Elizabeth (Liz) Brauer is a research scientist at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) and an adjunct professor at the University of Ottawa. She earned her bachelor of science and master of science degrees at the University of Guelph (U of G), her PhD at Cornell University and completed her post-doc in Ottawa with AAFC. Brauer lives in Ottawa, ON, with her husband and two sons.
Where did you work before AAFC?
After my master’s, I did a short research position at the International Potato Centre in Lima, Peru. I was there for seven months, and it was a great experience. I also worked at the Boyce Thompson Institute – an NGO focused on plant research located on the Cornell University campus.
What got you interested in this area of work?
My interest in plants really came from my family. My grandmother was raised on a farm in Congress, SK, and my great grandfather bred roses in a greenhouse in Calgary, AB. Both sets of my grandparents had an appreciation for gardening, and I grew up with this appreciation of plants. At our house we grew vegetables in the garden from seed. When I was 16, I took over as the head gardener and I made a lot of mistakes on my quest for really good vegetables.
This laid the groundwork for my interest in plants in general, and then an intro to plant biology course at U of G, taught by John Greenwood at the time, hooked me into the world of plant science and the potential of research as a career. All the things he talked about in that course really explained what I saw in the garden by trial and error. Barry Shelp at the U of G gave me my basic training in research, and I’m very grateful to him for that.
Tell us a bit about what you’re working on at AAFC.
Generally, my lab is focused on addressing key agricultural problems in cereal crops. We focus on the physiological and genetic traits of plants and how we can manipulate some of those traits to improve production value. We collaborate with other groups to improve crop performance – breeders, for example, to try to feed into breeding pipelines or if there is a specific trait that can help solve a problem.
While we tend to work more on disease than some of the other traits, we are also involved with phenomics. Phenomics, or high-throughput measurement of plant traits, is a new “big data” approach to try to improve efficiency of monitoring in the field. For example, breeders only have time to visit the field once in the field season to look at a specific trait. Our goal is to implement sensors and cameras to give them information to make the best selections possible. We are currently developing the tools to do phenomics in the field environment on both wheat and barley.
The Targeting mycotoxin resistance to control Fusarium head blight (FHB) project began in 2021 and is supported by Manitoba Crop Alliance (MCA) and Saskatchewan Barley Development Commission. This work is a collaboration between research groups at AAFC and Olds College of Agriculture & Technology in Alberta. This project builds on previous work that we published in 2018 and the discovery of this gramillin, a fungal compound that promotes FHB severity in barley and is toxic to plants, killing cells within hours. We are trying to figure out how it works in the plant and our goal is to develop resistance to the new mycotoxin. This is a new form of resistance that we’re trying to take from the discovery with basic science research and deploy it into the hands of Canadians through genetics.
What can you say about the value of farmers providing funding and support to your organization?
Support from farmers is crucial for our work. It is very important to us that we are serving the community of Canadian farmers because our role, as I see it, is to address their issues using the research tools we have. When I started this position in 2019, I went to farmer forums and I heard directly from them that FHB was a huge problem and that deoxynivalenol (DON) contamination was really important to them in cereal production. Throughout the whole value chain, it is a huge cost for all our taxpayers to have to test for DON constantly. So, farmers need solutions that are practical and easy to use, and I think genetics and new variety development is a really good delivery system for that.
This relationship gives us not just the monetary support, which is important to be able to do the research and bridge the gaps that we need to, but also gives us the motivation to see what we are doing is important to the farmers who are generating the food for Canadians. We are very grateful and happy to be working together with farmers.
How does that farmer funding and support directly benefit farmers?
We have a couple of different goals with this work. We are trying to address both the DON and FHB issues by delivering (over the long term) varieties that are going to be more resistant for farmers. In this particular project, what we’re doing is laying the groundwork for us to be able to find molecular markers in order to feed into breeding pipelines, so we can track that gramillin resistance and bring it into new, elite barley varieties. In the end, we are working to provide farmers with solutions in the form of either genetic or chemical treatment options.
How do you spend your time outside of work?
I enjoy hiking and travelling, and I love long-distance swimming (open water), although I don’t get to do it enough! My longest race was five kilometres, and I did that in under two hours. It feels a lot like research actually – having a goal and you just keep going for it. Don’t give up. It hurts but keep going.
Who or what inspires you?
I get inspiration from a lot of things. My job involves interacting with a lot of different people with very different perspectives. Farmers, industry, people like brewers and maltsters, as well as academics and students from the university. I think the exciting thing is the integration of these different perspectives and seeing where problems converge and where we can really make a difference for a lot of different people.
What is a good piece of advice you’ve received?
This came from Sophien Kamoun at The Sainsbury Laboratory, one of the most influential plant pathologists of our time. He gave a talk at Cornell and had lunch with the graduate students. I remember a number of us were working on this one plant disease that’s great to work with in the lab but not particularly agriculturally relevant. We made a lot of progress in understanding plant-pathogen interactions by studying that disease, but he politely suggested that we should work on a disease that matters. And that really stuck with me because it was true. There are a lot of people who are directly and indirectly affected by plant disease and agriculture. Shifting our emphasis away from model organisms and instead applying our knowledge to agriculture can not only generate really interesting discoveries, but also impact a lot of people.
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