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Harbans Bariana
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Five minutes with Professor Harbans Bariana

1 October 2019
Safeguarding the world's food supply
Professor Harbans Bariana from the University's Plant Breeding Institute in Cobbity, on our Camden campus, has dedicated his life to protecting wheat crops against rust diseases. He was recently honoured as a finalist in the India Australia Business and Community Awards.

What is your background and how did you come to join the University?

I belong to a farming family from India. Wheat, maize and potato were among the main crops that my family grew. I developed a passion to be an agricultural scientist and hence completed a Bachelor of Science Agriculture (Honours in Crop Protection) at the Punjab Agricultural University.

I worked on characterisation of resistance to leaf rust in wheat in my Master of Science program. During this time, I read articles by University of Sydney Plant Breeding Institute staff. A Prime Wheat Association and Wheat Research Council (forebears of Grains Research and Development Corporation Australia) scholarship was advertised in 1985 and it was offered to me in 1986. I completed a PhD in 1991 at the University of Sydney and after a few years of postdoctoral training at the CSIRO and Agriculture Victoria, I was appointed Postdoctoral Fellow at the University's Fruit Fly Research Centre in 1995. 

I was offered a Research Fellow position to lead the germplasm screening and enhancement section of the Australian Cereal Rust Control Program in 1996. My journey to save Australia from the scourge of wheat rust diseases started with this appointment and is continuing with flying colours through my current appointment as Professor of Cereal Rust Genetics.

Where did your passion for enhancing rust resistance in wheat to safeguard the world’s food production come from?

My research at the Punjab Agricultural University, as well as losses due to leaf rust that I observed in our family farm, made me more passionate about conducting research on aspects related to breeding for rust resistance in wheat. My PhD scholarship at the University made this dream come true. My interaction with the national and international network of my PhD supervisor Professor Bob McIntosh during my doctoral study boosted my confidence. My appointment to the Australian Cereal Rust Control Program gave me the platform to steer my passion to deliver tangible rust control outputs for the Australian and global wheat industry. 

Should we be worried about future food sources in the age of climate change? 

Natural changes are often seen by people through tunnel vision. I believe in a multidisciplinary approach to achieving solutions for potential calamities in the future. It is very difficult to change people’s dietary habits. I believe that the efforts of plant and animal scientists will keep feeding us. We need to save production losses from diseases and pests. We also have to focus on helping developing and underdeveloped nations to improve storage facilities. Understanding plant genomes using cutting-edge molecular biology technologies is also critical to increasing food production.

What do you value about working at the University? 

The training of the next generation of plant scientists is my passion and the University is an excellent institution for this. It has been involved in cereal rust resistance for 100 years and hosts the Australian Cereal Rust Control Program at the Plant Breeding Institute. It is a great honour to work with colleagues of this program.

Can you describe a typical day at the Plant Breeding Institute?  

The Plant Breeding Institute (PBI) in Cobbitty is a world-leading centre for cereal rust research through support from the Grains Research and Development Corporation Australia. After moving from Castle Hill to our Camden campus in 1991, PBI embraced molecular technologies to understand the genetics of disease resistance and their implementation in breeding for disease resistance.

In my area, we are research-focused and the day starts with the daily ritual of checking emails. I meet informally with my students and collaborating colleagues over morning tea and we identify and communicate about experiments that need attention. My team conducts experiments in the greenhouse, in the field and in the molecular genetics laboratory. We mix with colleagues across disciplines over lunch and then experimental work continues during the rest of the day.

What achievement are you most proud of during your time at the University?

The discovery, characterisation and deployment of genetically diverse sources of resistance have been both my mandate and passion. Our team has characterised more than 20 rust resistance genes in wheat and developed linked molecular markers for more than 20 rust resistance genes. This puts the Australian wheat industry ahead of the world in terms of combatting wheat rust diseases. 

The other aspect of my satisfaction includes success in higher degree research supervision. I have trained 16 students as major supervisor and even more as associate supervisor. My students are making a difference in Australia and in many parts of the world. Two students are now at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center in Mexico and Kenya. The leadership provided by my students locally and on a global scale to produce rust resistant wheat varieties makes me proud.   

What is your favourite travel destination?

Australia is a great country and I am yet to visit many beautiful destinations. I love to visit various nations where good research on rust diseases of cereals is conducted.

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