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Researcher in focus: Dr Harley Smith

RD&A News | January 2022
21 Jan 2022
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Dr Harley Smith is not your average scientist. Surfer. Skateboarder. Die-hard punk rock aficionado and member of 80s punk rock bank Several Fish.

Add to that a passion for maths and science – “and the mysteries of how things work at a cellular level” and you have what Dr Smith calls a ‘punk rock nerd.’

Dr Smith grew up in Oakland, California, with his plant pathologist father, mother and three siblings.

“As a child, I really enjoyed playing outside, camping and going to the beach. After moving to Hawaii for a year in third grade, I discovered surfing and skateboarding and that became a passion.”

Like many scientists in the making, math and biology were Dr Smith’s favourite subject at high school. “What I really appreciated about math was that equations were used to solve problems and the solution was clear-cut answer. 

“Biology was also interesting, as there seemed to be so many mysteries about how things worked at the cellular level.”

Dr Smith spent his youth surfing Ocean Beach in San Francisco, skateboarding empty swimming pools with the East Bay Underground crew and listening to rock music.

And then he discovered punk music, and was “totally hooked.”

He spent most weekends seeking out punk rock shows in San Francisco and Berkeley with his brother Mark and high school friends. “I just loved the mayhem and the energy of the music and shows.” He joined a punk band at school called Kover Band, and the group played local parties and charity shows.


Dr Harley Smith

After graduating from high school, Harley moved to Santa Cruz, a surfing mecca of the Bay Area. 

He joined another punk band called Several Fish and the group played numerous local shows with bands such as BLAST!, D.I., Good Riddance and Mock. 

After working as a hod carrier for a number of brick masons, Dr Smith eventually enrolled at Cabrillo College where he re-discovered his passion for math and biology. 

“It was at this point that I decided to pursue a career as scientist or a teacher of science.”

Dr Smith says he’s grateful for the support he received from his family and friends to pursue a career in science, “as it wasn’t very punk to be a scientist at the time!”

He recalls how he would quote Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein in between songs at punk shows with Several Fish, which created some confusion among the hardcore punkers. 

“At this time and up to the present day, Milo Aukerman, the vocalist of the Descendents – who went to University and earned a PhD in biochemistry – has been an inspiration to me. He really forged a path for punk rock nerds like me to express their passion for science.” 

In 2012, Dr Smith moved to Adelaide to take up the role of Team Leader of CSIRO’s Rootstock Breeding Team.

While he still loves surfing and punk rock, these days it’s entwined with his passion for developing ‘next generation’ grapevine rootstocks.

“One of the major challenges for the Australian wine grape industry is that the current set of commercial rootstocks available lack genetic diversity and durable resistance to grape phylloxera and root knot nematode,” he said.

The aim of the Rootstock Breeding Team is to deliver next generation rootstocks with durable resistance to grape phylloxera and root knot nematode using DNA marker-assisted selection. 

“We’re also working at developing rootstocks aimed at increasing vineyard performance in a changing climate.”

Click here for more information on these projects.

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This content is restricted to wine exporters and levy-payers. Some reports are available for purchase to non-levy payers/exporters.