The hugely successful career of John Curtin Distinguished Professor Richard Oliver didn’t get off to a perfect start. First, he was not accepted into medical school and, crestfallen, he decided to study biochemistry. As a student, he fainted taking blood from a rabbit, so he turned his attention to plants. It was a fortunate decision and the serendipitous launch to a career that’s since brought huge benefits to Australian farming.
UK-born Oliver began his studies at Bristol University, where he received a “rigorous education in biochemistry” – much of which he has been using ever since. In 1982, realising the potential of the then-infant science of molecular biology, he went to work at Denmark’s Carlsberg Laboratory to train in new genetics techniques.
After accepting a lectureship in molecular biology at the University of East Anglia in the UK, he decided to work on the genes that make plants resistant to disease: an area of great importance but about which little was known at the time.
Working on a fungus that attacks tomatoes, Oliver looked at the interactions from both sides – building up a picture of the plant genes that conveyed resistance and the genes of the fungus that made it virulent. During the next 15 years, he pioneered techniques to analyse plant-fungal interactions. A job as a professor back at the Carlsberg Laboratory gave him the resources to start really making an impact, and soon he was in Australia working on fungal diseases of wheat and barley – first at Murdoch University, then at Curtin University.
Oliver is now the Chief Scientist at Curtin’s new Centre for Crop and Disease Management, made possible by $100 million in funding over the next five years from the university and the government Grains Research Development Corporation (GRDC). “It’s the biggest grant in the history of Curtin University,” Oliver says.
“Up to now, we’ve had two major success stories,” he says of work that preceded the grant. One involved selecting for wheat varieties that are not affected by proteins produced by fungal pathogens. The other involved alerting the farming community about crop management techniques to improve the control of major fungal diseases.
As a GRDC adviser, Oliver had the task of convincing farmers that the organisation was spending their money wisely. It wasn’t easy in the early days, but it’s not as difficult now that his two success stories are saving Australian farming up to $200 million every year.
Oliver believes an excellent university education underlies his success. “What’s important in your education is not the specific information you learn, but the ability to carry on learning.” Perhaps his career had the perfect start after all.
– Clare Pain