I am a first generation academic who was introduced to the nomadic lifestyle before I could even write full sentences. I’ve grown up in three different countries (Belgium, The USA, and New Zealand), and have since also lived in Norway and Austria. After finishing high school in sunny Nelson, NZ, I moved down to Dunedin and The University of Otago to pursue a Bachelor of Science majoring in Genetics. Along the way, I also studied some Psychology, Portuguese, Zoology, and Biochemistry. Then I moved to Norway for about a year and a half, and now I’m doing my PhD here in Austria.
What do I study and why should you care?
My main research interest has always been evolution; why do we see so many weird, beautiful forms of life on our planet? There are lots of ways to look at evolution, from morphology (how things look) to ecology (where things live and how they interact), but I was always captivated by genetics, or what’s in the DNA that makes things the way they are and how does this change to affect morphology and evology? My first research projects looked at how genetics and development of animals interact to produce the diversity of life we see today. Although I was interested in a basic developmental process in a zooplankton, evodevo research has, and can continue to contribute to knowledge about things like developmental disease and cancer.
Now, I’ve kind of shifted gear with my research focus, but the main questions are still related to evolution and can still tell us a lot about our own biology. The species I work with now has some pretty big variations in genome size. This means that different individuals have very different amounts of DNA in each cells, which is really weird for a single species of animal. But, if we look across the whole tree of life, genome size varies A LOT. We know now that this is mostly due to “non-coding” DNA, or DNA that isn’t in a gene, or makes a protein that the cells ultimately use. Some of this DNA has been shown to do things like regulate genes, but we still don’t know what the vast majority of non-coding DNA does, if anything. Hopefully, by studying changes in genome size in a single species, I can learn a little bit more about what non-coding DNA does or contributes to a creature!
For my Honours project, which in New Zealand is similar to a Masters, I joined the Dearden Lab at the University of Otago and got a crash course in evo-devo. Here, I looked at the early development of the anterior-posterior axis in a rotifer species. I was looking at the expression patterns of two different marker genes for these regions. During my time in the Dearden Lab I also helped with the annotation of the Bumblebee Genome. While in Dunedin, I also completed a summer internship at AgResearch looking at genomic causes of a specific phenotype in sheep.
After some time off, helping my parents with their beverage company, and working in a cheese factory (it’s much like a lab, just on a bigger scale, and you can eat the product instead of publishing it!), I started my PhD. I am currently in the Stelzer Lab, again working with rotifers (a happy coincidence, I’m not picky about my study species), but this time looking into genome size evolution. The lab group works on different aspects of genome size changes and biology within this species complex, but I am currently working on discovering the genomic causes of these changes. This means I’m doing a lot of comparative genomics. Watch this space for results soon!