With a forest as his playground, and elks, hedgehogs, eagles and insects his constant companions, it’s no surprise Piotr Trebicki was entranced by science from an early age.
‘I grew up in a small rural village in eastern Poland called Patrykozy. The village consisted of only 200 people and was surrounded by farms, forests and nature’, said Piotr, a Research Scientist with Agriculture Victoria.
‘Most of my childhood was spent helping my grandparents on their mixed cropping and livestock farm. I was fascinated by the insects and creatures on the farm, and by the environmental interactions and processes I discovered in the fields and forests around me.’
By the time he got to high school, Piotr knew he wanted a career in science and went on to study biological science. He coupled this with a teaching degree that allowed him to teach biology and chemistry at primary, secondary and high school levels.
Dr Piotr Trebicki
For his Master of Science, Piotr decided to do a research project on beneficial organisms, particularly carabid beetles in small forests surrounded by farmland.
‘For two years, I trapped and monitored insects to understand their role as a biological control agent – and the role of small forests scattered around farms, which is very typical across the landscape in my countryside.’
During university summer break each year, Piotr headed to the USA to work as a camp counsellor and lifeguard.
On one of those trips he met his future wife, an Australian girl from Melbourne.
‘After completing my Masters, I came to Australia to visit her – and I’ve stayed ever since!’
After stints as a lifeguard in Melbourne, a job on a flower farm in Monbulk, and various roles in IT and education, Piotr was awarded a PhD position through Queensland University of Technology and the Department of Primary Industries in Rutherglen in Victoria.
‘My PhD aimed to identify insect vectors of plant virus and was supervised by Dr Kevin Powell, who was in charge of the grape phylloxera lab. While in Rutherglen, I was fortunate enough to visit many vineyards, and learn a bit about the viticulture and wine making. We had a wine club and on weekends and after hours we looked after an old research vineyard, harvested the grapes and made wine.’
After completing his PhD, Piotr moved to the USA with his family for post doctorate studies at Michigan State University.
He returned to Australia in 2013 and began work as a research scientist at Agricultural Victoria in Horsham on insect vectors of plant diseases, mainly in grains and oilseeds.
Now, in a multi-industry project supported by Wine Australia, the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment, Hort Innovation and the Victorian and New South Wales State Governments, Piotr is working on a new project to seek answers about the insect vectors that could spread Xylella if it arrived in Australia. Xylella is regarded as the number one biosecurity threat to Australia and the cost to the wine and grape sector alone has been estimated into the billions of dollars over a 50-year period.
‘The aim of the project is to prevent spread of the bacterium; and provide growers and the sector the tools and knowledge to effectively contain and treat the insect vectors if Xylella were to arrive in Australia,’ Piotr explained.
‘Once plants are infected with Xylella, eradication is extremely difficult; therefore prevention is the most effective approach. As it is transmitted by xylem feeding insects, we need to know which insect species are the vectors to effectively target.’
The project is a national and international collaboration, featuring leading scientists and industry representatives worldwide.
Piotr says he is inspired every day by the work he does.
‘I am very grateful that I can do a job that I believe is very important – and that I am very passionate about. I enjoy learning new things, and I find it inspirational to know that the outcome of my research can be used to improve or protect someone’s livelihood and sustain or improve yield and quality.’
‘I am also inspired by people that I work with, which motivates me even more.’