Sean Walkowiak, Ph.D., is a Research Scientist at the Canadian Grain Commission (CGC), Grain Research Laboratory. The CGC is a science-based department in the Federal Government of Canada that provides support for the grain industry. Sean earned his Bachelor of Education from the University of Ottawa, his Bachelor of Science and his Master of Science both in biology, from Carleton University, and his Ph.D. in biology from Carleton University. Sean now lives in Winnipeg with his wife and two daughters.
Where did you work before the CGC?
I started with the CGC in 2019. Before that I worked at the University of Saskatchewan (U of S) Crop Development Centre with the durum and elite wheat breeding program run by Dr. Curtis Pozniak where I was helping manage some of the research projects. Prior to the U of S, I was at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) in Ottawa working on wheat diseases.
What got you interested in this area of work?
Good mentors! When I was at AAFC in Ottawa I was supervised by Dr. Gopal Subramaniam. He was an excellent mentor. I guess I could say he gave me the research bug. And then I moved to Saskatoon and I worked with Dr. Pozniak, who is also a very passionate, hardworking scientist, and he kept that bug alive. Now I am running my program at the CGC, work that I find fun and impactful; I love science. When you’re developing new tests or generating new results that impact the industry, there is a clear connection and benefit to it you can see yourself. That’s partly what makes it a lot of fun.
Tell us a bit about the Generating a rapid a low-cost diagnosis of fungi on wheat project and what you’re working on at the CGC.
I am the lead researcher on the Generating a rapid and low-cost diagnosis of fungi on wheat project, part of the collaborative Research & Development Agreement between the Manitoba Crop Alliance (MCA), SaskWheat and the Western Grains Research Foundation (WGRF). This project began in April 2021 and it builds off of the surveillance and monitoring work done by the CGC and collaborators at the University of Manitoba (UM), AAFC, U of S and University of British Columbia.
The project looks at diseases that impact wheat production with the focus on Fusarium head blight (FHB), one of the most important wheat diseases in Canada, and the different rust diseases. Every year, we run a survey for Fusarium species that cause FHB using DNA tests. There are other methods of looking at the species or different toxins they produce, such as chemical assays and inspection under a microscope, and these give researchers a better idea of what type of Fusarium is impacting producers. The differences between the species and toxins are important because they can cause different levels of disease in your fields.
This project is trying to develop new methods to be able to identify the species and other differences that might happen between the different Fusarium that cause FHB. The method is a rapid bio typing machine called MALDI-TOF, a mass spectrometry machine. This machine is mostly used in hospitals to identify different bacteria if people have infections. It is a very high throughput low-cost way of gathering important information about microbes that are potentially on the grain. Before now this machine hadn’t been applied to agriculture in a Canadian context before.
At CGC we have access to this machine and want to use it to test wheat and Fusarium, and to look at the different leaf, stripe and stem rusts as they also have different races. In order to determine the different races of rust, you usually have to do infection assays that are expensive, laborious and take a long time. If we can identify these races quickly using one of these methods, for maybe $0.30 and 10 mins of our time, and we can tell you what the race is, we’re saving weeks of time trying to identify the races using an infection assay. That is the major focus of this project.
I also collaborate on a number of projects that are led by other scientists, and supported by MCA and other producer groups within Canada. It is important to support research that benefits all crops in Canada, and at the CGC we try to provide as much support as we can.
What can you say about the value of farmers providing funding and support to your organization?
The CGC provides broad support to the agricultural industry through research. The research we do is collaborative in nature to support other government departments, universities, and private industry. Having the funds to do that research is important because it trickles down to all of the other organizations, and then it trickles down further to producers. A lot of the funding is important to provide the framework to enable us to collaborate with all of these other organizations so we have a unified approach to tackling the issues that are important to producers.
How does that farmer funding and support directly benefit farmers?
The work we do is really in the name of farmers. We really appreciate the support they give and the partnership we have with them to make sure we are addressing issues that are important to them in our research, and helping them be successful on their farms. The surveillance work is important to know what races and species are in fields causing disease and yield losses, or contaminating with toxins that might cause farmers to get less money when they go to sell their grain. By observing the pathogens, we can make better mitigation strategies to be able to stay one step ahead. It informs the breeders and variety registration system ensuring producers are getting the most up-to-date information about the crops they grow. It also helps the breeders know which races and species are important to target in their programs so they can develop new cultivars that produce optimal results in the fields.
How do you spend your time outside of work?
I play recreational hockey in Winnipeg and I also coach my kids’ hockey team.
What gets you excited about the work you do?
Everything. I love the students and the teaching component of it, raising the next generation of scientists. I like seeing the work we finish come with real world results that can be translated to something that is meaningful.
What inspires you?
The science inspires me. It’s always a challenge, and nothing stays the same. The challenges that producers face and scientists face are always changing, and the technologies are always changing. There are lots of ways that as researchers we can apply ourselves to come up with new and creative solutions that can help keep our agriculture sector flourishing.
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