Australia Awards in Indonesia

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24 Jun 2024

Desi Utami Bridges Science and Agriculture through Communication

Desi Utami’s journey in the field of agricultural microbiology is rooted in her childhood curiosity about the natural world. Inspired by her father’s explanation of how microorganisms help plants grow, Desi developed a passion for biology and agriculture.

"I started to love agriculture because of a little creature called a microorganism. When I was little, I asked my father why we could grow fruits in our yard. He was a teacher, and he explained how microbes promote plant growth and crop quality," Desi recalled.

"He explained well how tiny little things could have a huge impact on the plants and environment, which made me interested more in biology," she added.

After graduating from high school in 2007, Desi began studying Agricultural Microbiology at Universitas Gadjah Mada (UGM). In this program, she delved deeper into how microbes provide vital functions to promote plant growth, control diseases and pests, and biodegrade organic matter and pollutants. "I feel that my father's story brought me to the right path and passion, which I really love," said Desi.

In 2014, two years after getting her bachelor's degree from UGM, Desi pursued a Masters in Environmental Science at Hokkaido University. During her studies, she was awarded eight scholarships to study in Indonesia, Japan, the United States, and Australia. Five years later, she received the Australia Awards—John Allwright Fellowship from the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR) scholarship to obtain her PhD. She focuses on microbiology, biochemistry, biotechnology, and molecular biology.

Motherhood and research

Desi had many reasons for choosing Australia for her doctorate. "Every one of us has our own story to start the Australia Awards journey. Mine actually began on my wedding night when I applied for the Australia Awards-John Allwright Fellowship," Desi shared.

Her initial scholarship application to Australia in 2017 was unsuccessful. She tried again a year later, right after giving birth. Her experiences as a wife and mother empowered by education, combined with her passion for developing Indonesian agriculture, were key to her success. "Australia Awards really focuses on women and gender issues. I didn't pass at that time because I didn't include that part enough," Desi explained.

The ACIAR offered the fellowship, cementing a long-term research collaboration with UGM in the agricultural sector that has lasted for over a decade. One of the project leaders in Indonesia, Prof Siti Subandiyah from the Faculty of Agriculture, invited Desi to join her project on "Sustainable Productivity Improvement in Allium and Solanaceous Vegetable Crops in Indonesia".

Desi’s determination to pursue her aspirations while ensuring her son's well-being was validated by her decision to study in Australia. "From a world-class university to a globally recognised early childhood education, these became the key reasons for studying in Australia," Desi explained. "As a mother of a toddler, I believed that choosing Australia, with its excellent childcare system, would enhance my son's social and emotional development.”

With support from the Australia Awards-John Allwright Fellowship, her son benefited from attending childcare, allowing Desi to focus on her research. "I couldn’t think of a better place to pursue a PhD as a mother while still being able to achieve my ambition," said Desi.

As a researcher in agriculture, she chose The University of Queensland, which is ranked third in the world of agriculture. Her PhD research was on chilli plant disease, with a thesis entitled "Molecular insights of plant-microbe interactions in chilli bacterial leaf spot caused by Xanthomonas euvesicatoria pv. euvesicatoria". Desi’s passion for chilli and spicy food, combined with the challenges faced by farmers in managing plant disease, made me want to learn more about this topic.

“I am confident that I can now empower Indonesian chilli farmers even better with the knowledge and skills I gained while studying in Australia," Desi concluded.

Science communicator

Comparing farmers in Indonesia with those in Australia, Desi found a stark difference in land size. Around 16 million farmers in Indonesia are sharecroppers with land ranging from half a hectare, while Australian farmers typically own hundreds of hectares and possess extensive agricultural technology knowledge.

Desi also discovered that despite a wealth of research, disseminating agricultural technology in Indonesia is challenging. The complexity of the research language makes it difficult for farmers to access, understand, and implement the findings. This realisation underscored the importance of science communicators in optimising Indonesian agriculture and improving farmers' welfare.

In 2013, Desi began actively participating in various competitions and received extensive training as a science communicator. "If there is training on public speaking or anything related to communication, I always take it," said Desi.

"I aim to share my knowledge with farmers to help them achieve better yields. I also use social media to introduce my skills and fun farming to young generations and society," Desi explained.

In line with Krida Pertanian Day (Agriculture Day) on 21 June, Desi, as Head of the Social Media and System Information Unit at the Faculty of Agriculture UGM, emphasising the importance of science communicators. These communicators not only provide counselling to farmers but also attract young people’s interest in agriculture, fostering regeneration in the sector and transforming it into an attractive entrepreneurship field.

"I'm trying to produce more content to give society a better understanding of agriculture and how they can start to love it. Branding in agriculture is another challenging yet promising way to make the sector crucial so that people can start thinking about running their own farm, even in urban areas with friends,” Desi shared.

As a lecturer in Agricultural Microbiology, Desi aims to educate and motivate the younger generation to be proud of agriculture. "How can I do this? By being a good role model in my field," she added.

Desi's public speaking skills improved significantly in Australia. "One of the experiences and skills I improved was science communication, connecting science and society. I joined and won three different Three Minute Thesis, an internationally recognised research communication competition," she said. Desi has also contributed to numerous podcasts and seminars, further enhancing her role as a science communicator.

While in Australia, Desi also built valuable networks. "During my studies, I wasn't just focused on lab work, writing papers, or finishing my thesis. I actively networked with Australians. Upon graduating and returning to Indonesia to resume work at UGM, I leveraged these connections. For instance, I invited my principal PhD advisor, Dr. Anthony Young, to co-teach several of my classes. This provided my students with new insights from The University of Queensland without the need to travel overseas," Desi explained.

In her research, Desi is working on a project exploring Plant Growth Promoting Rhizobacteria. This project aims to identify bacteria that benefit crops by producing hormones that increase root size and nutrient uptake, controlling phytopathogens, and enhancing crop production. "I'm also building a joint research project between the University of Queensland and UGM. We are currently applying for funding for this project," Desi concluded.

In her research, Desi is working on a project exploring plant growth-promoting rhizobacteria. This project aims to identify bacteria that benefit crops, such as the production of hormones to increase root size and nutrient uptakes, controlling phytopathogens, and enhancing crop production. " I am also working on building a joint research project between the University of Queensland and UGM. We are currently applying for funding for this project," Desi concluded.

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