Building capacity of young crop researchers

8 Apr 2020

Toni Petronaitis, Mitch Butch and Nicole Dron

The Tamworth Agricultural Institute will host three PhD scholarship candidates as part of the Grains Agronomy Pathology Partnership’s (GAPP) capacity building and skills development program.

The GAPP is a long-term partnership between NSW Department of Primary Industries (DPI) and the Grains Research Development Corporation (GRDC), focused on building research capacity in projects of importance to northern region growers.

DPI Bilateral Manager, Nicole Rice said it’s important to invest in our young researchers today, so they are well prepared for the challenges of tomorrow.

“Central to the GAPP partnership is a focus on the development of capacity and skills to support innovative research which drives transformational changes of benefit to the industry,” Ms Rice said.

NSW DPI Research Officer in cereal pathology, Toni Petronaitis commenced a Doctor of Philosophy through the GAPP PhD Scholarship and the University of New England in 2019.

Toni said the valuable research aims to increase profits for cereal growers.

“My GAPP PhD project investigates the epidemiology and management of winter cereal pathogens in the northern grains region,” Ms Petronaitis said.

“I have specifically focused on stubble-borne diseases such as crown rot and yellow spot because the pathogens responsible for each disease can survive in cereal stubble between cropping seasons. This makes the pathogens very difficult to control.

“I am investigating the interactions between these stubble-borne pathogens and current or emerging cropping practices, such as stubble management and harvest height options that may suit different grower’s needs.

“Another aspect of the project is quite innovative, where we are investigating a novel approach to control these pathogens in the field using microwave radiation.”

Previously with the Chickpea Breeding Program, NSW DPI Research Officer, Nicole Dron, commenced a Doctor of Philosophy through the GAPP PhD Scholarship program and the University of Adelaide in 2018.

Nicole said her research aims to improve Phytophthora root rot (PRR) resistance in chickpeas through breeding for waterlogging tolerance and will investigate short-term implications for assessing root health.

“My research has shown variability in root traits which have been previously associated with either waterlogging tolerance or disease resistance in other crops. Understanding these mechanisms allows us to combine the best forms of resistance whilst maintaining yield potential of future chickpea varieties,” Ms Dron said.

Delivering PRR resistance will reduce costs to the chickpea industry, last estimated at $8.2 million in 2012.

Nicole Dron and Toni Petronaitis have recently presented their research at the GRDC Grains Research Updates.

Mitch Buster is a third PhD candidate who will commence under this program in April.

Mitch will be investigating the potential to exploit root architecture to improve nitrogen and Fusarium crown rot management in high value winter cereal crops in the northern region.

Mitch obtained a degree with Honours 1st Class from UNE in 2019, and will continue his research journey under a GAPP PhD top-up scholarship which will allow him to be hosted at NSW DPI in Tamworth while remaining a PhD candidate of UNE.

For copies of Nicole Dron and Toni Petronaitis’s Update papers go to

Media contact: Anne Brook 0477 358 305