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By Paul Lonergan 6 January 2023 3 min read

Dr Sally Buck never dreamed of becoming a scientist when she grew up. But that was only because she didn't know it was an option. Now she's working on developing nutritious plant-based proteins as part of our Future Protein Mission.

Growing the seeds of science

Originally from Donnybrook, in rural Western Australia, Sally grew up picking apples and adventuring in Jarrah forests. She didn't get a taste of biology until she reached university.

"Biology wasn't offered at my school, so I had to make do with chemistry and physics," Sally said.

"Being from a small town, I didn't really know anyone other than our teachers and the local doctor who had been to university. And I certainly didn't know any scientists," she said.

It wasn't until Sally started her undergraduate degree at the University of Western Australia that she found her way to biology. She found her passion in molecular biology and botany.

During her undergraduate studies, Sally completed our Undergraduate Vacation Studentships program. Through the program she participated in cutting edge research with a world class team. And decided a science career was for her.

A scientist on a mission

Sally discovered there was so much more to know about plants and how they work. She completed her Honours degree on the waterlogging tolerance of Eucalyptus affected by mine dewatering in the Pilbara.

Her next step was a move to Canberra, where she began her PhD at Australian National University. Her doctoral project used synthetic biology techniques to improve carbon fixing reactions in photosynthesis.

Sally is now a postdoctoral fellow with us and a vital part of 'Pro-X Ingredients', a concept developed under the umbrella of our Future Protein Mission and Company Creation initiative.

This Mission is working towards creating $10 billion of nutritious and high-quality protein products by 2030. Plant-based proteins will form an integral part of the solution.

'Pro-X Ingredients' aims to produce a plant protein concentrate of 60 per cent protein for food manufacturers. We're conducting research in collaboration with our Food Innovation Centre to develop and refine processing and sensory analysis methods leading to new product development.

Sally’s research is looking to find chickpeas with higher nutritional content.

A green thumb

As a CERC Winanga-y Post-Doctoral Fellow, Sally applies her skills and enthusiasm to understanding the nutritional diversity in chickpeas and finding the best way to optimise it.

"I wanted to get back to working with whole plants and on a project that has a practical application. I just really like plants," Sally said.

Chickpeas are a popular protein source for many people and in many cuisines. Even so, a good quality chickpea is classified by the colour and size of the chickpea, not the nutritional value. This classification has limited research into the differences in the nutritional value of chickpeas.

Sally's work involves characterising hundreds of varieties of chickpeas to identify the varieties with valuable nutritional properties. She looks at properties like high protein and reduced antinutritional compounds. And, even from the outside, chickpea varieties look diverse.

"When most people in Australia think of chickpeas, we probably think of the big beige ones that are sold in a tin. Those are Kabuli chickpeas," Sally said.

"These aren't even the most common chickpeas grown in Australia. We mostly grow smaller, brown, Desi varieties of chickpeas, which are used to make dahls and flours. (Desi chickpeas are known in India as Chana Dal, Split Yellow Gram or Split Desi-chickpea.) Desi chickpeas can vary in size and colour. In my diversity panel they can even be shades of red, or tiny and pitch black!"

When she isn't working on chickpeas, you can find Sally adventuring in the bush. Her love of plants extends beyond the lab doors.

While she may not have grown up dreaming about being a scientist, she couldn't imagine herself doing anything else.

"I want to continue doing meaningful research," she said.

It seems Sally has certainly set herself on the right path to inspire the next crop of young scientists entering our doors as summer research scholars.

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