Sharon loves the banana culture

After 30 years in banana research, Maroochy-based Queensland Department of Agriculture and Fisheries Senior Principal Scientist Sharon Hamill has been part of banana science advances, including in tissue culture. Sharon answers our ten life-science questions.

What got you interested in the banana industry?

Working in Queensland Department of Primary Industries (DPI) Plant Pathology at Indooroopilly in Brisbane when banana research was starting to look at resistance to Black Sigatoka and SubTropical Race 4 Fusarium wilt.

Plant tissue culture was an emerging research area which appealed to me as a new technology with great potential. In the 1980s it allowed us, for the first time, to safely gain access to overseas cultivars and multiply and move them.

Where did you do academic and field training?

My undergraduate and Masters degrees were at the Queensland University of Technology, also the plant pathology component of a Bachelor of Botany at the University of Queensland.

Early field training was at the old industry farms at Gympie and Beerwah in South East Queensland – controlling nematode in ginger and investigating nematode and phytophthora in pineapple. Also in the 1980s and 1990s at the Wamuran SubTropical Race 4 Fusarium wilt banana screening farm.

I have really appreciated learning from the extremely knowledgeable scientists in the Department whose depth of knowledge is recognised and appreciated internationally.

What happens on good and not-so-good days in banana research?

For me, banana research has been a long journey to deliver strategic research supporting industry now and being ready to cut down future problems.

A good day is having a prepared contingency for an emerging industry problem and being ready to start to work in that area. A great day is talking to a grower who says they appreciate what I do and that it’s really important work!

On a not-so-good day there are frustrating delays due to process and paperwork. Even worse is the outbreak of a feared disease or a cyclone heading the wrong way!

How does your work help industry and what are some breakthrough moments?

My work provides industry with safe access to new cultivars in Australia for research, use in biosecurity exclusion strategies and to develop some niche markets. It has also contributed to use of banana tissue culture for planting to keep out disease and to provide uniformity.

Breakthrough moments include training at the International Banana Transit centre in Belgium in the 1990s and seeing their banana collection maintained using the same processes used in Queensland. Also, I was the first to develop the method using tissue culture to double chromosomes in banana to induce auto-tetraploids for use in banana breeding. It is now standard practice worldwide for in vitro banana breeding.

What’s one of your favourite things about working in the banana industry?

Working with bananas continuously for 30 years, I feel part of the industry. My aim is to help growers and contribute to making the industry stronger and more resilient. I love the passion of the growers – mostly positive, sometimes negative – but that is what happens when growing bananas is your life. I enjoy open discussions about what is happening and what needs to be done. Growers and I learn from each other!

What do people ask when they find out you’re in banana research?

Usually why there’s an old sign on the highway saying not to move bananas past this point. I explain that bananas can have diseases that are moved in the plant. More recently they ask if we have got rid of that new disease up in North Queensland – which unfortunately we can’t do as Fusarium is a persistent soilborne fungus.

What’s something most people don’t know about bananas?

People are amazed to know there are thousands of different cultivars that evolved from seeded banana.

What’s a current hot topic in banana science?

The increasing disease threats to Cavendish production due to Fusarium wilt, Freckle, a range of bacterial disease, different viruses and now Phytoplasma. Threats are not unique to banana – a range of other crops are increasingly affected by new diseases now thriving in new areas. There is a shift to re-evaluating food production and improving soil and plant health to reduce pest and disease incidence. Part of the future strategy will be to break out of mono-culture, to use a range of different cultivars or even types of plants in production. Appreciation of beneficial organisms is also a hot topic.

How do you like your bananas? What’s your favourite banana recipe?

Fresh banana to eat regularly and I love banana in fruit salad. As a child I loved banana sandwiches. My vice is banana and walnuts wrapped in a pancake with either honey or maple syrup drizzled over the top, with vanilla ice cream and cream on the side!

What are some of your favourite pastimes?

I still play field hockey in the hockey season. Otherwise I love gardening and do a little painting now and then. Cooking different dishes from different countries is a common activity.