Indigenous scientist looks through the weeds to a bigger picture

27 August 2020

A tiny weed with huge potential has prompted UQ PhD candidate and 2020 Charlie Perkins Scholarship winner Audrey McInnerney to head to Cambridge University.

Audrey is so convinced about her research project that she’s been negotiating her travel amidst the current global pandemic.

Audrey McInnerney pictured on a previous visit to Cambridge.

In coming months, the Indigenous doctoral researcher will take a time-out from her UQ studies on soybean genetics to progress a Master of Philosophy in Plant Biology at the Sainsbury Laboratory of University of Cambridge.

It may seem a long way to go to focus on the weed-like Arabidopsis Thaliana plant, especially when COVID-19 has made travel arrangements quite fraught.

However, Arabidopsis is one of the most studied plants in the world 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 the soybean genetics which control nodulation, which happens because of a relationship that legumes have with bacteria in the ground,” Audrey says.

“Each legume plant’s ability to fix nitrogen is environmentally important. We hope to better understand which agronomic traits to optimise to lessen the reliance on synthetic fertilisers and improve the nitrogen use efficiency to boost productivity.

 “Synthetic nitrogen fertiliser overuse can be environmentally detrimental, leading to algal blooms, eutrophication of waterways and loss of biodiversity. I see legumes as a way for us to look at lessening our reliance on synthetic nitrogen fertilisers.

“I’m trying to find genes involved in both the nodulation and branching processes … with Arabidopsis research there’s a lot more tools you can use to do things faster.

“There is the added attraction of working under the supervision of Professor Dame Ottoline Leyser, who is renowned for her contributions to understanding of plant hormonal signalling.

“A higher-level 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.”

Audrey is a Wiradjuri woman whose track record of academic success, research aptitude and community engagement contributed to earning a prestigious Charles Perkins Scholarship through the Aurora Foundation.

Her engagement has included ongoing support for the Wonder of Science program, which promotes a STEM culture in Queensland schools through Young Science Ambassadors, STEM inquiry tasks, student conferences and strategic partnerships.

Audrey has also sustained over three years’ involvement with the University of Queensland Indigenous Student Collective, Goorie Berrimpa. This has allowed her to learn from peers and to grow as a leader in a community environment.

“It is important that Indigenous students, often away from home for the first time, have a strong sense of community so they can succeed and achieve their potential,” Audrey says.

“This is why I have made an effort to contribute back to Goorie Berrimpa. For the past two years, I have coordinated the annual University of Queensland Union NAIDOC Ball, an event where our UQ community can connect with the wider community, celebrate culture and engage with the annual NAIDOC theme.

“I have also taken on other small organisational roles and have engaged with other Indigenous students and community where possible. This has included small social events, cultural weaving, UQ Reconciliation events and Brisbane-wide rallies.”

Audrey says she has always been encouraged to ask questions about the world “and, as a Wiradjuri woman, science is embedded into my culture in Lore and Songlines”.

“The totemic system employed by my clan and many others is a means for ecological conservation and natural resource management. Oral stories passed down often refer to environmental markers which indicate change of seasons, and planting and harvesting times.

“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.”

As well as paving the way for her current research at Cambridge, the Aurora Foundation Indigenous Scholars Tour has previously enabled Audrey’s familiarisation visits to some of the world’s other top universities, including Stanford, Berkley, NYU, Columbia, Harvard, Cambridge and Oxford.

Audrey hopes she can develop as a role model to inspire Indigenous students to consider a STEM career.

“Following completion of the Cambridge MPhil in Plant Science, I hope to return to the University of Queensland to continue my PhD. I look forward to future work with Wonder of Science and being able to share and encourage Indigenous perspectives in STEM.

 “Continual research will deepen my understanding of Indigenous scientific knowledges, so I can better explain scientific concepts using contexts relevant to Indigenous cultures and history.

“I hope to continue being a positive role model as an Indigenous scientist and to encourage Indigenous youths in Queensland to engage with STEM. I want other Indigenous students to see themselves as being able to succeed in fields like molecular biology and genetics and to recognise that their traditional ways of thinking might be really beneficial in this.

“My community work with Goorie Berrimpa has taught me the value and virtues of ambassadorial work. I am therefore very confident that I will be able to be a positive and respectful representative of the Charlie Perkins Scholarship.”