Impact Blog

Excellence in Promoting Industry Engagement in Graduate Research

June 2021

Last month we announced the 2021 ACGR Awards for Excellence in Graduate Research Education.

The full list of 2021 winners and special commendation recipients can be found here but here we want to highlight the winners of the 2021 Awards to tell you a bit more about how they have demonstrated outstanding performance in higher degree research Leadership, Supervision, and Industry Engagement.

2021 Excellence in Promoting Industry Engagement in Graduate Research – Professor Dugald Close and team

Professor Dugald Close, Dr Sandy Garland, Dr Nigel Swarts and Dr Sally Bound form the tree crops and plant extracts team at the Tasmanian Institute of Agriculture (TIA), based at  the University of Tasmania. The team work closely with established and emerging industries, and their graduate research students are a critical part of their research program. The team has built highly effective collaborative partnerships between their industry partners and Higher Degree by Research (HDR) candidates by focussing on mutually beneficial outcomes, that is, maintaining a strong focus on developing the employability skills of their candidates whilst also delivering value and addressing priorities areas for their industry partners.

The 2021 ACGR Award recognises their excellence in Promoting Industry Engagement in Graduate Research.

A philosophy and culture of effective collaboration with industry partners

Professor Dugald Close believes that the key to successful industry engagement is simple, building trust between all parties. He and the TIA team do this by ensuring that co-design, mutual commitment, and effective communication are at the core of each and every partnership.

It is this philosophy and culture that has resulted in long-term effective collaborations between HDR candidates and industry. To date, 14 TIA HDR candidates have partnered with and been supported by individual horticultural companies or consortia of companies, to undertake research projects that provide tangible outcomes and immediate impact for agriculture in Tasmania and beyond. The group obtains significant funding from industry due, in part, to the value provided by the graduate research candidates. In turn, the candidates are supported throughout their graduate research programs in a variety of ways to hone their skills in teamwork, project management, workplace protocols and safety, and in particular, to develop wide and enduring professional networks.

The key ingredients to effective industry and HDR collaborations

Although every research collaboration is slightly different depending on the research project, industry partners and HDR candidates involved, the team believe there are some general initiatives that, when enacted, build successful collaborations. These are:

  • Initiating discussion and planning meetings on research priorities and project planning between HDR candidates and industry partners – ensuring a process of co-design from the start
  • Including funding from industry funded projects for HDR scholarship, top-ups, operating and workshop/conference registration and attendance
  • Initiating regular pre- and post-season meetings and effective reporting throughout projects between HDR candidates and industry partners
  • Designing research where trials occur within the businesses of the industry partners e.g. orchard or farm, grading and packing facility, processing facility, throughout the supply chain
  • Organising and facilitating presentations at Fruit Growers Tasmania conferences and field days
  • Presenting at industry field days (e.g. recently students presented at the Serve-Ag field day)
  • Being invited to attend relevant conferences (e.g. recently students attended the AEMG virtual conference with Nanjing University of Chinese Medicine)

Developing the employability skills of HDR candidates

Thanks to their philosophy and culture, underpinned by their key initiatives, current and recent graduates supervised by the team have developed successful collaborations with industry partners. But the team also keeps a strong focus on supporting HDR candidates to develop robust employability skills throughout their projects. These include:

Effective communication:

  • Modelling of effective communication with industry, including, networking and effective listening.
  • Deliberate discussions about this with candidates.
  • Regular project reporting to industry partners in written and oral seminar formats.

Working independently as well as part of a team:

  • Expecting, supporting, and enabling candidates to independently plan, execute and interpret their research projects in collaboration with their supervisors and industry collaborators.
  • Facilitating teamwork between candidates within our group and providing casual support, where budgets allow, during harvest and for laboratory work that are organised and managed by the candidates as far as possible.

Project management, including human, infrastructure/equipment and financial resources:

  • Expectation of independent management of technical support, available infrastructure and equipment and budget management.

Safety first and always and an enabler of Inclusion, Diversity and Equity:

  • Modelling of behaviour by supervisors, deliberate discussions around safety considerations.
  • Ensuring Risk Assessments and collegial discussions with TIA Operations Manager, Lab Manager and Student Support Technician, particularly around safe use of equipment and of chemicals.
  • Modelling and expecting a collegial, inclusive culture that values, fosters and develops and deliberately discusses Inclusion, Diversity & Equity.

Wide professional networks:

  • Ensuring that candidates attend and, where possible, present at industry conferences, field days and workshops.
  • Supervisors modelling behaviour at events that candidates can observe.
  • Direct introductions between candidates and industry players at industry events.
  • Support in interviews with the media.

HDR candidates included in monthly TIA Horticulture Centre staff meetings:

  • Encouraged to share recent activity and project progress and listen to and engage with reports from others.
  • Builds awareness of organisational structure, policies and procedures.
  • Fosters academic integrity and establish the standard of expectation in research performance.
  • Develops awareness, networks and linkages in new/different research areas.

Delivering value for industry partners

The team obtains significant research funding and support from industry. They believe this is in part due to the value provided by HDR candidates, whether HDRs are driving a designated project or working on a lateral aspect of a larger research contract.

In some instances, projects are designed where the focus and funding are specifically for a PhD project on an issue of high priority for industry. This is partly funded by industry and the project is conducted in collaboration with industry partners. However, for other projects, where the duration and/or operating expenses of industry research projects allow, the team builds additional HDR co/funding and operating into their research projects. The team notes this demonstrates and promotes the value of HDR candidates to industry through the ability to undertake additional research beyond the expectations of a contracted project. Some recent examples of this are:

Improved soil health and plant nutrition for Australian apple and pear orchards

  • This research will add value to the project through better understanding of mycorrhizal communities and their role in improving apple tree nutrition. This will improve the industry’s understanding of nutrient use efficiency and lead to better environmental outcomes.

Precision Fertigation for Improved Apple Orchard Productivity

  • This research added value to industry by gaining new knowledge on the seasonal dynamics of apple tree nitrogen use which allowed for effective fertiliser guidelines to be developed.

Optimizing nutrient management for improved fruit quality in cherries

  • This research developed new methodology for determining human metabolism of anthocyanins following cherry consumption. This yielded new insights into the health benefits of cherries which can be used by industry for improved cherry marketability.

Initiatives that they have found are important for promoting the value of HDR candidates to industry include:

  • Regular communications and discussion of findings with key personnel of industry partners and their advisors such as consultants and agronomists.
  • HDR candidate presentations of findings to industry in various formats such as formal conference seminars, Fruit Growers Tasmania ‘night time seminars’, workshops and field days
  • Industry ‘fact sheets’ (one-pager including graphs/photos and concise text describing the project and its findings) by candidates.
  • Articles published by candidates in industry journals and magazines

But what does industry say?

The TIA team have testimonials from a variety of different companies highlighting the mutually beneficial outcomes of engaging graduate researchers in industry research. One such endorsement comes from Fruit Growers Tasmania Inc. (FGT) which is the peak industry body representing fruit production horticulture across Tasmania. FGT work with numerous fruit producers to assist industry development, research uptake, promote biosecurity and facilitate international and interstate trade. On working with the TIA team, the FGT CEO says this:

“FGT has enjoyed a long-term collaborative relationship with TIA which continues to provide strong ongoing benefits for our members and our industry across each of these areas. These benefits are achieved by embedding research projects and early career researchers (primarily Research Masters and PhD candidates) within the operations of our industry.

Our industry takes pride in getting to know and being able to support these up-and-coming researchers. As an industry where business longevity is measured in generations, our growers develop ongoing professional relationships and take pride in the achievements of these individuals.”

It is clear that in answering and posing research questions and leading discussions on the latest scientific knowledge in industry discussions these candidates contribute significantly to industry. The candidates not only share their research findings, but build linkages with national and international research leaders, and network with members from across the industry including fruit producers and industry professionals.

Congratulations again to the Professor Dugald Close and the TIA team!

The team’s excellence in promoting industry engagement in graduate research is undeniable and is now recognised with this national award from the ACGR.

You can hear from Professor Dugald Close, one of the team’s graduate researchers and an industry partner about the tangible outcomes for all involved here:

Photo by Erwan Hesry on Unsplash

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