You would be hard pressed to find a researcher who has had as varied a career as Professor Shubiao Wu.
From rural China, he was trained as a botanist and started his early career as a university lecturer before going on to do his Masters in botany at a university in inner Mongolia.
“I just loved botany and everything about it,” Shubiao said.
“When I completed my Masters I went back to my home province in China and worked for a decade as a researcher for an agricultural institute. I really enjoyed it and never had any plans to leave that location or area of study.
“But then I got the opportunity to apply for a scholarship that involved visiting the University of Western Australia for a year assisting with research around a wax flower that was native to the area.”
Shubiao was successful in his application, and during his 12 months of study in Western Australia he fell in love with the native flora – and the Australian lifestyle.
“I figured that I should make the most of this new experience so decided to apply to do a PhD in Australia as well,” he said.
“I started my PhD at the University of Adelaide in 1999 in olives and olive genetics. I was fascinated by what I learnt about the local horticulture sector and Australian olives.”
What came next for the trained botanist was the first of two monumental changes in research focus he’d undertake in his career.
Following his PhD completion, Shubiao was offered the opportunity to do a post-doctoral fellowship at the University of Otago in New Zealand. But not in botany or horticulture – this time he was studying retinal disease.
“Many of my colleagues were quite shocked,” he laughed.
“Retinal disease and olives don’t have much in common however when it comes to genetics and DNA, there are a lot of principles that can be applied across various areas.
“The work I’d already completed in olive genetics using molecular biology had an application to the work in New Zealand on the link between the genetic mutation that caused retinal disease and degeneration, and blindness.”
Shubiao worked on the project for three years but when it came time to finish, he found himself keen to return to Australia.
“The opportunities in New Zealand were there, but we decided that the climate was a bit too cold for us and felt that Australia was still the best place in the world to live and work,” he said.
“A professor I had worked with at the University of Adelaide reached out and asked if I’d be keen to join her at the University of New England and get back into botany research, so it was very good timing, and I said yes.”
The research project Shubiao was tasked with at the University of New England was in almond production.
He said it was a welcome move away from human disease and back to what he knew and loved – plants.
Shubiao said he clearly remembers the day his second monumental change in research focus occurred.
“I was nearing the end of my almond project and was working in my lab which was very close to the animal science building at the University of New England,” he said.
“I’d heard that a research fellow working on a poultry disease project had become terribly ill, but I didn’t think about it beyond being concerned for her.
“Only a few days later people from that team approached me saying that everything in their current project focused on chickens was done, but they needed someone to analyse the data now that they were down a team member.
“I knew I had it in me to change industry focus. I mean I’d gone from olives to humans, surely, I could jump from almonds to poultry!”