SCIENCE isn’t for everyone. It’s not something everyone is keen on, and it’s definitely not something everyone is good at, but for Scotland’s Rural College’s Dr Fiona Burnett, it is something that she has devoted her life to.

With crop health always Fiona’s chosen area of interest, last year marked her quarter of a century working for SRUC – no mean feat in any area of employment – and she’s certainly forged a successful career at the very top of her industry.

She took time to speak to The SF, and tell us about her career, and how she has ended up where she has.

How did you get onto your career path?

I was born in Newcastle, but I was brought up in Glasgow. Edinburgh is where I’ve made my home though, and it’s where I’ve spent most of my career.

I have family in Ardnamurchan, and although I didn’t know them, my great grandparents were farmers, so I’m a townie with country blood.

I did an Applied Botany degree in Glasgow, followed by my PhD in Aberdeen, working with potato farmers. It was that that made me go, ‘I really love this industry’.

I then worked down south, but in the end, Edinburgh became my long-term home. I became very much invested in agriculture. I’ve been very lucky in life, I fell into something that I do truly love.

What’s your home life, like?

My husband, Andy, is a Craft, Design and Technology teacher in Wester Hails. We have three sons, who are 23, 20 and 17.

I have always enjoyed the outdoors, and our three boys are all outdoorsy as well, so it’s become a bit of a family thing.

I’ve had offers to work in other countries, but I love Scotland. It’s home, but generally I just think it’s a great place to live, work and raise a family.

There’s a nice element of overlap in my husband and I’s careers. He teaches a very practical subject, and many of the students that excel in that are very well suited to courses at SRUC, so we can bounce off each other in that respect.

It combines our careers, but also allows us enough distance – which is handy when it comes to venting about your day!

How does your work fit in with the agricultural industry in Scotland?

We work with crop management tools such as pesticides, and how they work alongside food production. We have an input on policy development, in that we help provide evidence. This contributes to applied use in the field.

At the end of the day, we try to work with the industry to try and provide new solutions.

Scotland produces some of the best crops in the world in terms of yield and quality. We are, in many ways, unique on a global level.

What do you enjoy most about your work?

My work at the college helps to drive interaction between what people in the world of agriculture need, and helping to find solutions.

I think the key thing is, it takes different things to please different people, there’s no one right answer. In a lot of cases we don’t even give the final answer as such, but we provide an opinion that can contribute to it.

There’s a lot of back and forth in that, but its very rewarding. I really like the practical side of what I do, so doing that and helping to come to conclusions for issues is great as far as I’m concerned.

What are your main areas of research?

My research interests are focused around the measurement of crop disease risk and the resultant need for management actions by growers – be they agronomic or input related.

The development of judgement aids for farmers is a major aim of my work, to allow them to accurately assess the likely benefits or costs to any given action, as well as the provision of disease forecasts and up-to-date technical information on fungicide efficacy.

The study of fungicide resistance is an important aspect of this work alongside developing management strategies to minimise resistance development. Currently I work on monitoring for changes in pathogen populations and also on managing resistance risk in common fungicide groups such as the azoles.

Do you get to travel with your work?

I get out and about a lot, which is great. I go to industry events around the country, including some of islands, and I sometimes travel down south and abroad.

Science is a global network.

My group has new projects in Africa working to help much smaller farmers there and apply things we’ve learnt from our broad acre crops, to their local crops.

In that respect, we don’t know how lucky we are in a lot of ways. There is so much we can do, working with local people, to improve crop production at a fundamental level, not the technical levels we often work at, at home.

Do you ever feel like you’re treated differently, because you’re a woman?

From the point of view of being female, I don’t think I’ve ever experienced direct adverse discrimination. I’ve actually had people say: “speak to the lassie, because she’ll need to have known more to get here!” which was a rather backhanded compliment.

I really do admire colleagues – female or otherwise – that challenge any bad jokes or feelings of exclusion – good on them!

At the end of the day though, it’s largely been the people I deal with that have kept me so interested for so long, I really do appreciate them.

Occasionally, I do look round a room and I’m the only woman, but that’s improving all the time which is great. Meantime it usually means there’s no queue for the toilet!

Do you think that there are major differences between men and women in the work place?

I’ve done this for a long time, and the amount that women invest in things does show. We work hard to get to where we get and that hunger can’t be underestimated.

Regardless of gender however, if you work hard, and go about things in the right way, you’ll get the rewards in the long run.

One thing that women could do more of though, is be more confident in their views. We can be guilty of hanging back and being too quiet sometimes, and that’s to our detriment. But I don’t think loud voices are best. Women can bring more open discussion, consensus view points and broader thinking and I strongly believe meetings should be managed so that all voices are heard.

How have you seen your work change as things like climate change have come into play, more?

Disease risk forecasting is closely linked to climate change, and modelling and mapping disease risk under past UK seasons and aligning this to predicated climate change scenarios is a feature of my work.

I am particularly involved in the study of cereal foliar fungal diseases on both wheat and barley and also in the diseases of the roots and stem base that are linked to systems and rotations.

My work covers cereals as well as the main arable crops and the study of the soil borne clubroot pathogen of oilseed rape and vegetables is a specific example of an important area of work of significant impact in arable rotations. As with my other work this is linked to predicting and managing disease risk in the whole rotation and with projecting this forwards under predicated climate change scenarios.

What other areas are you involved in?

I’m involved in a lot of industry working groups, boards and committees which I really enjoy as it great to get a range of views and be part of creating solutions. The newest thing for me this year is being sector lead for agriculture in the newly formed Plant Health Centre of Expertise for Scotland. We’re working across sectors to make Scotland’s crops, trees and wild plants more resilient and it’s another example of where working in a diverse group brings lots of fresh thinking.

I manage a research group of 70 staff at SRUC which covers the whole breadth of crop production, soil science and cropping systems, with work ranging from the labs based in Ayr, Edinburgh and Aberdeen to our crop trials over about 22 trial sites per year. I still work in the SRUC Crop Clinic, which provides commercial diagnostic services to growers and advisers throughout the UK and. I provide specialist back up on crop disease management to farmers and advisers either as telephone advise, field visits or as technical notes or subscription reports like the Crop Protection report.

I also teach on BASIS courses, covering integrated crop management of cereal and potatoes as well as on undergraduate courses where I provide specialist crop management lectures, and I supervise undergraduate and post graduate student projects.

How are things at SRUC, overall, just now?

SRUC is currently going through an exciting restructure to align us to the needs of industry and other rural stakeholders. We’ll be focusing on new regional faculties which I think is great. It’ll mean we can engage with stakeholders more on a local level on what their specific needs are, and I think that will contribute to meeting the industries needs more effectively.

I enjoy that side of things. Science is all about its purpose. Who needs it? And what will it change?

What are your plans for the future?

As far as the future is concerned, there are still so many plant health challenges. Pursuing research funding takes time and effort. We’re currently still involved in EU-based projects, so that source of funding might be less secure in the face of a looming Brexit.

However, I’m a great believer that, when one door closes, another opens, so we will just need to see how things pan out.

We’re seeing more focus on international funding, which brings new opportunities in an area where we can make a big difference. Science-related funding has always been competitive, it’s never been the case that it just falls into your lap. Developing technology also means developing funding streams. These things come in ebbs and flows.

My job, and the industry in general, is great because nothing stays the same for too long, so nothing becomes boring or stale, and you’re always kept on your toes.

Food production is always going to be an issue, and different issues always crop up somewhere that need dealing with, which is good for me, because it means I’m not stuck in the office every day.

I feel very lucky to have the work life I have – I definitely can’t complain too much!