Scientist and current NZ Rural Ambassador, Courtney Davies, of Dairy Flat, has certainly made the first 22 years of her life count. She has represented NZ in several different disciplines, attended conferences and science events around the world, set-up her own Ayrshire cattle stud, won numerous scholarships and will soon complete her Master’s thesis in the field of microbiology. The common thread running through her pursuits is agriculture and, in particular, a love of animals, as she explained to Jannette Thompson …
A couple of years ago, one of my prize show cows got mastitis. It made me realise that bacteria and microbes are the big game players in the agricultural world – negatively in the form of disease and positively in processes such as cheese making and milk fermentation. I don’t have a traditional farming background – my Dad was a diver on oil rigs and my Mum is a tertiary tutor who breeds horses – so science has given me a way to be involved in agriculture in a slightly different way. While I was studying a Bachelor of Natural Sciences at Massey University, I did a course on bacteriophage (phage) isolation and genomics. It was my first real experience of hands-on applied research. We used soil samples from home to isolate viruses that infected a particular bacterium. A lot of people think of viruses in a medical sense, or even causes for zombie outbreaks, but these are viruses that only infect bacteria. This means that when you encounter really dangerous bacteria such as tuberculosis and E.coli, these bacteriophage viruses can be used as an alternative to antibiotics. It’s known as phage therapy and is already being used successfully in some countries overseas.
While NZ still has a focus on antibiotics, we are becoming more aware of the consequences and there are concerns around their use in the agricultural industry, so it’s a really interesting field for me. The beauty of phages is their specificity. Taking antibiotics is like hitting your gut with a nuclear bomb, where as the phages don’t upset the balance between good and bad bacteria. It can be applied in different forms – as a gauze swab on a cut or taken in liquid or pill form. In my Masters project, we’re looking at its application as a spray that could be used prophylactically on hospital masks as an additional barrier of defence. There are more than half a million cases of drug-resistant bacteria, so in countries without access to simple preventative health care, this is the sort of technology that we want to develop. We’re tinkering with nature in a safe way and the results could have many applications.
I’ve been working under Dr Heather Hendrickson, at Massey, who has instilled in me how important it is to be able to communicate science to the wider community. In 2016, I was fortunate to be chosen to attend a conference in Virginia – it was the first time someone from outside of the US had been invited – and it was exciting to showcase NZ’s phage research. I also attended a conference that was held as part of an APEC meeting in Peru and in July this year, I attended the Red Sea summer programme, based at Kaust University in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. The emphasis over the three weeks was on genetics, microbiology, oceanography and ecology. We got to do some really cool things like snorkelling in the Red Sea and working with students at a local high school. The Red Sea is a fantastic model for climate change because it is so warm. Scientists believe that the fish and corals that thrive there may offer some hope for coral reefs elsewhere, as sea temperatures rise.
One of the events I loved when I attended Dairy Flat Primary School was the annual Ag Day and as a treat on my 11th birthday, my parents took me along to a local A&P Show. One show turned into two and then the next year I did the whole season. Soon I was buying and selling cattle, and went on to set-up my own stud (Inca Ayrshires). It was intimidating to compete at the shows when I didn’t have a farming background, so I entered the showmanship and parading classes first because they are judged on your ability to show the animal rather than the animal itself. I won the district title six times over eight years, and represented NZ at the Australasian competition last year. Then, to better understand how to look after my animals and show them, I started judging and I’m now a qualified Ayrshire dairy cattle judge, with experience in poultry, merino fleece, sheep and beef cattle and next month I will be learning to judge alpacas. It’s given me the opportunity to represent NZ at several Australian shows and next year I will exhibit cattle in the UK Dairy Day.
Animals encourage us to take a step back from things like technology and see what’s around us. Being involved in A&P events means you have to prepare your animals, take care of them, talk to judges and understand ring etiquette – so it’s a great way for young people to learn skills they might not otherwise develop. As a member of the Northern District Royal Agricultural Society Council, I’ve established a Young Parader competition for five to 19 year olds. Last year, we had 56 competitors and we celebrated with a big prizegiving. It was fantastic with more than 100 people attending. The NZ Rural Ambassador Award from the Royal Agricultural Society provides me with another platform to share my experience, ideas and connect with the next generation of rural enthusiasts, and I will represent NZ at the Australasian final in Perth next year.
I will complete my Masters at the end of this year and then I expect to spend some time publishing some of my papers and findings. I’ve already got a number of overseas commitments next year so I think it will be an opportunity to take a step back to assess some of the challenges happening in science. I’d like to do a PhD, but I’d like my research to be applied and relevant, and aimed at solving real world problems. I want what I do to change lives, not just human lives but also animals. One of my aims is also to breed and exhibit a Supreme Champion Cow, having already achieved this with my heifer calf last year!
I’ve been the recipient of a number of scholarships during my years of study, which has meant I haven’t had to divide my time between study and a fulltime job. I’ve been able to use my energy giving back in other ways – as an undergraduate laboratory demonstrator, through agriculture and a lot of volunteering. For example, I’ve judged at the Dairy Flat School Ag Day, which was like going full circle. More recently, I joined Dairy Flat Toastmasters after receiving feedback from the Rural Ambassador interviews that perhaps I talk to fast! The Dairy Flat club is a diverse group of people and I’m learning evaluation skills, as well as better speaking skills. It’s great fun, especially when you have to think on your feet.
I feel it’s important to support young people to choose careers that will make them happy and not just satisfy other people’s expectations of them. It’s also important not to stress the small things. Getting less than full marks in every exam is not the end of the world – there are speed bumps on any journey, but the trick is to stay focussed on the big the picture and what you are trying to achieve. I often feel as though I have “imposter syndrome”, being in awe of the achievements made by my peers and feeling like I don’t quite fit in. But, I have come to realise that although everyone might look like they are achieving and getting great results, we all struggle from time-to-time. I’m one of the ambassadors at Massey University and we always encourage students to apply for scholarships. We say to them, “The worst you can hear is ‘no’ and you probably hear that from your parents all the time.” A rejection can be a bit crushing, but it is not the end of the world. We only have one life so I plan to make the most of mine and take every opportunity that comes along.