Science portraits: biologists

Vanessa Kellermann, evolutionary biologist

Never underestimate the impact of an inspirational science teacher – just ask Vanessa Kellermann, who was lucky enough to be taught by two of them at her Melbourne high school, encouraging her to pursue a science degree. Now, after a two-year stint working in Denmark, the evolutionary biologist is back in Melbourne at Monash University to investigate how climate change affects insects.

Instead of looking at the long-term genetic changes a species might use to adapt to a warming climate, Kellermann studies “phenotypic plasticity”, or rapid change within an animal’s lifetime, to see how different species deal with day-to-day temperature spikes and dips.

“Leave a fly in a warm water bath and the next day it’ll be able to stand hotter temperatures,” she says, adding that epigenetics – factors that turn genes on or off – is likely to be responsible for this.

But not all species are equally flexible. Kellermann is testing the theory that tropical insects can’t cope with temperature swings as much as their temperate counterparts – they prefer to move en masse to a more hospitable area. By finding out what affects species distribution in a warming world, her work will help reveal how crop pollinators and disease carrying pests will act.

Will Feeney, field biologist

Snake catcher, bass guitarist, Arnhem Land tour guide – Will Feeney’s CV has some eclectic early entries. But Feeney has now settled on science and is beginning to hit his stride as a field biologist.

“I’m interested in seeing what wild animals do,” Feeney says, “then asking ‘why are they doing that?’” He is back in his native Queensland after a stint at the University of Cambridge.

One of his recent studies was on African cuckoo finches in  Zambia. Like all cuckoos they lay their eggs in the nests of other birds, leaving the others to rear their young. In this case the hapless parents are small songbirds called prinias. Although they do their best to drive the cuckoo finches away from their nests, the cuckoos have evolved crafty ways to sneak in.

For instance,  while looking through old specimens, Feeney noticed the cuckoo finch had evolved to resemble innocent weaver birds. But prinias were not fooled for long. They are now aggressive towards any weaver look-alikes.

Feeney writes about his research for magazines and science news websites. “Doing science is like making music,” he says. “It’s important to do it well, but it’s also important that other people get the chance to appreciate it.”

Phong Nguyen, developmental biologist

Phong Nguyen has had a life of firsts. The first-generation Australian was the first in his family to go to university. While  there, he was part of a team that was the first to uncover a mechanism by which an embryo starts to form its first blood cells. And now, in the first year after his PhD, that work has snared him a share in the 2015 Eureka Prize for Scientific Research.

Born in Melbourne to Vietnamese parents, Nguyen always loved reading and science. While working on his PhD at the Australian Regenerative Medicine Institute at Monash University, he studied mutant zebrafish. He and his colleagues noticed one type that had several times the normal population of “blood stem cells” – the reservoir from which animals make new blood cells throughout their life.

From the mutant fish, Nguyen and colleagues identified a gene responsible for forming “helper cells” in the embryo. By means of an unknown mechanism they attach to developing stem cells, turning them into blood stem cells. Understanding the process could have huge implications for leukaemia and other blood diseases.

“Imagine if you could cultivate a patient’s stem cells … grow them into blood stem cells, then pop them back in their body,” he says. “Cure for leukaemia” might even join his list of firsts one day.

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