A research officer working with the Department of Primary Industries at Tamworth used her gift of the gab, and passion for research, to persuade the judges of the UNE's 2020 Three Minute Thesis (3MT) competition that she should represent the university at the Asia Pacific finals.
3MT is an academic research communication competition developed by The University of Queensland (UQ), Australia in 2014. Participants are required to condense their 80,000 word PhD thesis into a three-minute presentation which can be understood by a layperson.
Toni Petronaitis hit the ground running with her stand out presentation title: Lying in wait: the secret life of cereal killers.
Judges were then hooked to find out more about her work to defeat fungal pathogens that destroy our crops.
Originally from the Sunshine Coast, Ms Petronaitis has lived in Tamworth for the past 12 years.
"I have attended UNE online since starting my Bachelor of Science in 2012," Ms Petronaitis said.
"I did my Honours in microbiology, and the project was cross-disciplinary between human health and agriculture.
"That's how I got hooked on microbes in agriculture then I started at NSW DPI as a research officer (cereal pathology) in Tamworth when I graduated."
The young scientist started her PhD project in 2019 with supervisors Professor David Backhouse (UNE), Dr Steven Simpfendorfer (NSW DPI) and Dr Graham Brodie (UniMelb).
"My PhD is bilaterally funded by NSW DPI and Grains Research and Development Corporation (GRDC) in what's known as the GAPP (Grains Agronomy and Pathology Partnership), with enrolment of the PhD through UNE," she said.
"I chose my project because cereal diseases are a major issue for growers in North West NSW, particularly stubble-borne diseases like crown rot and yellow spot which can survive after harvest in the cereal stubble.
"My project investigates how these pathogens grow and survive in stubble after harvest, with the aim of identifying pathogen weaknesses that can be used for control.
"So, developing management strategies to overcome the pathogens after harvest. I'm also looking at how modern farming practices could be impacting on their survival because if we can better understand these pathogens and how they interact with our farming systems, we will be better equipped to manage them effectively.
"I am also investigating a novel strategy to control the pathogens in stubble using microwave radiation, which is more "blue-sky" type research but fun!"
Ms Petronaitis has already delivered her research at several GRDC Updates, and her research is already reaching growers and agronomists who can take the information and use it to make informed management decisions about their crops if they're affected by disease.
"At the end of my PhD I hope to improve the knowledge of cereal pathogen biology, provide improved disease management strategies to growers/agronomists and identify the potential of microwave radiation for paddock-scale disease control," she said.
It's also worth mentioning that this year is the International Year of Plant Health, so it was a very timely win for a plant pathology themed 3 Minute Thesis!Toni Petronaitis
Ms Petronaitis will receive $1000 travel support to attend a domestic research meeting.
For more than six years the University of New England has participated in the competition with each Faculty or School hosting their 3MT Competition before the UNE 3MT Final event.
This year entries from The Faculty of Science, Agriculture, Business and Law; The Faculty of Humanities, Arts, Social Sciences and Education; and The Faculty of Medicine and Health all had competitors in the finals which were held online last Wednesday.
Usually, the presentation is made in person to the judges in front of a large live audience, but Due to COVID-19, for 2020, the whole 3MT moved to a temporary virtual format.
Competitors delivered their research stories via a pre-recorded video during a live webinar attended by more than 40 spectators and four judges.
A diverse and impressive range of research subjects were presented including documenting the issues faced by married British soldiers during WWI, avoiding the perils of giving corporations the same rights as individuals and investigating the dangers of neglecting to treat strep throat.
Ms Petronaitis' work will join finalist presentations from universities across Australia, New Zealand, Oceania, Northeast and Southeast Asia to compete for the title of the 2020 Virtual Asia-Pacific 3MT Winner which will be announced on October 1.