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Technologist spent early career exploring genetic building blocks of plants

While Branka Milunovic, PhD, likes to describe herself as a ‘Jack of all trades, master of none,’ her resume and recent accomplishments would indicate otherwise.

As the research laboratory technologist for the Agriculture & Environmental Technologies Innovation Centre (AETIC), Branka manages all horticulture and greenhouse research labs and equipment. She collaborates with students and graduate research associates to support the success of applied research projects, mainly funded by the Greenhouse Technology Network (GTN), a Niagara College-led initiative that brings together research institutions and greenhouse and technology businesses to accelerate the development, commercialization, and adoption of new technologies.

As a plant molecular biologist, Branka brings more than two decades of experience in research, field trials project management and expertise in a GMP (Good Manufacturing Practices) microbiology lab. After receiving her doctorate in biology from McMaster University (2011), Branka managed the operations of a research lab as a post-doc scientist at McMaster University and later worked in research for the University of Saskatchewan. She recently served as a research technician for the Vineland Research and Innovation Centre, applied genomics group, and Platform Genetics Inc.

Most of her research career has been focused on plant molecular biology. She has had a keen interest in the microbial world, or what would be described as the building blocks of nature: “I was floating between two molecular biology fields: plant molecular biology and microbial molecular biology. I was always focusing on the research at the gene level,” she recalls. “The main difference was that half of my career was dedicated to the gene functions in the plant material and a half was focusing on the role of different genes in nitrogen-fixing bacteria.”

What she calls the golden time of my career was dedicated to a project of defining the minimal number of genes that will be sufficient for the normal functioning of nitrogen-fixing bacteria, which develop a symbiotic relationship with plants. Her work was recognized by her peers, with publications in several scientific journals, including PLOS Genetics, Environmental Microbiology, Genetics, and Journal of Bacteriology.

Her Canadian research career started when she moved from Serbia to Ontario two decades ago, to continue her education in the graduate program at Western University, in London, Ont. After she obtained a master’s degree, she moved over to McMaster in Hamilton for PhD studies, working on “Deletion analysis of Sinorhizobium meliloti genome.” While great experiences on their own, Branka points to the next chapter in developing her love for this country.

“The best four years of ‘Canadian Experience’ my family had was during my second postdoctoral fellowship, in Saskatoon, Sask. During that time, I was involved in the development of microbial products that addressed the significant need for improved yield, water use efficiency, and heat-stress tolerance in major crops in Canada and around the world, including wheat, canola, maize, soybean, barley, and pulses.”

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