Norman Warthmann

Posted: Jun 26th, 2019


Dr Norman Warthmann leads the molecular biology work at the Plant Breeding and Genetics Laboratory of the United Nations division in Seibersdorf, Austria. The laboratory is a joint unit of the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), dedicated to securing the world’s food future through developments in crop nutrition, plant breeding, pest control and livestock health.

“I am getting to work on one of the biggest challenges of our time: Sustainable intensification of our agricultural systems, improving livelihoods while reducing the environmental footprint. It is a very rewarding experience,” Dr Warthmann said.

Norman’s time with the ARC Centre of Excellence in Plant Energy Biology began in 2014 when he joined Justin Borevitz’s group at The Australian National University. His work with the centre focused on whole-genome approaches to conservation genetics and breeding.

“Different responses of different genotypes in similar environments hint to genetic differences, which one can then set out to identify and study, and the tools to do this have become ever more powerful.”

Despite working at the microscopic scale of cells and genes, Norman’s perspective has always been to take at a wider view of the world, and the place of plants within it.

“The notion that most everything around us, what we eat, wear, and make our furniture from, is ultimately produced by plants. Plants put all this together, one C-atom at a time, which they fish out of an atmosphere where CO2 is about 400 parts per million. That this should work with mostly sunlight and water blew me away, and I majored in Plant Physiology to understand how.”

The drive to understand plants on their most fundamental level has taken Norman from success to success in his career, however he remains humble about his achievements.

“I am tempted to say that I got where I am through “hard work”, but that is not true. I got were I am mostly by serendipity, through mentors who believe in me, who opened doors and led by example. With this support, “work” did not feel like work, but like a world full of opportunities. All that was left for me to do was to see and grab them.”