Sky is the limit for WA Young Tall Poppy

20/01/2022 | 2 mins

In the space of a handful of days, the UWA School of Molecular Sciences Dr Joanna Melonek was honoured with two prestigious awards in science.

No sooner had she began celebrating her 2021 Western Australian Young Tall Poppy Science Award from the Australian Institute of Policy and Science in mid-September last year, Dr Melonek was surprised with yet another accolade – the Peter Goldacre Medal from The Australian Society of Plant Scientists.

The Research Fellow at the ARC Centre of Excellence in Plant Energy Biology said she was happy and deeply honoured to accept the awards.

“On a professional level, it was great to receive a confirmation from my peers and the broader plant scientific community that they find my work interesting,” Dr Melonek said.

“Of course, this all would not have been possible without the support from many people who accompany me on my scientific journey, and I’m very grateful to all of them for that.”

Dr Joanna Melonek

Dr Melonek’s research is focused on understanding a biological phenomenon called cytoplasmic male sterility (CMS) and fertility restoration by a group of genes referred to as restorer-of-fertility genes.

“CMS is an intriguing example of mitochondrial-nuclear genome interactions that are integral to the process of speciation by natural selection,” she explained.

“Interestingly, this phenomenon has excellent practical benefits and is used in plant breeding to develop hybrid seed production systems.”

Dr Joanna Melonek with her 2021 Western Australian Young Tall Poppy Science Award. Credit: Rosanna CandlerImage: Dr Joanna Melonek with her 2021 Western Australian Young Tall Poppy Science Award.

Currently, Dr Melonek and her collaborators are developing a hybrid seed production system in wheat, which will provide a significant economic benefit to Australian and global wheat farmers.

She said it was a “fantastic feeling” to work on a project with real-life applications.

“I’m very passionate about it because I hope that my work one day may contribute to better food security around the world and in Australia, and that is something that motivates me a lot,” she said.

One of the greatest achievements of Dr Melonek’s scientific career was identifying three genes that will help develop hybrid breeding systems in wheat.

“We were trying to find those genes for some time, and it felt like we are looking for a needle in a haystack due to the extraordinary complexity of the wheat genome,” she said.

“Therefore, when one day our collaborators send us a picture of plants showing the phenotype that we were looking for, we were ecstatic.”

Dr Melonek said she looked forward to continuing her work alongside Professor Ian Small and other world-leading researchers at UWA.

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