Take 10 with... Sarah Knight

Dr Sarah Knight, Lecturer in the School of Biological Sciences, gives us 10 minutes of her time to discuss her research into sustainable, high quality agricultural products.

Dr Sarah Knight, Lecturer in the School of Biological Sciences
Dr Sarah Knight, Lecturer in the School of Biological Sciences

1. Describe your research topic to us in 10 words or less.

Applying ecological concepts to understand sustainable, high quality agricultural products.

2. Now explain it in everyday terms!

I am interested in understanding the ecology and evolutionary history of populations, and I use molecular tools combined with lab experiments to do so. Most recently, my research has focused on the microbial world where the performance of these communities have implications for the health of natural ecosystems and the success of many primary industries and products.

I work closely with industry partners, particularly the New Zealand Wine Industry, where my research investigates how changes in microbial communities because of things like location, management practice or changes in climate might influence the quality and local identity of the wine produced and the long-term sustainability of the industry. My research questions capture microbial diversity spanning both vineyard and fermentation environments.

3. Describe some of your day-to-day research activities.

It varies a lot! I’m often jumping between co-developing research ideas with industry and academic collaborators to writing grant applications, industry reports and manuscripts to supervising student projects. If I’m lucky I can get into the lab myself but that happens less and less these days.

4. What do you enjoy most about your research?

Co-developing new research ideas and engaging with industry. I’m lucky to be able to work alongside such passionate and innovative collaborators, colleagues and students.

5. Tell us something that has surprised or amused you in the course of your research.

I was initially surprised at the passion and willingness to collaborate shown by the New Zealand Wine Industry. I work with industry partners across many businesses and their openness to share ideas with both myself and their competitors for the good of the NZ brand as a whole is inspiring.

6. How have you approached any challenges you’ve faced in your research?

I’ve come to realise it is important to accept that no amount of planning will allow you to avoid challenges in research – in fact, the creativity of developing solutions can be part of the fun! I’ve found it’s been important for me to build my own resilience and build a trusted network of friends and colleagues I can turn to for advice.

7. What questions have emerged as a result?

On multiple occasions, the discussions I’ve had with colleagues while trying to troubleshoot have led to new and exciting research ideas and collaborations. It generates a lot of creativity which is really fun and exciting!

8. What kind of impact do you hope your research will have?

I hope results from my research will benefit the NZ Wine Industry by informing management and wine-making practices that enhance and protect both our unique biodiversity and high quality wine styles.

I’d also like my research to inspire younger generations to be excited about science and career opportunities it can bring, which is part of why I enjoy working at the interface of fundamental and applied science.

9. When collaborating across the faculty or University, or even outside the University, who do you work with and how does it benefit your research?

I work alongside many talented collaborators both within the University and externally, and hope to grow my network as I develop my research interests. Currently I am working on projects alongside academic collaborators Associate Professor Bruno Fedrizzi, Dr Rebecca Deed, Dr Melanie Kah, Dr Beatrix Jones and Dr Gavin Lear in the University of Auckland's Faculty of Science; Dr Amber Parker and Dr Bin Tian at Lincoln University in Christchurch; the fantastic Viticulture and Oenology group at Plant and Food Research in both Blenheim and Auckland; Professor Mat Goddard at Lincoln University in the United Kingdom, and Dr Claudia Buser at ETH Zurich in Switzerland.

I also work with a number of industry collaborators including the New Zealand Winegrowers Bragato Research Institute.

10. What one piece of advice would you give your younger, less experienced research self?

Be kind to yourself and back your ideas. Research may not always go to plan, but that just opens up new opportunities, and you have the skills and expertise to take those on.