Sarah Tallon

Tell us about your background.

I grew up in Lower Hutt without much experience in horticulture, but I really loved the outdoors and was into science. When I was deciding what to do at University, it was actually a TED Talk about the fine line modern agriculture has to walk between feeding everyone and conserving the environment, that made me want to study plants. That, and a couple weeks working on a friend’s flower farm was enough to see how interesting a career in horticulture science would be.

What do you do now?

Currently, I am studying a Master in Crop Science (specializing in Plant Protection and Plant nutrition) at Universität Hohenheim, Stuttgart, Germany. So, I’m a full-time student living in Germany, learning and researching about the chemical side of horticulture – pesticides and fertilizers – and how we can use our understanding of plants to find better ways to grow them.

How did you get that role? What was the pathway to that?

It started with doing a bachelor’s degree with a double major in chemistry and plant science at Massey University. During that time, I had two summer practicums. The first was with McCain as a pea sampler, which involved driving around the Hawke’s Bay in the early morning to measure pea maturity for harvest. The second was with Corteva Agrisciences, doing my own plant pathology research on their chemical protection research farm in New Plymouth. After graduating, I did a summer studentship with Plant and Food research which was later extended until winter. This was a great opportunity to be a part of a big research project in molecular breeding for flowering traits in blueberries and raspberries. During that time, I applied to several master programs, and was thrilled to get into the Crop Science Master at Hohenheim. Then it was a lot of visa applications, two very long flights, and I was in Germany!

What’s the best thing about your role?

The best part about my study is definitely hanging out with the other international students. It’s an international, English-language degree, but I’m only one of two native English speakers – the rest of my classmates come from all over the world. It’s so interesting learning about what life is like in their countries, and how different it is to Aotearoa New Zealand. The way other countries do horticulture is particularly interesting – from the crops they grow, to how they cope with climate change, to how the regulations differ.

Of course, I’m also immersed in German culture, and have joined a few student groups that I can practice my German with. Germany is an incredible country, with a rich history and a diverse population. I’ve felt really welcomed here, and even had a traditional Christmas with a local German family.

But other than that, I enjoy what I’m studying and the debates we have in class, trying to make sense of plants and how we can grow them better.

Do you travel much for the role?

For my degree, I have the opportunity to do one semester at a partner university in Europe, so I’m looking into that. But outside study, I’ve been on a few local tourist trips organized by the international student community, and I plan to take the opportunity to travel in Europe during the semester breaks.

Was being a woman a hindrance or a help in getting this role?

I have not experienced any disadvantage as a woman, and I’m pleased to report that the gender balance in my classes is exactly 50/50! 

Do you have any qualifications?

As mentioned before, I have a BSc in Chemistry and Plant Science. I also have a B2-level diploma in French language, which both helped me in my university applications (you’re expected to be approximately fluent in at least two languages to get into German universities) and in learning German now, which is easier when you already know how to learn a language.

Do you have any advice/tips for other women wanting a role like yours?

My best tip would be to take as many opportunities as you can, such as finding a job during the summer break, and applying for things, even if you think you might not get it.

Have you received any awards? Can you tell us a little about them

I was fortunate to receive a few scholarships and awards that greatly supported my study and allowed me to go overseas without a student loan. I have been supported by Horticulture New Zealand, Citrus NZ, Massey University, and Universität Hohenheim.

I was also named the top student in the science of agriculture and horticulture, and joint-first in chemistry in my final year at Massey.

In addition to these, I participated in the International Horticulture Immersion Program (a study tour of the Netherlands, Belgium, and South Korea) and the annual Horticulture Conference each year of my bachelor’s degree. These were excellent opportunities that were both eye-opening and leading to valuable network connections.

Anything else you’d like to add

I’m super proud to represent Aotearoa New Zealand in Germany, we’re an awesome country and have a fantastic horticulture industry on top.