How a career in plant breeding has led Rebecca Thistlethwaite to find love and compassion for people across the globe

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The roles of plant researcher and humanitarian may seem worlds apart but Dr Rebecca Thistlethwaite is discovering her agricultural career is leading her to a greater understanding, and compassion, for people from all walks of life.

Rebecca is as a Post-Doctoral Research Associate for The University of Sydney’s Plant Breeding Institute based in Narrabri in northern NSW. Her work involves studying the relationships between heat, nutrition and yield in wheat and other crops.

Dr Rebecca Thistlethwaite in Pakistan (4)

In 2018 Rebecca travelled to a farming community in Uganda on a Rotary Group Study Scholarship. She lived with villagers for a month to experience first-hand the challenges they had producing food, and designed ways in which that could be improved in the future.

“It was an incredibly humbling experience to live with people who had so little yet who were exceptionally generous and who opened up their homes and their hearts for me,” Rebecca says.  “The food was so fresh and delicious! Goat meat was particularly common and my hosts were really surprised that Australia is the largest exporter of goat meat yet we rarely (if ever) consume it ourselves. I made some lifelong friendships and I will most certainly be going back.”

Rebecca again found herself overseas this year when she was invited to speak about her plant breeding work at the Aus-Pak Conference for Food Security in Pakistan. She spent time with research teams, in particular students, and early career researchers from the Muhammad Nawaz Shareef University of Agriculture, one of Pakistan’s newest universities in the city of Multan, just over 500km south of the country’s capital, Islamabad. As she was the only female on the delegation and not of Muslim faith she faced the trip with some trepidation.

Dr Rebecca Thistlethwaite in Pakistan (2)

“I shouldn’t have worried at all though,” she says. “The Pakistani people I met were incredibly kind and accepting. I was treated like royalty the entire time, presented with gifts and flowers on many occasions, had traditional Punjabi dress and shoes made for me and the Vice-Chancellor even had a tree planted in my honour.”

Dr Rebecca Thistlethwaite in Pakistan (1)

Apart from conference responsibilities the aim of Rebecca’s delegation to Pakistan was to build collaborations to help with the country’s food security efforts and to implement the use of Australian technologies and systems to improve and future proof their research capabilities.

“One of the absolute highlights for me was getting to talk all things culture and religion with many very open-minded men and women of varying ages. In particular, I had fantastic discussions about the challenges surrounding women’s education and career development which is such a passion of mine both in developing countries and in the western society.”

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“Pakistan has suffered from political unrest and religious extremism for many years but they are still an incredibly proud people who only want the best for their country. The trip taught me that kindness comes in many and varied forms and that being different from someone else is not necessarily a bad thing. The world would be a much happier place if we were more respectful of other people’s differences, owned our own individuality and realised that the world would be a very boring place if everyone was exactly the same.”

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Author: Picture You in Agriculture

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