In celebration of our Australian Cotton collection we caught up with Dr Warren Conaty, a Cotton Researcher with CSIRO in the cotton breeding team, who has been in the industry since 2007. Waz is a young doctor with a great sense of humour, and does fascinating work.
You’re a young Cotton Researcher with the CSIRO in the breeding team. For those of us not in the industry, can you tell us a little more about what this means?
My role with CSIRO is within the cotton breeding program. This means that broadly speaking, our research group produces better varieties of cotton. Specifically, my role is in the heat and water stress area. During the cotton season a lot of my work is outdoors, taking measurements in cotton crops which can mean anything from a metre ruler, through to machines that look like they’re from Ghost Busters, to flying drones.
I also have a bit of lab work associated with the project, so this means white lab coat, microscope, pipette and test tube type work. There’s no rest for the wicked, and in the winter I’m tied up in the office analysing data, writing up reports and making preparations for the coming cotton season- the work has a definite yearly cycle, which keeps things fresh, even if it’s sometimes like you’re on a hamster wheel!
What’s your history with the cotton industry and what sparked your career path?
As part of my degree we had to do an honors research project. Being a poor uni student, I was attracted to the projects that that were associated with student stipends. The one I was interested in was looking at genetic variability to waterlogging tolerance in cotton. I was successful in securing this summer student project, and after moving to Narrabri for the middle of a cotton season I decided that this was the type of work for me. With that in mind, and with a desire to be an agricultural scientist, I realized that I needed to get a PhD, which I later completed in Narrabri. So, I guess you can say interest, opportunity and the lure of cash to a poor uni student got me to where my career is today.
What are you currently working on, and what is the most rewarding part of the current project?
Presently I am leading a project on identifying ways to screen cotton varieties for abiotic stress tolerance, or heat and water stress resistance. The science is complex and really interesting to me. The interaction between what is practically applicable, the complex plant physiology and the effect that the environment has on this is a stimulating challenge. So that’d be one of rewarding aspects of my current project.
What do find the most rewarding about your job?
As I’ve had the opportunity to lead this project, I’d have to say that one of the most rewarding aspects is working with a team of dedicated scientists and research technicians. It sounds corny, but science is truly a team effort, and working with these people has been a privilege.
We hear you’ve got a great sense of humour! Is there a memory that springs to mind of a hilarious moment at work?
This is a bit of a tough one! But, I guess one thing that springs to mind is just the constant banter between colleagues, especially during the repetitive, sometime boring, and usually uncomfortable (summer in Narrabri is HOT!) field work – it keeps you sane. Usually new people to the group pick up on this pretty quickly, but as science is an international thing we often get foreign colleagues, which can take some time to appreciate the dry Aussie humor and sarcasm.
What do you like to do for fun, when you’re not at work?
I have a family (wife and 2.5 kids), who I’d spend all my time with if I could! Apart from that I enjoy keeping fit and playing AFL, veggie gardening, and anything to do with growing or making your own food – I’ve been keeping bees, making cheese and beer for a few years now.
What’s one thing we might not know about Australian Cotton?
The Australian cotton industry is young, rapidly adopts technology, and as a result is constantly improving itself. It’s progressive and is actually more water use efficient than many other irrigated Australian agricultural industries. Farmers grow cotton over other broad acre crops because they get the best return on their investment. Finally, due to its high quality and reliability, Australian cotton receives a premium in the global cotton market.