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Meet Tracy Lawrence, CFIA virology technician

Tracy Lawrence

If you've ever taken a bite of locally grown peaches, enjoyed a glass of Canadian wine with a picnic or gone apple picking on a warm fall day, you've had a taste of my work!

I'm Tracy Lawrence and my work at the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) plays a role in the success of our country's multi-billion dollar grape and fruit tree-growing industries.

Canada is known for its rich agricultural and horticultural industry, which is critical to our food security and economy.

From a laboratory in beautiful Sidney, British Columbia, I've been proudly serving Canadians for 22 years by ensuring our farmers have access to healthy plants to provide the products we enjoy.

Fruitful childhood experiences

I was born and raised surrounded by agriculture. I've always been interested in plants and how they grow. Spending time at my friend's family farm fueled that passion.

I got to hoe cabbage fields, pick crunchy apples and eat green peppers and Italian plums to my heart's content. It was an incredible experience.

Being welcomed into this family with open arms taught me that there's something special about people who work with plants. As the years passed, I realized that working in nature cultivates down-to-earth people who also take care of each other. I wanted to be one of them.

Growing my career

Though I loved plants, I wasn't sure how I wanted to work with them. I started my path in an undergraduate program in geology at the University of Guelph, but eventually switched to biochemistry.

In 1993, I graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Biochemistry and moved to the West Coast for job with an environmental testing company in Vancouver. A couple of years later, I relocated to Vancouver Island to work as a research assistant at the University of Victoria.

In 1999, I went back to school and received a horticulture technician certificate from the Pacific Horticulture College and eventually started my own landscaping company.

With a range of academic and life experience under my belt, the world of plant science was still calling my name. The grass looked greener on the other side, and I knew it was time to make a move.

Sowing my seeds of experience

In 2000, the CFIA was hiring for the plum pox survey. I started my career with the Agency by testing samples in the lab.

After that season of survey work, I developed tests to detect genetically modified ingredients in foods. In 2009, I became a Virology Technician at the CFIA's Sidney Laboratory, also known as the Centre for Plant Health.

At our facility, we test imported fruit trees and grapevines for viruses. The goal is to protect our agricultural industry from plant viruses that could harm crops here at home. We use both lab and field-based tests to find out if imported plants are healthy. With field-based tests, CFIA experts transfer the imported material onto "test" plants and look for any viral symptoms on the leaves and fruit.

The bulk of my work happens in the tissue culture lab. I produce the "test" plants used in the field. It's very important to have clean test plants that my colleagues can rely on to make accurate observations of any viral symptoms. We have to carefully handle the plants and ensure our lab and equipment are not contaminated.

I also grow new, healthy plants from virus-infected varieties. After putting the plants in a warm environment for 6 to 14 weeks, I dissect the growing tip of the infected plants under a microscope and create 4 or 5 new plants. I eventually test each one to find out if I was successful in eliminating the virus.

I love starting my day by going into the warm, bright growth room to check on my plants and see how much they've grown. It's amazing how quickly a microscopic tip less than 1 mm in size can grow into a rooted plant in the greenhouse in as little as 6 months.

Cultivating my ripe passions

My work changes with the seasons, which keeps things interesting. When I'm not producing tissue culture plants, I can help out with the diagnostic lab tests, field tests or plant maintenance.

I'm lucky to work with a diverse group of colleagues who are passionate about many facets of plant health: nutrients, insects, soil health and climate. We cover a lot of ground, but we come together as one caring team.

Beyond making connections with fellow plant lovers, including gardeners, scientists and researchers, I've had the opportunity to learn, grow and make a difference in the lives of Canadians throughout my career at the Agency.

Whenever I go to a grocery store and see local wines or new apple varieties, I feel great knowing I played a role in getting many of these products to the market.

You don't need to be in my shoes to help protect the plants and environment where you live. You can be a plant health hero too!

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