2010 Fulbright Scholar: Professor Robert Park

19 March 2010

With his award-winning research Robert Park, Professor of Cereal Rust Research, is set to provide the global population with better food security by helping to safeguard one of the world's primary crops - wheat.

Rust diseases of wheat have caused significant losses in wheat crops globally, including in North America and Australia, and continue to impact on production.

"Along with insects, pathogens reduce yields of the eight most important crops by a staggering 42 per cent," Professor Park says.

"The most effective, economical and environmentally sound way to control rust diseases is the development and cultivation of wheat varieties with in-built genetic resistance. Australia and the US have been world leaders in this field since the early 1900s."

Professor Park said that despite the identification and use of a number of rust-resistance genes to protect crops, the emergence of new rust strains can overcome their effectiveness. New rust strains arise via either mutation or the wind-borne movement of rust spores between regions and in some cases even continents. Because of this, there is a constant need to identify, characterise and deploy new resistance genes.

While in the US his work will focus on the most important rust pathogen which is known as Puccinia graminis (P. graminis). This rust species can destroy entire crops - the last outbreak in Australia, in 1973, cost the wheat industry an estimated $300 million.

Professor Park's project will be three fold. He will use DNA fingerprinting to compare strains of P.graminis in Australia with those present in the U.S., to see how they relate. He will also determine the potential impact on Australian wheats of a new strain of P.graminis that has emerged from eastern Africa. While researchers in Australia are not permitted to work with this strain due to quarantine restrictions, U.S. researchers are permitted to do so in the mid-west during the cold winter months. Thirdly he will evaluate a strain of stem rust that affects oats.

His working in the US will build stronger links between Australia and America, leading to greater coordination of cereal rust research. Ultimately this partnership will have long-term benefits that will contribute to improved global food security.

Professor Park has a BSc in Biological Sciences and PhD in plant pathology from La Trobe University. He was awarded a Humboldt Fellowship in 1995 and in 2009 received the Chinese Friendship Award, the highest award conferred by the Chinese Government to foreign experts. In addition to his academic work Robert has a strong interest in his family, general science, literature, woodwork, metalwork and mechanics.

The prestigious Fulbright program is the largest educational scholarship of its kind, created by US Senator J. William Fulbright and the U.S. Government in 1946. Aimed at promoting mutual understanding through educational exchange, it operates between the US and 150 countries. In Australia, the scholarships are funded by the Australian and US Governments and corporate partners and administered by the Australian-American Fulbright Commission in Canberra.

Professor Park was also recently awarded a major grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Read more here.

Professor Park is one of 25 talented Australians to be recognised as a Fulbright Scholar in 2010. Applications for Fulbright Scholarships in 2011 open on 1 June, visit the Fulbright website.

Contact: Professor Robert Park

Phone: 02 9351 8806

Email: 035c2c2a0b5f4823584620385c0829272f565a1f0907643330