonga, the Solomon Islands and around sweetpotato farms in Bundaberg with growers from Papua New Guinea (PNG).
I’ve got stuck into reviews that evaluate the outcomes and impact of projects across good agriculture practices for vegetable farming systems, wheat breeding programs, fruit production and protected cropping.
I’ve been able to learn from farmers, project leaders and other early-mid career researchers about their experiences.
Not only has this given me a quick introduction to smallholder horticultural production in person (because I sure didn’t before starting at ACIAR…and you bet did I learn quickly); it’s been invaluable to learn from their experiences, understand what’s keeping them awake at night, and what questions they still have for the researchers.
Which brings me to the next section…
2. Getting to the crux of what makes a good research project
Two words, one question: ‘so what?’
You’ve been able to diagnose a disease rapidly with a new method – so what? How do you intend for this research to benefit the next user? Is this disease even a problem or likely to be a problem in smallholder farms in the region? Is it going to make a difference in the short or long term to a farmer; and if so, what’s in it for them?
From my experience being involved in project design and reviews,this is something that always needs to be visited.
The very nature of research-for-development is that things change, your assumptions may have been incorrect, and you need to adapt your research to best reach the people you want to benefit the most from your research. Sounds like common sense, but often these perspectives come in hindsight, and that’s ok! ACIAR itself is a learning organisation.
No matter what you are researching, the same questions can always be asked of yourself (as a researcher) and of the project. What do we know now that we didn’t know before? And with this new knowledge, so what?
3. The importance of brokering meaningful research partnerships
My favourite workshop I’ve attended with ACIAR was run with the Partnership Brokering Association. I was fortunate enough to participate in this training with the institutional John Dillon Fellow cohort from PNG and the Pacific. It was such a rich learning experience that triggered a light bulb moment of what a genuine research partnership really looks like.
Often, we see a lot of things called a partnership. But really, it’s just a ‘transactional relationship’, there hasn’t been the honest discussion of why organisations are going into the research partnership together. These conversations should talk about the shared values and vision of all parties taking part in research, and what is bringing them to the table with complete transparency. I’ve been able to directly apply these learnings in the development of pipeline research projects.
I’ve only mentioned three things, but there is a whole lot more I can say about how much I’ve loved this graduate experience. Here’s a few more briefly:
Being mentored by the many brilliant minds at ACIAR, both in Australia in our 10 country offices
Listenting to a variety of experts speak at ACIAR during lunchtime 'brownbag' sessions and learning about the many challenges facing agricultural development throughout the Indo-Pacific
Building a network of researchers through project visits, meetings, and conferences
Every day feels like a linear progression in learning, thinking, evaluating—and I relish the challenge. I thoroughly enjoy working with the amazing people in this industry. I'm humbled to be learning so much at such an early stage and look forward to the next steps in my AgR4D career.
Tamaya Peressini is a Research Officer on the Graduate Development Program at ACIAR. The Program provides a unique work experience opportunity for Australian university graduates with an interest in international agricultural research and policy development.
ACIAR Graduate Program 2021
Applications are now open for our Graduate Program for 2021, if you or someone you know is interested in international agricultural research for development, we would love to hear from you!