David Thompson

2001 BBM Horticulture Scholar and

Research Media and Communications Officer, Western Sydney University

“When I was a kid I wanted to be a journalist. And then, I got into growing plants and thought about doing either agriculture or horticulture.

A love of plants and writing have been central to David’s life ever since he was a child. And no story proves better than his that with passion, opportunity, curiosity and adaptability you can create a career that has it all:

“If you’re like me, you see the world as an ecosystem of connections that link people, ideas, knowledge and opportunities. I am an award-winning technical communications manager with specialist digital and marketing communications skills serving the horticulture, agriculture, research, life sciences and higher education industries.”

David started a double degree of a Bachelor of Horticultural Science and a Bachelor of Commerce at Western Sydney University in 1997. Towards the end of the course, there was a call out by the academics for the BBM Scholarships.

David gave it shot and won one of the scholarships.

Life is what happens even when you have no plans at all

“I wasn’t particularly looking to go overseas, and I didn’t have any definite plans at that point but just before I left, a friend who designed the Australian stands for seed packets suggested I contact Mr Fothergills in the UK to see if he had any work for me. So I dropped the managing director a letter just before I flew out, and then when I was over there, I essentially forgot about it.”

About three weeks later, David got an email from Jeff Fothergill, Mr. Fothergill himself, saying, “We’re starting our first online commerce initiative trying to start up an e commerce system to sell seeds over the internetYou could come and give us a hand…”

“It was 2001,” David recalls, “and I knew absolutely nothing about IT, the internet, communications or anything like that, but after about three weeks of travelling around, I went to Cambridge where they are based and gave it a go.

“I became very curious about how digital systems worked and progressively adding products to a growing site introduced new challenges and opportunities as we worked out whether this ‘ecommerce thing’ was likely to work. I decided that understanding code was going to be important so I started printing our PERL and SQL scripts from the site software and understanding how they worked while on the train home.”

And long story short, it eventually the company sponsored David to stay in England as their Web Developer and Online Marketing Officer.

By that point, he had met his future wife, Anna, and after a while, they decided to spend a bit of time in her home country, Sweden. “So I made the case to Mr Fothergill’s for me to work remotely from Sweden. They agreed and I worked from Sweden for nearly 18 months. In 2004, we moved to Australia, where I kept working for Mr Fothergill’s for another six years.”

This is taken in Sweden in 2003 before I moved there, in the old town of Uppsala. It was incredibly generous of the Mr Fothergill’s company to trial a remote working set up as it meant I could live out of the UK for a while and it worked well.


Falling into the perfect career

David finally left the company and with his next job ‘kind of fell into technical business communications’. After two years, this was discontinued, but this was a blessing in disguise: “I went and landed a job in Canberra at CSIRO Plant Industry, where they have a really strong science communication culture, and really know the art of getting people to engage with science.

“There’s a team of people who are bring the science to life in various ways for events, the web, social media and video and all that really tells the story of the scientific journey. That really stuck with me and I’ve been lucky to have been able to continue building up that career pathway ever since. It’s what I really enjoy. It’s a nice way to combine my passions.”

One of my favourite jobs was as a Science Communicator at CSIRO Plant Industry from 2010 and 2011. We held a team meeting down at the Animal Health Laboratory at Geelong where they conduct the high-security (Biosecurity Level 4) research which was an amazing experience. This is where CSIRO is now trialling its COVID-19 virus research where it must not escape from the labs. They’ve also done research on Ebola and Hendra viruses that led to their Hendra vaccine.

On Resilience and Connecting the Dots

“Looking back, some things have worked well and other things have not worked out so well”, David reflects.

“Living in England wasn’t really that easy. In hindsight it might sound like it all went swimmingly, but it was quite a hard time.

“When you’re at university, the feedback that you get is always quite positive and reassuring, and you think that this is the way the world works. Then you actually go and live out on your own, away from home for the first time, and you realise that, first of all, you don’t know anything. And you realise that you’re just a very, very small part of a very, very big world. That really was quite hard. That required and built resilience for me.”

This resilience is a strength that David continues to draw on.

“Resilience and persistence may sound like noble values, but really what it means is, you continue to get up every day and give up shot.”

David believes that his ability to always make connections has helped him see opportunities and turn them into a successful career.

“Sometimes you may find yourself doing things that you didn’t know you might enjoy”, he says.

“I never would have thought of doing web development or online marketing because my brother was always the computing guy. I was always the plants and writing kind of guy. When I went over to England, I knew not a single thing about websites or how any of that worked. Computers used to freak me out, but by being adaptable and open minded, I managed to connect it all into this nice package that I’m actually good at and enjoy doing most of the time.”

David’s other guiding principle is about always building connections – between ideas and people and links between things: “If you can find out what you have in common with somebody, you can always build a rapport with them, you can always build a relationship. If you take one idea and you stick it together with something else, you often end up with something that’s better than either on their own.”

The University’s annual Open Days are always a showcase of life at Western and I found that a plant giveaway was a natural way to create connections and get talking to visitors. I did over four Open Days or so and we always managed to hand out 300-400 plants. Some people returned the next year and told us their plants had made it through the first year. One thing about plants is that it is a great way to build connections.

David’s advice for those at the start of their own paths

Starting out in any trade does take time. It takes time to find the good opportunities that are out there.

“The most powerful pathway forward”, David believes, “is to keep thinking about how you can use what you’ve learned and turn it into something that helps somebody achieve their goals. Whether its business, relationships, friends, connections, colleagues – think about what others are trying to achieve and help them achieve that by using what you’ve learned, your experience and your creativity.

“Taking an interest, keeping up with the industry and finding out where the connections are is also key. A BBM scholarship can be a powerful catalyst. It opens up all sorts of opportunities for both business people and for young people, brings them together and paves the way to get the kind of experiences that you just can’t on your own.”

David recently completed his Executive Masters of Business Administration at Western Sydney University and found it a valuable opportunity to apply the skills and epxereinces gained over the last twenty years towards the next phase of his career. He is now at a point in his career where he wants to pay what he gained from his scholarship back for future applicants:

“This year I helped a young agricultural student to put together a BBM application and give it a good solid go. That is the full circle of where my scholarship took me, the opportunities it has given me and the skills I’ve gained along the way. A BBM scholarship is a great opportunity for young people, and I encourage everyone to give it a go.”

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