Dr Stephanie Kerr: breaking new ground in macadamia research

On International Women’s Day, we acknowledge and celebrate the enormous contribution women make to the Australian macadamia industry, and highlight the diverse roles they play.

Dr Stephanie Kerr branched into macadamias after finishing a PhD in plant molecular biology and beginning work in the National Tree Genomic Program at Queensland University of Technology. The project looked at five different tree crops including macadamias, to improve understanding of the genomics (that is, the genetic instructions) within them.

“When you look at rice and wheat and other common annual plants, they’ve been studied so well,” Stephanie explains. “They’ve sequenced all of the genomes and we know a lot about the genes that control different processes.” However, barely any work had been done on tree crops, especially macadamias. So Stephanie used the resources generated by the project to understand how the tree crops flower. “This could be understanding the age at which a tree flowers. But I also looked at what controls when trees decide to flower each year and what can we understand about that process.”

Uniting industry and researchers

Stephanie credits the AusMac industry conference as giving her a holistic view of the tree crops she was studying. The conference also allowed her to bridge the gap between lab-based researchers and producers. “It can be hard to explain your research and why it might be useful. To a grower, it doesn’t matter what the genes do as long as they get the outcome they are after.” 

She admits that genomics can be quite theoretical and sometimes there’s not always that direct link between what happens in the lab and what happens on the farm. However, ultimately, understanding the genetics and genomics behind a process equips growers to make better decisions. She’s looking forward to finding ways to make her research more relevant to the macadamia industry in stage two of the program which begins soon. By understanding genetic processes, other industries have been able to bring about earlier flowering which allows “speed-breeding” of better cultivars. She is hopeful her research can be applied to this end. 

Women in macadamia research

With a mother who had to fight to obtain a PhD in Chemistry, Stephanie knows she is living in a fortunate time for women in the sciences. Yet she still struggles with the long days expected of people in research when she has to balance them with the needs of a young family. But she sees that changing as more of her male colleagues take on caring roles. And she admits macadamia research is an exciting place to be. “One of the things I love about doing this research is that almost everything I am doing, no one has done before because there’s been so little research in macadamia genomics. The more I see what others are doing, I think let’s try it in macadamias and see if it works.”

Proudly Supported By

Supported by Hort Innovation and Macadamia Fund

This website has been partly funded by Hort Innovation, using the macadamia research and development levy and contributions from the Australian Government.