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Indigenous scientist looks through the weeds to a bigger picture

Audrey McInnerney

A tiny weed with huge potential has prompted University of Queensland PhD candidate and 2020 Charlie Perkins Scholarship winner Audrey McInnerney to head to the UK’s University of Cambridge.

The Indigenous doctoral researcher will take time out from her UQ studies on soybean genetics later this year to work towards a Master of Philosophy in Plant Biology at Cambridge’s Sainsbury Laboratory, negotiating her travel plans amidst the current global pandemic.

Ms McInnerney said the weed-like Arabidopsis Thaliana was one of the world’s most studied plants because it underpins a molecular understanding of developmental processes in other plants.

“I will be involved in identifying new genes involved in Arabidopsis shoot branching, and I hope to bring that knowledge back to UQ to benefit my study of soybean nodulation genetics,” Ms McInnerney said.

“Each legume plant’s ability to ‘fix’ nitrogen, which happens because of a relationship that legumes have with bacteria in the ground, is environmentally important.

“We hope to better understand which agronomic traits we can manipulate in the plant to lessen our reliance on synthetic fertilisers and improve nitrogen efficiency.

“Overusing synthetic nitrogen fertiliser can be environmentally detrimental, leading to algal blooms, over-nourishment of waterways and loss of biodiversity.

“I see legumes as a potential way for us to lessen our reliance on synthetic nitrogen fertilisers.

“I’m trying to find genes involved in both the nodulation and branching processes. Arabidopsis is a good plant to research with because it offers some tools that aren’t available in soybean.

Ms McInnerney said she looked forward to working under the supervision of Professor Dame Ottoline Leyser, who is renowned for her contributions to understanding of plant hormonal signalling.

“Her understanding of plant developmental plasticity through hormonal signalling will enrich my PhD and provide me with extra skills to help other Indigenous people better understand science and genetics and bridge the gap between Indigenous and western knowledges,” she said.

Ms McInnerney’s track record of academic success, research aptitude and community engagement contributed to her earning a prestigious Charles Perkins Scholarship through the Aurora Foundation.

During her studies, she has worked with the Wonder of Science program, which promotes science, technology, engineering and maths in Queensland schools.

She has also been involved with the UQ Indigenous student collective, Goorie Berrimpa.

“Science is embedded into my Wiradjuri culture, in lore and songlines,” she said.

“Indigenous spirituality and concepts of time can be quite circular and thinking that way is actually advantageous in the field of molecular biology as biological systems are never linear.

“I think if we could train young students in non-linear ways of thinking, it could be very advantageous in understanding how molecular processes are happening.

“It’s also important to look at a holistic level and not to isolate things.”

Following completion of the Cambridge MPhil in Plant Science, Ms McInnerney hopes to return to the University of Queensland to continue her PhD, and looks forward to future work with Wonder of Science and being able to share and encourage Indigenous perspectives in STEM.

Source: UQ

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