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.”

Today, she and husband Milan, and teenage sons David and Matia reside in Niagara, recalling their time in the prairies with fondness and waiting on the days when they can return to even more exploring of this country and others around the globe.

“Each project is different from the other. All members of the research team are always exposed to a new set of needs from the industry partners, and this makes research work exciting and thrilling for all of us.”

In the meantime, her workdays have shifted from an intense focus on plant molecular biology to an outward focus on applied research streams in service of industry partners who form partnerships with AETIC.

“Each project is different from the other. All members of the research team are always exposed to a new set of needs from the industry partners, and this makes research work exciting and thrilling for all of us.”

Branka notes that there is no “typical” day as a research technologist; that it is never predictable or repetitive, as her daily work could involve any combination of turning part of the project budget into equipment, materials, or supplies; writing a daily schedule for each of the research students; setting up experiments for a certain project; and collecting, discussing, and summarizing results of the project.

“Upon joining the research team at the college, I was pleasantly surprised with the number of friendly people willing to help and share knowledge and their experiences.”

When not considering the microbial implications of genome sequencing, of stress tolerances in major Canadian crops, or devising and supervising applied research projects in the NC greenhouse, you might find Branka seeking the slopes for alpine skiing in winter or hiking in summer. While she enjoys travelling with her family and exploring new places in Canada and around the globe – when it’s safe to do so – she says her No. 1 choice for relaxing these days is doing yoga. Namaste.