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Retired agricultural scientist reflects on a successful career

Posted on 11 May 2023 by Matthew Liebenberg

By Matthew Liebenberg

The feeling of excitement about new research findings is something retired scientist Dr. Ron Knox always enjoyed during his distinguished career.

He retired at the end of March after working for over 30 years at the Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) Swift Current Research and Development Centre on the forefront of applying plant genetics to wheat breeding.

“It was always a thrill to get results that showed something significant,” he told the Prairie Post. “You did all the greenhouse work to establish the phenotypes or characterize whatever features of the plant, for example disease resistance, and then we did the analysis. It was always a thrill to me to see the significant association of a particular marker to a particular trait and then working with that information to fine-tune the markers and develop a marker that we could use in the breeding program to select for that trait.”

He had many such moments during his career as a plant pathologist and geneticist. His work included research on disease resistance, the development of wheat breeding DNA markers and other agronomic and grain quality traits.

“Those are the things that motivates you and keep you doing another round of developing research proposal and then putting everything in place to do another trait or different markers,” he said.

He contributed to the development of around 75 wheat cultivars and he was recognized earlier this year with a national award of excellence. He is the recipient of the 2023 Canadian Plant Breeding and Genetics Award, which is presented annually to a public or private sector researcher for contributing significantly to the advancement of Canadian plant agriculture through research in plant breeding and genetics.

He added to scientific knowledge in his field through various research publications. ResearchGate, a networking service for scientists and researchers to share their work, lists Knox as an author and co-author to 250 publications.

He most recently co-authored an article published in March 2023 about the genetic mapping of leaf rust resistance genes in six Canadian spring wheat cultivars. He felt the publication of results was an essential part of his work as a scientist.

It was an important piece of advice given to him early in his career and it is something he will also suggest to any young researcher today.

“It’s extremely important to conclude experiments through publication to get the results documented and circulated,” he said. “It’s often tough for scientists to sit in the writing of a paper. You need very focused time for an extended period of days and weeks, and with the demands on scientists it’s hard to have that focused time. But they have to make that time and bring experiments to conclusion.”

He added that the publication of scientific findings will have a benefit beyond ensuring that information contributes to a wider knowledge base in a certain research field.

“That’s how you get recognition in terms of being able to apply for future funding and demonstrate that you have a jumping off point, something that’s legitimate to carry on to the next phase of research,” he said. “So that’s a really important thing.”

His other advice to young researchers would be to be careful with their time and to be mindful about taking on too many projects.

“The reality is you do have to campaign for funding and look for approvals for various things up the line,” he said. “All these things cut into a scientist’s time. If you need approval for an equipment purchase, then you got to go through all the justifications. If you’re doing staffing, you have to interact with human resources. We all have the idea of the project we want to do and submit for a proposal, but there’s lot of administration that scientists have to undertake. I was always coaching the younger ones to try to not take on too much so that they’re overwhelmed and end up being burned out.”

Administration was an unavoidable part of the job. He is happy to leave that behind, but he will miss the people he worked with and the personal interaction.

“We had a great crew,” he said. “During the pandemic we were isolated. We didn’t get to see our colleagues. When we were able to go back and interact personally, there was a synergy. That’s probably the thing I’ll miss the most.”

Knox has continued his connections with former colleagues since his retirement. He is still settling into his new life beyond a formal career.

He might consider ways to pursue his lifelong interest in farming. Friends already offered that he can help out on their farm and other farmers indicated the same thing. He might also consider taking on contract work and he has already been approached about providing some input into biotechnology and genetic marker work.

“I don’t think I’ll ever lose my love for science,” he said. “Retirement gives me more time to look at other aspects of science. I haven’t shut any doors. I want to get a feel for retirement. I expect it will probably take a year to kind of figure things out.”

He grew up on a farm north of Moose Jaw and he recalled developing an interest in science at a young age.

“I took all the sciences in high school and I do remember going to the library and browsing,” he said. “They had Science and Nature, those two journals, in the library and I liked to flip through them and look at what was happening in science, but I can’t say that I wanted to be a scientist at any particular early age. What I wanted to be was a farmer, but because I had bad allergies it didn’t seem like the wisest thing for me to do.”

He studied agricultural sciences at university, but the career options with a bachelor’s degree did not look very appealing to him. However, an advisor mentioned research as an option if he was willing to obtain a minimum of a master’s degree.

“I did a field research study looking at a new fungicide for the control of common root rot in barley,” he recalled. “So that’s where I started to gain more experience and knowledge about pathology.”

Knox began working at the AAFC research centre at Swift Current in 1984 as a technician in a research program. He successfully applied for the pathologist position in the wheat breeding program and was appointed as biologist in 1987.

“I just loved that position,” he said. “I didn’t have as much responsibility in terms of having to find funding and I got to do a lot of the hands-on work that I really enjoyed. So those were some of the fondest memories of work that I have, but at the same time I saw these new technologies coming on stream and potential opportunity. My colleagues knew that I was interested in getting a PhD and they saw an opportunity there too.”

He received an AAFC scholarship for his doctoral studies at the University of Manitoba and then became a research scientist at the Swift Current research facility in 1994.

“When I returned my strongest interest was still in disease resistance and pathology, but now from the perspective of the genetics of disease resistance and developing markers,” he said. “So that’s where my career direction changed somewhat. Instead of just more pure pathology and selecting and using pathogens and looking at disease reaction, I got into the development of markers.”

He took on the responsibility of starting a molecular laboratory, which made it possible to apply cutting edge technology such as the double haploid technique to the wheat breeding program.

“We’ve got cultivars being produced now that has selection done with markers early in their development and there are numerous double haploid varieties being developed,” he said. “That all traces back to the work that I established. So that’s very satisfying. The same with the disease resistance that we incorporated. We have maintained good disease resistance in the classes of wheat. So that’s also rewarding.”

He feels fortunate to have been in a position to contribute towards the development of agricultural science through his own work.

“I have to consider myself blessed to be in the right place at the right time with the aptitude for what was going on,” he said. “I was doing something that was not only super interesting to me, it was something I seemed to have an aptitude for. So I consider myself fortunate that all those things came together to give me the opportunity to do things that I really enjoyed.”

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