A childhood fear of insects has not stopped former Bundaberg resident Rebecca Nagy from becoming a highly respected entomologist and agricultural pest management specialist.
Rebecca, who grew up in East Bundaberg and attended Kalkie State School before moving with her family to The Hummock when starting high school at St Luke’s, has come a long way since her inauspicious introduction to the world of insects.
“My family and I find it very amusing that I’ve ended up working as an entomologist, as I was terrified of insects as a child,” Rebecca said.
“Admittedly, I’m still not a fan of some of the larger, more erratic beetles and grasshoppers, and I can’t be in the same room as a cockroach.”
Despite such anxieties, Rebecca is now a project officer for RapidAIM, an Australian company that provides real-time insect pest detection and monitoring services for commercial orchards and farms.
Chief among those pests is the fruity fly, which costs Australia millions of dollars in lost fruit production every year and Rebecca’s work with RapidAIM is targeted at reducing that damage.
“As a scientist, I am involved in planning and conducting both laboratory and field experiments testing our current trap design and potential future trap prototypes designed for various different pest species,” Rebecca said.
“I also assist with data analysis and report writing, assembling traps and the upkeep of several insect cultures in the laboratory.”
Rebecca said her love for science started when she was a student at St Luke’s.
“I developed an interest in science while at high school, largely because I had an excellent science teacher who made it seem so fun, relevant and exciting,” she said.
“It seemed like the logical choice to go on and study science at university.”
Enrolling in a general Bachelor of Science, Rebecca tried a wide range of courses including ecology, chemistry, genetics, microbiology, zoology, and plant science, ultimately graduating with honours in ecology and zoology from the University of Queensland in 2011.
Her studies led to holiday work in entomology followed by a casual contract with the CSIRO entomology team after graduating which started her on the path to working in agricultural pest management.
“For a long time, I wasn’t sure exactly what sort of job I could see myself in,” she said.
“I just knew that I craved variety and to do something that was meaningful and rewarding.
“Thankfully, I managed to land on my feet in a job that I love, so I consider myself very lucky.”
Since her initial field and lab work contract with CSIRO, Rebecca has worked with Monsanto in Toowoomba, conducting Bollgard II and Bollgard III cotton research, before returning to the CSIRO to lead a project evaluating the benefits of mixed farming options (such as livestock and cropping on the one farm) in agriculture.
When that contract ended, she pursued her PhD, beginning in February 2016 and submitting her thesis at the beginning of last year, impressing one of her supervisors, Nancy Schellhorn, a co-founder of RapidAIM.
“Around the time that I submitted by PhD thesis, the company needed an extra pair of hands to assemble a few hundred RapidAIM fruit fly traps and Nancy asked me if I was interested,” Rebecca said.
“I must have proved my worth, as they kept me on to lead a short six-month project that finished last December and have kept me on to take part in a new project on fall armyworm.”
The fall armyworm is the larval life stage of the fall armyworm moth.
Rebecca said she loved the variety off employment the science industry offer, with her present role combining field, lab, and office work.
“I love my job as I believe that our work is meaningful and valuable for agriculture,” she said.
“I find the challenge of science interesting and exciting. Currently we are designing and testing various new trap prototypes, so it’s always really exciting when something works.”
Rebecca still has strong links to the Bundaberg Region, with her parents still living at the Hummock and her two older brothers, and their families, also living here.
“I am the only one of my immediate family that hasn’t moved back to Bundaberg,” she said.
“Unfortunately, I am settled on Brisbane’s north side with my husband with no plans, at this stage, to return to my home town. But I always love to visit.”
Rebecca’s visits may become more frequent with RapidAIM working with one Bundaberg grower to test and trial various agriculture technologies that will increase farm efficiencies.
Rebecca said there were other growers in the region who were interested in RapidAIM’s product.
“There are plans to roll out more traps throughout the region in the not-so-distant future,” she said.
“Last year we conducted a field trial investigating the performance of our traps in the Bundaberg Region with excellent results, so we have confidence in our product to perform well for growers in the area.”
Rebecca encouraged younger readers of this article to experiment with their careers and said it was OK if they did not know where their career was headed after school or university, as many of her career opportunities had ‘fallen into her lap’ through network contacts.
“I think it’s okay to try your hand at a few different things and to move on if something isn’t a good fit for you,” she said.
“Eventually you’ll find something that works, that you enjoy, and that you want to pursue further.”