Sciencing in the Bush: Toni Petronaitis

Posted by on 28 September 2016 | Comments

Australia has long had a reputation for its high quality microbiology research. Naturally a large volume of that research toniis produced in our Go8 universities based in the big cities, and so often the smaller rural and regional universities are overlooked or forgotten. I thought I’d take some time and talk to an honour student from the University of New England (UNE), Armidale (NSW Northern Tablelands) to showcase some of the research being undertaken in the “bush.” It’s the country, so naturally I grabbed a tea and baked treat in the UNE Booloominbah Homestead and chatted with Toni Petronaitis: microbiology and cake-making* extraordinaire! (*I eagerly await the day Toni is on “cake day” duties for our department, she makes *amazing* cakes).

It was in high school that Toni developed a keen interest in science. She didn’t have the opportunity to study biology but could study marine science and chemistry (a perk of attending school on the Sunshine Coast). Toni worked as a veterinary nurse for around 7 years and began a degree in zoology. After taking a subject in genetics she realised she was hooked! In the end she switched programs and completed a BSc (Biotechnology and Molecular Genetics) at UNE. Now residing in Tamworth (you can’t get more country than the “Golden Guitar!”), Toni commutes the ~90 minutes to undertake her research.

Toni works with a number of supervisors including Dr Lily Pereg (who I interviewed last year here). Toni’s project looks at soil and human health: attempting to identify and quantify human pathogens in the soil where people have contact with it - specifically cotton, beef cattle and organic vegetable farms in southern Queensland and northern NSW. Her goals include assessing and evaluating existing primer sets that were designed for clinical or other environmental scenarios to see whether they can be used in testing soil samples for pathogens of interest.

When asked about why she chose to do honours, Toni said “it was a natural progression, I wanted to give research a go and have a bit of a taster.” Toni has not yet decided if she will work in industry or research but knows continuing to do science is her goal.

I hope this interview and those from 2016 (Dr Pereg, UNE and Anda Clayton, Southern IML Path Wollongong) demonstrate that you can have a “tree change” and still do science.

- Dane Lyddiard @greenepidemic

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