Time is a precious thing for Distinguished Professor Neil Gemmell—little wonder, given the breathtaking scope of his academic achievements and endeavours. Yet he still believes that just a few minutes a day could make all the difference to wider public appreciation of science and technology.
The renowned evolutionary and reproductive biologist has recently been awarded the Royal Society Te Apārangi’s Hutton Medal for a career’s worth of groundbreaking research. And while Neil’s openly “humbled” to be so recognised, he’s quick to point out that the “ongoing push for new discovery” has been a group effort not a solo pursuit. Indeed, he reckons that the “stunningly good work” New Zealand’s scientists undertake now “needs to go more mainstream”.
“Science and knowledge need to be valued as highly as we value sports,” he says. “Wouldn’t it be cool if there was a five-minute run down of science and technology each night on the news as there was for sports?”
And talking of time, it’s a mark of Neil’s heartfelt desire to communicate about science that he’s given up more than five minutes of this valuable commodity to talk to the GO Blog about his life and his work. (Thanks Neil! It’s much appreciated, especially in the busy build up to Christmas and the New Year.)
We began by asking him how he keeps up with such an ever-changing subject as modern evolutionary biology. His answer was prompt and refreshingly honest: “It is not easy!”
As well as a heap of reading and “a ton of email alerts”, plus conferences and webinars when he can, Neil also receives constant new information “from students and colleagues working in the [various] fields”. Social media, too, is put to good, productive use.
“My Twitter network often lets me know about upcoming work weeks in advance of publication, sometimes months in the case of pre-prints.”
At the same time, however, he’s aware of the downside of such a full-on approach to work, in particular that “you almost never turn off—there is always something you are planning, working on or desperately trying to finish”.
“It can feel like a bit of a treadmill and the trick, not yet mastered, is to know how to get on and off without losing momentum. That said, my lifelong passion is spending time on or near the ocean—I love to fish, sail and generally muck about in boats.”
Just as important, he says, is spending time with family who, while “not quite as aquatically-focused” as he is, are always “a lot fun to just hang out with, whether at home or on holidays”.
Given this love of the sea, though, it’s no surprise to learn that Neil originally wanted to study marine biology while still at school.
“However, genetics was the hot area as I entered university, it was something I was good at, and I became intrigued by the idea of linking the two areas—if you look at my research there has been a strong focus on things marine.”
Indeed, in bringing together marine and genetic science, Neil recently made world headlines with an environmental DNA (eDNA) study of Scotland’s famed Loch Ness. While the loch’s celebrated monster was not recorded, the project drew the attention of a huge global audience to eDNA and its ability to monitor biodiversity in novel environments. Again, it’s about public awareness of the power and potential of science.
Yet even as a youngster, Neil knew that his own “passion and aptitude for learning” was the exception and not the rule.
“Let’s just say that academic achievement was not widely appreciated by classmates (sadly this continues) so I tended to keep a low profile,” he says. It’s an experience that perhaps explains why popularising science is now such a focus, with genetic literacy a “top priority”.
“Helping people to understand, prepare for and influence the many ways genetics is already impacting our lives in health, in food, and in our environment needs to be to the fore, because the new genetic technologies now emerging are going to affect us in myriad ways.”
And this is especially true for New Zealand, Neil says.
“I do think we need to focus more on understanding and protecting our environment—Aotearoa New Zealand is a unique treasure that we have responsibility to care for and doing so will generate many benefits.”
Educating and enthusing the next generation about science and technology is therefore vital “as we navigate a genetic future that is already changing our world”.
“We can either follow passively or choose to lead,” Neil says.
The first step, therefore, is to tackle our present-day challenges.
“Obviously right now climate change and multiple other factors place us on the brink of massive ecological collapse,” he says. “I think in 20 years things will be worse, but that we will have generated the technologies, some of these genetic, needed to avert the worst of the current climate scenarios. Perhaps in 50 years we will begin to see things improving on that front.”
And while that may seem far off today, Neil’s hope for the future “is for a better tomorrow”, for people and for the natural world.
“Our healthcare will be better than it ever has been, likely with tailored genetic editing (DNA and RNA) being used in multiple therapeutic areas, perhaps even leading to individual enhancements,” Neil suggests. “And primary production will reach efficiencies unheard of—likely using a variety of synthetic biology approaches to literally manufacture food from simple compounds with minimal environmental impact.
On the environmental front, “we will have documented almost all known life using sequencing,” Neil believes.
“We will better understand these living components of our biosphere and perhaps have some understanding of their complex interactions in simple ecosystems and communities. Perhaps we will even have reconstructed species once extinct, but in doing so likely learn through that process to value more the species and natural systems that we have so recklessly destroyed at unprecedented rates over the Anthropocene.”
It’s a future vision that’s as inspiring and as broad as Neil Gemmell’s own research career to date.
Written by Mick Whittle
To read more about Neil’s latest award, the Hutton Medal, and the groundbreaking research that led to it, follow these links:
Congratulations to the winners of the teaching programme awards for 2020!
In 1972 the first Genetics course was started here at Otago by Associate Professors Ann Wylie and Russell Poulter, consisting of a single third-year paper. Now, almost 50 years later, this has grown to become a degree program drawing expertise from eight departments across the University.
Associate Professor Wylie began teaching at the university in the Department of Botany during her honours year in 1945. After leaving to complete her PhD at the University of London she returned to Otago in 1961 taking on a position teaching cytology and genetics within the Department of Botany.
Despite her background in Botany she, together with Associate Professor Poulter, developed a course that covered the rapidly expanding breadth of Genetics including the recently described rII bacteriophage, the lac operon, Aspergillus, Drosophila, and human cytogenetics, many of which remain important components of the degree programme to this day. Associate Professor Poulter recalls “Lectures were in the Benham Theatre in Zoology which had steeply tiered desks. No white-boards, no projectors, no photocopiers (handouts were printed). Lectures began by cleaning the board, and writing on the board also involved turning your back to the class. As a result amongst the students, the art of making paper darts out of handouts was highly developed.” Associate Professor Wylie took this in her stride and was well known for the rigorous standards to which she held her students.
In honour of her contribution, in 2005 the Board of Studies for Genetics established the Ann Wylie Prizes in Genetics to encourage excellence amongst students majoring in Genetics. These are awarded to the top achieving students in 300 and 400 level genetics papers,
We have been working hard behind the scene for the past couple of months to produce our very first magazine.
‘On the GO 2020′ celebrates and profiles some of our members and the events we have held this year. We hope that you find it an interesting read!
Hunting, fishing, forestry. Not the first things that spring to mind when you come across the phrase “quantitative genetics”. But that’s until you come across Otago Senior Scientist Phillip Wilcox (Ngāti Rakaipaaka, Rongomaiwahine, Ngāti Kahungunu), who is (you guessed it!) a quantitative geneticist.
Not that Phil himself would have thought that’s where life would lead when he began work with the New Zealand Forest Service after first getting his forestry degree.
With deer culling part of the job description, Phil’s early career is ‘unusual’ for someone who now lectures in the Department of Mathematics and Statistics. But more than that, the work also exposed him to many of the harsh realities of life in some of New Zealand’s more isolated towns.
“My forestry experience [in the Central North Island] put me in small Māori communities,” Phil says. “And it left me with a deep sense of the challenges that these communities face.”
Fast forward to today—via a PhD at North Carolina State University in the States – and the desire to find “practical ways of making a difference” for Māori remains one of Phil’s main motivations. And that’s where modern genetic techniques come in.
“I see these technologies as having almost emancipatory power to Māori communities,” Phil explains. “We’re finding genes that cause or contribute to disease, and some of these genes are specific to Māori communities. Gene-based interventions can therefore be developed for those communities — it’s a tool in the kete (basket) that can and has had real benefits.”
One project Phil’s been heavily involved with is cataloguing the DNA variants in Māori populations to create a “data set to enable faster disease diagnosis”. In fact, analysing this sort of data is what quantitative genetics is all about; for instance, using statistical analysis to estimate disease risk and so “help people make informed choices”.
“It’s a very practical way of making a difference,” Phil says. Indeed, the practical applications of quantitative genetics are so great that many of his students “are getting jobs before they graduate. It’s a data-rich day and age, and having analytical skills is more and more needed for good employment pathways.”
But genetics can also provide a pathway linking modern science to traditional tikanga Māori, Phil reckons, for example in the way that genetics “broadly aligns with the ancestry aspects of whakapapa”. This has allowed scientists like Phil to “open up conversations” and design “ethical frameworks” around genetic research that takes tikanga into account.
“I’ve been mentored by Māori community leaders, kaumātua, with a different view of the world than academics—it’s a wider, more holistic view where they have to deliver solutions for their people.”
As well as being “informed and inspired” by these Māori world views, Phil’s also now more appreciative of how tikanga-informed genetics has “the potential for greater good”.
“We don’t have to leave tikanga at the door; instead tikanga opens doors,” he says. “It’s been an honour and a privilege to be doing this at the flax roots.”
And as for Phil’s own outdoor roots, hunting, diving and fishing still keeps him in touch with whenua and whānau, and provides a welcome balance to a busy academic life.
Written by Mick Whittle
For a start, he’s a committed member of his local church, an outspoken advocate for both science and social issues, and, to
TOP it all, is the gene-editing spokesperson and Dunedin candidate for The Opportunities Party (aka TOP) in the 2020 General Election. He’s also studied philosophy, theology, management and maths on the way to earning his PhD in Biochemistry, which he now teaches at Otago.
Yet his seeming interest in anything and everything does have a central focus: improving human welfare.
“What drives me is goals-based problem solving,” he explains. “How can we fundamentally help human beings?”
It’s what drew him to biochemistry in the first place (that, and a liking for the “fancy name” when he first heard his two favourite school subjects, biology and chemistry, combined). In Ben’s view, to truly understand human beings, we must first understand the basis of life itself.
“The thing that really excites me [about molecular biology] is the level of understanding that this gives us for solving human problems – like when medicine applies the findings of biochemistry and genetics.”
Yet according to Ben, health isn’t the only area where such science can help “solve problems that affect people in a detrimental way”. For example, Ben points to environmental concerns such as pollution and climate change, and asks whether we could use gene-edited crops to reduce carbon emissions in agriculture, say, “or use designer microorganisms to consume plastic waste”
This also explains his interest in politics.
“The reason why we’re not equipping scientists to solve problems is because we have a political system that hasn’t featured scientists,” he reckons. But with the COVID crisis showing the crucial importance of scientific advice, Ben’s hopeful that the situation will improve.
Educating and informing people about science is, therefore, one of Ben’s major motivations; another is to highlight “all the diverse pathways that scientists can go into,” especially for school students thinking of studying science at Otago.
And for those that do, Ben encourages them to “take interest papers that give you a flavour a bit outside the norm”.
“It gets you in touch with other issues and rounds out your understanding,” he says. Who knows, it might also help to make the world a better place.
Written by Mick Whittle
Photos Supplied by Ben Peters
Now a Genomics Scientist at AgResearch’s Invermay Campus outside Dunedin, Kathryn is still working on sheep genetics – although, as she laughingly admits, it’s not what she ever thought she’d be doing, despite growing up on a farm in Southland.
While studying genetics and zoology at Otago, one of her more immediate plans was simply to see more of the world.
“I’d always wanted to do an exchange,” she explains. So when the opportunity came up to complete her zoology papers at the University of Glasgow, it seemed an obvious choice.
“All of my great-great-grandparents are from Scotland,” she says. “Glasgow is a great place and the university has a beautiful campus.”
(Just so you know, the University of Glasgow was founded in 1451 and is “the fourth-oldest university in the English-speaking world,” according to its official website.)
It was also the lure of travel that eventually took her to Ireland, to study at the Irish equivalent of AgResearch, Teagasc, once she’d completed her Master’s degree at Otago (researching the genetics of sheep resistance to stomach parasites).
“It was really good to go overseas again and get to experience a different working environment and a diversity of students.”
“It’s been a useful learning curve going from one specific project to being involved in many,” Kathryn reckons, with her current job dealing with everything from pneumonia and other livestock health issues to the effects of environmental stress (such as climate change) on plant and animal genes.
“I enjoy it because I get to combine genetics – applied genetics – to an industry that I care about,” she says.
And as an expert on animal disease, she’s even been able to get something positive from this year’s human coronavirus pandemic: “COVID has certainly made explaining disease transmission to farmers much easier.”
Written by Mick Whittle
Photos supplied by Kathryn McRae
This is an in-person Symposium with Zoom links between the main rooms in Dunedin, Christchurch and Wellington. Come along to hear some fantastic talks and a chat over lunch.
Registration is now open and we are accepting abstracts and nominations for awards until 30th November.
When mum-to-be Gemma McLaughlin packs up her bucket and spade, it’s not to practise sandcastle building for the baby who’s due in December. Rather, she’ll be off to dig up the nests of some of New Zealand’s most hated insects – the German or the common wasp – dressed in protective bee-suit and layers of sting-proof denim, with a fellow researcher coming along for added safety.
She’s even got a Facebook page where members of the public can contact her about nests on their property.
As to why Gemma’s so keen to collect these aggressive pests: her PhD focuses on potential genetic techniques to eradicate these non-native nuisances. Ironically, though, while her ultimate aim might be to kill off these invasive critters, much of the practical work in the lab actually involves keeping them alive. “They’re not like bees, no-one deliberately raises them,” she says.
So Gemma’s had to teach herself ‘Wasp Husbandry 101’ just to have live insects to study.
“The larvae are so demanding, so the workers are always foraging. They work so hard.”
This has given Gemma both plenty of work to do herself, raising broods of young wasps, and also “a begrudging respect” for the adults. Yet it also points to why these social insects are such a problem in New Zealand: that their incessant feeding robs many of our native species of food. Most infamous for consuming massive amounts of ‘honeydew nectar’ in beech forests (an important food for native animals), these wasps also eat substantial numbers of native insects.
“They’ve also been known to kill baby chicks and clear out the carcass,” Gemma reckons.
Helping get rid of this huge conservation threat, therefore, is one of Gemma’s main motivations. “I want to make a difference – I want to say I’m doing worthwhile science,” she says. “Our country is so unique.”
It’s what led Gemma into genetics in the first place, and to completing a Masters’ degree on the DNA of the Tasman booby, a remote island seabird.
“They were thought to be extinct and I was looking at whether the [recently-rediscovered] island populations were in need of genetic rescue.”
An OE in Europe then followed, including a job as a lab technician with a schizophrenia research group at King’s College, London. “I loved working there, it was really multinational,” Gemma recalls.
Re-motivated by the experience, she returned to New Zealand determined to undertake an applied genetics project “on invasive species management”. Wasps seemed an ideal candidate, with the idea of targeting these particular insects for genetic control (say, by turning off genes) a novel area of research.
“It feels strange, like I’m the first person doing this in the world,” Gemma says.
Of course, while actually applying genetic technology to pest control is still “years away”, Gemma’s already making a difference every time she turns up to dig up a wasp nest.
“I get to interact with the public a lot more than I would otherwise and get a better picture on their feelings towards genetic research.”
Written by Mick Whittle
Away from her work in genetics – currently as a “baby bioinformatician” – Anna Clark likes to meditate. But forget joss sticks and yoga poses; what Anna has in mind is the “adrenaline meditation” of surfing and white-water kayaking.
“It’s more a mindful awareness or definitely a mindful state of consciousness,” Anna explains, “forcing you into the present with every stroke, reading the water.”
While this might seem a world away from the biological data interpretation (the ‘bioinformatics’ bit) that’s been a large part of her Masters’ degree, for Anna there’s a clear link.
“Being out in the wilderness and experiencing the problems first-hand makes me appreciate why I’m doing this work,” she says. “When I am sitting in my office challenged by the fine details of my project, I have to bring myself back to the wider picture.”
And Anna’s ‘wider picture problems’ are increasingly urgent for New Zealand: the seemingly never-ending threats our native flora and fauna face from invasive pests, such as possums, stoats and rats.
She’s one of a growing number of young, “purpose-driven” geneticists who want to use their scientific know-how and enthusiasm for wider community benefit – in her case, through conservation.
“I came into this [studying genetics at Otago] with a problem I wanted to solve: pest control.”
Not that such a science-based ambition would have been obvious when she was growing up; her family were organic farmers wary of modern science, especially genetic modification. It was only when she joined a conservation group at high school and saw the damage done by invasive species, that Anna felt “a switch over” in her perspective, along with a growing curiosity about the social resistance to the topic of genetics.
“My parents taught us to be independent thinkers and I wanted to know what was going on here,” she says. “To understand the science [and ask] where’s the evidence for what works?”
However, she also appreciates “the emotional drive” behind opposition to genetic technology.
“There needs to be more engagement with affected communities who feel like their values are being disregarded,” she reckons. “I think it’s very, very important for scientists to have the courage to listen to others and to others’ opinions. We have a social obligation to engage, and to think and talk about our research.”
So Anna tries to walk the talk when she’s travelling around New Zealand having “off-the-cuff conversations” about saving our living taonga (treasured) species.
“I want to figure out why people believe what they do,” she says. “If I introduce the concept of genetics, most are really interested – and some even get frustrated that they haven’t heard of its potential application outside of food and medicine. I think these are vital conversations to be having, particularly for the recruitment of young scientists. Everyone wants to know the ‘why’ and ‘how’ your work applies to them.”
Yet while she’s happy to spread the word – “You can’t stop me talking about my research,” she laughs – she’s also aware of what she still doesn’t know.
“Career-wise, I’m taking it one step at a time,” she says. “I feel like I haven’t experienced enough to know just yet.”
So once she finishes up with her COVID-delayed Masters’ (focusing on genetic controls for rodents such as the Ship rat, Rattus rattus), a world of further learning opportunities beckons – along with some well-deserved white-water meditation, of course!
Written by Mick Whittle
A coin toss at the end of Josh Gilligan’s first year at Otago could, via an intriguing series of steps, help conserve a kaleidoscope of our native plants and insects.
And like any good story, this one’s full of unexpected twists and turns.
So let’s begin at the end – of Josh’s first year studying biology – when the decision to take genetics in second year came down to a simple toss of the coin.
“When I went to the first genetics lab and the lecturer said ‘we’re now going to mutate some bacteria’, I was immediately hooked,” Josh says. “I just fell in love with every weird aspect of it.”
Fast forward a few years, and Josh was “thinking of genes as Lego building blocks to work out how a protein functioned” during a summer studentship in synthetic biology. Next, it was Honours, looking at enzymes in glycolysis (the metabolic pathway where glucose is converted into energy).
“I found it exciting and engaging,” he says. “It gave me the drive to keep going, even when experiments failed.”
At the same time, Josh was training hard for his black belt in Taekwondo: “If you’re spending your whole day thinking, then it’s nice to blow off steam.”
Though in this case, ‘nice’ meant “fighting people for an hour straight”, followed by breaking boards “until nothing’s left in the tank”. And if martial arts sounds miles away from the genetics lab, Josh reckons there’s lots in common.
“Self-control, integrity, perseverance – and once you’ve fought 60 people in a row, a PCR [polymerase chain reaction] failing is no big deal.”
With his black belt safely (ahem) under his belt, Josh next became an assistant research fellow, whose initial job was tracking down pollen sources in samples of honey. This led to work in a project looking at molecular ways to knock out the genes of invasive vespula wasps, then eventually to another pest species, the European paper wasp.
Unlike vespula wasps, which can be controlled with poisoned bait, paper wasps “prefer live insects”. Unfortunately, Josh explains, in New Zealand, this means these wasps “killing and eating our native butterflies and moths”.
As the paper wasp is spreading southward through the country, this is bad news for much more than tasty native insects. “New Zealand’s ecosystem evolved with native pollinators, including our butterflies and moths,” Josh says – and if the pollinators go, then that threatens our native plants as well.
“I want to look at techniques to get rid of these wasps before they become a major issue,” Josh says. It’s a motivation that’s led to his proposed PhD: “How can I do that in a way that only affects wasps in New Zealand?”
His initial idea is “to try find genetic variants that are only found in New Zealand populations”.
And while this will take much more than simply tossing a coin, the determination and dedication that have got Josh this far will undoubtedly see him right.
(Did you know: The collective name for wasps is a ‘nest’ or ‘swarm’; for butterflies it’s a ‘kaleidoscope’ – and for moths it’s a ‘whisper’.)
Written by Mick Whittle