His formula to success

Monday, 12th March, 2018

Scientist Graham Farquhar was named 2018 Senior Australian of the Year in January.

SEVENTY-year-old ACT scientist Graham Farquhar has certainly taught the scientific community a few new tricks.

Tasmanian-born Dr Farquhar was named 2018 Senior Australian of the Year in January – just months after the Australian National University biophysicist became the first Australian to receive the Kyoto Award, Japan’s highest award for global achievement.

He was honoured for groundbreaking work that has seen him devise a mathematical formula to determine how particular species photosynthesise and which trace elements they require to grow.

The formula has helped pave the way for cross-breeding of different strains of plants in order to make plants and crops more durable in unfriendly conditions.

Dr Farquhar started working on the formula in the late 1970s with the goal of determining which particular elements or conditions were limiting for certain plant strains.

“It was a way of assessing different sub-components and providing a language to describe in a qualitative sense their capacity for photosynthesis,” he said.

A major area of interest was the examination of stomata – tiny holes in leaves that assist photosynthesis but can reduce a plant’s capacity to retain water.

After devising his formula, Dr Farquhar approached Richard Richards – an old school friend who is now a plant breeder for the CSIRO – and the pair began “back-crossing” strains of different plants.

“It’s (back-crossing) a way of maintaining the best properties of commercial strains while crossing them with strains that will improve performance in certain areas,” he said.

The process will eventually result in a number of hardier plant species, such as wheat crops capable of growing in drier conditions – an innovation that could be essential to sustainability in a changing climate.

Dr Farquhar, who grew up visiting farms in the Hobart and Burnie areas with his father, the district agricultural officer, said the idea of “improving the lot of the farmer” had been implanted from a young age.

While he is no stranger to public speaking engagements within the scientific community, he admits to being “a bit nervous” about speaking in front of groups in a less technical setting as Senior Australian of the Year.

“The Kyoto Prize is a huge honour, but it doesn’t come with invitations to speak to community groups,” he said.

“I’ll just have to see how it goes and learn from my mistakes.”

Speaking engagement aside, Dr Farquhar has a busy time ahead. This month he heads to California for a series of talks and lectures, and then to Oxford in England. He also plans to write two chapters of a biography on his mentor and first Head of Department, Ralph Slatyer.

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