Wednesday, May 18, 2022

Helping to make science useful

When Trish Fraser arrived in New Zealand from Scotland to study, she had no idea she would still be here more than 30 years later. During that time, she has made a valuable contribution to the rural community as a soil scientist.

When it comes to demonstrating science to those who could benefit from it, Trish Fraser likes to get out in the field. Photo: Plant & Food Research

When Trish Fraser arrived in New Zealand from Scotland to study, she had no idea she would still be here more than 30 years later. During that time, she has made a valuable contribution to the rural community as a soil scientist. Colin Williscroft reports.

Plant & Food Research soil scientist Trish Fraser likes to take a practical approach to communicating science to farmers, believing that’s the most effective way of getting her message across.

Fraser, the 2020 Rural Woman of Influence award winner, has attended plenty of field days over the years and she believes the practical approach is appreciated by farmers.

“Farmers are kinesthetic learners and as such like to be able to see and touch things, so I try to have demonstrations that after you’ve seen it, hopefully you’ll remember it,” Fraser said.

“I try to think outside the square to make what I’m talking about memorable.”

An example Fraser gives is putting columns of different soil types into transparent tubes and then pouring water through them to show the effects of different management practices on the physical structure of soil.

She says the best compliment she got was when a farmer approached her after seeing one of her demonstrations and told her that although he had not come along wanting to learn about that, he certainly wouldn’t forget it.

“NZ farmers really do pick things up, but they need to see a good reason to change,” she said.

“They need to see the benefits and they want to understand the reasons why.

“If they can appreciate the issues, then the changes will be rapid.”

Fraser tries not to think of herself as a trailblazer for women but says in retrospect, she realises her passion and interest has had an impact on the communities she has served, despite some eyebrows being raised early on in her career.

“When I first started as a soil scientist about 30 years ago, the rural community was dominated by men,” she said.

“I knew I had to prove myself through the quality of my work. I attended quite a few field days to share my research with farmers on how to improve soil health and I was often the only woman there.

“Gradually they began to value and respect me for the work I did.”

She says there are a lot more women involved today, with plenty more students coming through.

It’s particularly noticeable at conferences, she says, and there are a lot of young women now working as agronomists and fertiliser company representatives for example, which is a big change from when she began.

Fraser did her undergraduate degree at Aberdeen University in Scotland.

She went there thinking she was going to study horticulture but, in the end, studied botany – thinking it was probably quite like horticulture – and enjoyed it.

Someone at the university then recommended she study soil science, so she picked it up in her second year and has not looked back.

After four years at Aberdeen, Fraser finished a bachelor of science degree with joint honours in plant and soil sciences, and then successfully applied for a scholarship to come to NZ to study towards a PhD in soil science at Lincoln.

Her focus at the time was investigating the fate of nitrogen in the soil under a cow’s urine patch, an issue that has in recent years become very topical, particularly in relation to water quality.

Originally Fraser thought she would be in NZ for three years.

“It’s fair to say I’ve overstayed a bit,” she said.

After finishing her PhD, Fraser got a job as a soil scientist at what was at the time the NZ Institute for Crop and Food Research, now Plant & Food Research, also in Lincoln.

Since then, her contribution to the cropping sector has revolved around working with it to understand interactions among soils, crops and the environment.

That included addressing a wide range of soil-related issues in the sector, such as delivering practical knowledge for farmers to balance productivity, environmental and system resilience outcomes.

She says providing farmers with useful information is one of the best parts of her job.

“If it doesn’t have a practical end-use, I find it’s much less appealing. I want to get the research findings out there so farmers can use it,” she said.

As well as having been part of several collaborative research and industry teams responsible for some key discoveries in the area of soil health, Fraser has played an important role in shaping the NZ Society for Soil Science.

A society member since 1989, she served as secretary for 20 years, was vice-president for two and became the first female president (2012-14), before serving as immediate past-president for another two years.

Today Fraser, who has raised three daughters along the way, is a science team leader at Plant & Food Research. 

During her career she has mentored many scientists and directly supervised other technical staff and would like to inspire the next generation’s interest in sustainable production and communicating science directly to farmers and rural professionals through seeing research applied on-farm. 

Fittingly, earlier this month she was honoured by being conferred with the highest award of Fellowship by the NZ Society of Soil Science. She received this prestigious award for her contributions to the advancement of soil science and the society over the past 30 years.

Her advice to women thinking about a career in the primary sector or its research is simple.

“If it’s something that you think you’ll enjoy, then do it,” she said.

“If you’re passionate about it, it’s more likely that you’ll do well.”

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