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Five Minutes with David Guest

7 July 2017
Do you know about the science behind your favourite treat?

This World Chocolate Day, our resident expert, Professor David Guest, talks about the chocolate shortage crisis and why you should follow your passion. 

David Guest Professor of Plant Pathology

What is your background, and why did you decide to join the University?  

I grew up in Griffith where my family has a farm. My parents encouraged me to go to university and I was lucky enough to be offered a scholarship. I came to Sydney in 1973 to study agricultural science and never returned to work on the farm. After my PhD, I was appointed a lecturer in botany at the University of Melbourne where I stayed for 20 years until returning to the University of Sydney in 2004 as the Professor of Horticultural Science, then Plant Pathology.

How did you get interested in this area of research?

As a student I spent time walking in the Himalayas and would see wheat crops devastated by diseases I had learned about but never saw at home. Globally we lose about 30 percent of crops due to disease, and even more in developing countries. It struck me that managing these diseases, as we do in Australia, would have a significant impact on food security.

What research or projects are you working on with your colleagues at the moment? 

I’m working with interdisciplinary teams in Indonesia and Papua New Guinea to improve cocoa productivity, diversify farmer incomes and improve community health. Interdisciplinarity is the key – I’ve realised you can train and engage farmers in good crop management practices in all sorts of creative ways but if they have poor health and stamina, and no market incentives, you risk wasting your time. It has taken a long time to convince funding agencies to support holistic, truly ‘one-health’ research approaches like this, but I think the tide is changing.

You’re part of the self-assessment team for the SAGE Gender Equity project. What does this involve and why is gender equity important to you?

We’re preparing an application for an Athena SWAN/SAGE (Science in Australia Gender Equity) accreditation. Our job is to audit how the University is performing on gender equity and identify what needs to be improved. I’m in a subcommittee that examines organisation and culture. There are a few simple changes that need to happen in the University to ensure we nurture and retain the talent demonstrated by scientists and staff, regardless of gender.

It’s a challenging but really exciting project, and in many ways, this process is more important than whether or not we are eventually awarded accreditation, although the recognition would be good. 

Equity is important to me for many reasons. I collaborate widely and appreciate the richness that arises from diverse perspectives. As a parent, I am aware of how difficult it can be to balance family and career, and more attention needs to be paid to flexibility and childcare so women and their partners can meet their familial, professional and research obligations. A bigger challenge to achieving gender equity in the University is to change entrenched and often unconscious attitudes and cultures, and this is why I think the SAGE project is so important.

As a parent, I am aware of how difficult it can be to balance family and career, and more attention needs to be paid to flexibility and childcare so women and their partners can meet their familial, professional and research obligations.
Professor David Guest

You’re involved with our new Sydney Institute of Agriculture. Can you tell us about it? 

Like other recently established institutes in the University, the Sydney Institute of Agriculture offers us a great opportunity to break down the old faculty silos that suffocated interdisciplinary collaborations. We have identified five thematic areas to promote collaborations across the University – plant breeding; carbon, water and soil; animal agriculture; quality food; and development agriculture. I am especially excited about development agriculture as it integrates the other four themes to address the biggest and most complex challenges of food and nutrition security.

Last year you spoke about the chocolate crisis. Do you have any updates on this situation? 

There was a good harvest in West Africa, where 75 percent of the world’s cocoa comes from, and growth in demand has slowed due to the global economy, so the pressure is off for the moment. However, much of the growth in production has come from forest clearing rather than improved productivity. About 90 percent of West African farmers are illiterate, and most live on less than $2 a day, suffer poor health and are in their mid-50s. If we want to keep enjoying chocolate, we are going to have to make cocoa farming more attractive and rewarding.

What are you passionate about outside the lecture theatre?  

My partner and family, meeting farmers around the world, the Australian bush, music, wine (Heathcote Shiraz) and food (yes, dark chocolate), cricket, the Western Bulldogs, epistemological anarchy and aiming to be useful and happy.

What books are you reading at the moment?  

I just finished 'Mentored by a Madman: the William Burroughs Experiment' by AJ Lees, a fantastic book about a neurologist’s career that crossed the boundaries of conventional science. I’m now reading 'Born to Run', Bruce Springsteen’s surprisingly honest and insightful autobiography.

What is the best piece of career advice you have been given, and why?

Follow your passion. When I was younger, my career advisers at school kept pushing me towards law and medicine for what seemed all the wrong reasons. Follow your dreams, be patient and be confident that good things will happen, often involving curiosity and altamirage.