School of Biological Sciences
Meet our staff
As a research-intensive school of high international standing, we know people are our most vital resource. Meet some of our academic staff and hear about their research and why they love to work at the School of Biological Sciences.
- » Dr Verne Lee, Research Fellow in Structural Biology
- » Jacqueline Beggs, Associate Professor in Ecology and Entomology
- » David Goldstone, Senior Lecturer, Structural Biology
- » Rochelle Constantine, Director, Joint Graduate School in Coastal and Marine Science, Senior Lecturer School of Biological Sciences and Institute of Marine Science
- » Alok Mitra, Associate Professor, Structural Biology and academic leader of SBS’ cryo-electron microscopy facility
- » Anthony Phillips, Senior Lecturer
- » Margaret Stanley, Senior Lecturer in Ecology
- » Mat Goddard, Associate Professor in Ecology, Evolution and Behaviour
- » Jessie Jacobsen, Research Fellow
- » Debbie Hay, Professor, Lecturer in Biochemistry and Pharmacology
Dr Verne Lee, Research Fellow in Structural Biology
BSc in Biology, MSc in Molecular Biology, PhD in Structural Biology (all Auckland)
I have always had a sense of wonder about the intricacies of life and the beauty that is everywhere in biology – from the smallest molecule to the largest whale.
My research focuses on understanding secondary metabolites from a number of agriculturally-important microbes. Secondary metabolites are bioactive molecules that microbes use for defence, communication and nutrient acquisition. Understanding these secondary metabolites and how they work is really important for understanding how the microbes interact with other organisms and the world around them. Also, many secondary metabolites are used as medicines such as antibiotics.
A big part of my research is on secondary metabolites from methanogens, the microbes that produce methane in the guts of livestock. This research is aimed at coming up with ways to reduce these methane emissions, which make up more than a third of New Zealand's greenhouse gas emissions.
Most of my working days involve setting up experiments in the lab, analysing data on the computer and helping graduate students. I also spend a lot of time reading and writing, keeping abreast with the developments in the field and letting others know what we have discovered.
Something I really love about my job is the sense of discovery when you find out something new – and that 'aha' moment when something that didn't quite fit together finally makes sense.
To do well in the biological sciences, you need the ability to persevere when things get tough, creativity to come up with new ideas and solve problems, curiosity about how the world works and a strong sense that science makes a real difference in the world
Jacqueline Beggs, Associate Professor in Ecology and Entomology
BSc in Zoology (Auckland); MSc in Zoology (Auckland); PhD in Zoology, (Auckland)
A lot of my research looks at the role invertebrates play in important environmental processes such as pollination, decomposition, and bio control – controlling pests like insects and weeds using other organisms.
A major theme has been to evaluate the impact that introduced social wasps have in native ecosystems. We discovered that these nasty invaders attack at many different levels; they devour vast quantities of native insects and honeydew (a sugary sticky liquid secreted by native scale insects as they feed on plant sap). They can remove so much honeydew that they disrupt nutrient cycling and leave none for birds to feed on.
In urban areas, students and I have looked at issues such as the value of city and town reserves in maintaining native invertebrate populations, and the movement of kererū where their habitat is fragmented by urban development, as this has implications for the role they play in dispersing seeds of both weeds and native plants. In the photo, I’m watching a stick insect.
What I most enjoy about my job is the diversity, but particularly working with post-graduate students. I love doing field work and the amazing places we get to visit: from banding Adélie penguins in Antarctica, to counting ants in the Namib Desert in Africa or setting up insect traps on Motuora Island in the Hauraki Gulf. However, I seldom manage much time in the field these days – my time is increasingly tied up with admin. I might be writing bids for research grants, assessing the progress of PhD students, reviewing manuscripts, marking theses, preparing lectures, or sitting on the Biosecurity Ministerial Advisory Committee.
If there is something about my personality or beliefs that suits me to the biological sciences, I’d have to say I’m a Type A personality – I have a strong drive for excellence, but that’s blended with the belief that a holistic approach is required to solve many of the world’s problems. Ecology is the ideal discipline for me, as it seeks to understand connections and interactions between species and ecosystems.
David Goldstone, Senior Lecturer, Structural Biology
BSc; MSc in Biological Sciences; PhD in Structural Biology (all Auckland)
As a structural biologist, I try to understand how biological systems work at a molecular level. To do this, we grow tiny crystals of purified proteins and use X-ray crystallography to work out how each atom within the protein is positioned and how they contribute to the protein’s function.
I have a constant urge to understand how things work and find the answer. I love the thrill of discovery – that moment you get a result no one else has ever seen.
My current research is looking at how cells respond to retroviral infection. Approximately 10% of the human genome is made of sequences that come from retroviruses. These viruses are distantly related to HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. This points to humans being exposed to retroviruses throughout evolution, and because of this, our cells have developed mechanisms to recognise retroviruses as they enter a cell and block infection.
I am looking at how one of these systems, a protein called Trim5a, recognises the inner-shell of the HIV virus and blocks infection. In Rhesus macaques, Trim5a is able to completely block infection, while the human version of the protein doesn’t quite work well enough.
To do well in this field, I think you need constant curiosity and a good dose of imagination. It also helps to have a sound understanding of biology, chemistry and mathematics.
Rochelle Constantine, Director, Joint Graduate School in Coastal and Marine Science, Senior Lecturer School of Biological Sciences and Institute of Marine Science
BSc in Zoology and Psychology (Massey), MSc (1st Class Hons, Auckland), PhD (Auckland)
My time is divided between lecturing and running a small research group that takes a multi-disciplinary approach to understanding the ecology, distribution, population size and habitat use of whales and dolphins.
Our research is used to help understand the population status of many different species of cetaceans as well as having applications in understanding human impacts on them.
Every day is different, but there’s usually a mixture of writing papers, delivering lectures, conducting fieldwork – although not as often as I used to, it’s now the job of the post-graduate students – attending meetings, and writing grants to fund our research.
In the photo, I am near Raoul Island in the Kermadecs, trying to get a DNA sample from a humpback whale. Department of Conservation marine scientist and University of Auckland PhD student Clinton Duffy is holding the biopsy rifle.
What I most enjoy about my job is working collaboratively with other scientists who bring different skills to help answer questions about these hard-to-study animals. When we work together, we come up with some cool ideas – and almost always get a better answer than if I had just worked alone.
I also like watching the post-grad students flourish – I have been really fortunate to have excellent students.
To learn more about Rochelle’s work, watch the video Sightings, by Bruce Foster.
Alok Mitra, Associate Professor, Structural Biology and academic leader of SBS’ cryo-electron microscopy facility
MSc (Delhi University); PhD (Indian Institute of Sciences, Bangalore)
Proteins and assemblies of proteins are the workhorses in a living cell. I am curious about and fascinated by complex protein complexes and their specific and finely-tuned biological activities. My research focuses on understanding how they work.
To do this, we record high-resolution images of biomolecules at very low temperatures by cryo-electron microscopy, and use computer-assisted image-processing. This technique allows for highly detailed three-dimensional visualisation of the individual molecules, which can lead to better mechanistic understanding of their function.
I am a physicist by training, and as a PhD student I became very interested by the facets of science at the interface of physics and biology. As a structural biologist, I have the opportunity to meld aspects of the two disciplines in my research.
We study a multitude of biological systems that have considerable biotherapeutic potential. For instance, our study of poxvirus maturation and how antibodies neutralise anthrax, which is a deadly bacterial disease, could lead to more effective ways to control these diseases. Our research on anti-feeding prophage, a complex protein machine that kills New Zealand grass grub by injecting a toxin, could lead to designed, chemical-free pest control and, in medicine, to nanoscale devices for delivering antigenic proteins in immunotherapy. Our work on adiponectin, a hormone that has an insulin-sensitising effect, could lead to more potent agents for alleviating obesity-related disorders.
I believe that hard work and a dedicated pursuit of seeking solutions to challenging, contemporary biological questions are essential academic attributes to succeed.
Anthony Phillips, Senior Lecturer
BSc (Victoria University), MBChB (Distinction, Otago), PhD (Auckland)
My day, which has usually begun by 6am, is busy and varied but always interesting. I work within the School of Biological Sciences as a Senior Lecturer and Director of the Applied Surgery and Metabolism Laboratory. I am also a Senior Research Fellow within the University Department of Surgery and Senior Surgical Medical Officer with the New Zealand Liver Transplant Service at Auckland City Hospital.
What I enjoy about my work is its applied nature to human disease; the variety, spanning from commercial development of drugs to our “blue-skies” research programmes; but most importantly, the great people I get to work with.
One of my research interests is the role of lymphatic fluid in critical illness. We think lymph carries specific toxins from the intestine to the heart and lungs, which can make these organs fail in very sick people. Through analysing this fluid and altering the flow and composition of this toxic lymph, we are hoping to devise treatments to prevent organ failure in critically ill patients.
I am also researching why livers containing high proportions of fat perform poorly when they undergo transplantation or other types of surgery, and how we can offset these detrimental effects. Understanding this biology is important now that New Zealand has such high rates of obesity.
I am also often on call to help with transplant-related surgery – either retrieving the liver and kidneys from an organ donor, or transplanting them into a recipient. You can never predict when that call will happen, except that it’s almost inevitably late at night.
Wound healing is another interest and I am Medical Director for CoDa Therapeutics Inc, a US-based biotechnology company spun out from the University of Auckland and University College London, and I’m involved in developing a drug product to heal chronic wounds more quickly.
I’d say that the personal and academic attributes it takes to succeed in the biological research field include attention to detail; curiosity; single-mindedness; independent thinking; organisation; dedication – and a sense of wonder. The latter is important – nature is always more mysterious and complex than you think, and your experiments will seldom go the way you plan!
Margaret Stanley, Senior Lecturer in Ecology
BSc(Hons) (Otago), PhD (Monash)
Much of my research focuses on how to monitor and control pest species. For example, Argentine ants form massive ‘super-colonies’ and hoover up other insects, which negatively affects soil function and decomposition in forests. Feral pigs have similar impacts; they are just like rotary hoes in the way they disturb the soil in the Waitakere Ranges.
My students and I are now researching different methods of catching and controlling common myna and sulphur-crested cockatoos in the Auckland region. The bird in the photo is a rainbow lorikeet, which is another invasive bird.
What I really enjoy about my work is that it makes a difference. We can provide scientific evidence that certain exotic species are having an impact on native ecosystems, and this enables authorities to legally declare them pests and take action to manage them, or we can develop and test tools to monitor and control pests. I also really enjoy guiding postgraduate students through their research projects and seeing them fledge into young researchers.
I have always been curious about natural systems and plants and animals. And I’d say that curiosity, as well as creativity, analytical thinking and always asking questions are essential attributes for people wanting to make a career in the biological sciences. If you’re at secondary school, don’t forget to take statistics – you’ll need it in a career in biology.
Mat Goddard, Associate Professor in Ecology, Evolution and Behaviour
BSc Jnt (Hons) (North Wales), PGDip (Leicester), PhD (Imperial College)
I am a research biologist because I find the workings of the natural world wonderfully curious; I’m constantly amazed by the adaptations that organisms display. I want to understand the rules that underlie ecological and evolutionary processes.
I take an experimental approach and work mostly with yeast, which are a group of single-celled fungi; they are ideal because they are abundant in nature yet may be maintained and manipulated in the lab. Their cellular structure and DNA are organised in the same way as all higher organisms; yeasts even have sex, and their rapid reproduction means I can conduct experimental evolution in the lab.
I am also interested in the yeasts involved in winemaking, as the ecological aspects to my work are very relevant. Fungi are important in terms of vine growth – many vine diseases are fungal – and in wine fermentation, which is yeast-driven. For example, we have shown that New Zealand harbours a genetically distinct population of the main yeast species that ferments wine, and that yeasts associated with vineyards and ferments differ in different regions within New Zealand. This provides the industry with tools to improve quality.
What am I most proud of? I have been involved in studies that have significantly contributed to our understanding of ecology and evolution, but it is the interaction with young MSc and PhD research students, and helping them develop, that is really gratifying.
If secondary school students asked me what personal and academic attributes it took to succeed in this field, I’d boil it down to three words: passion, originality and determination.
Jessie Jacobsen, Research Fellow
BSc(Hons) / PhD (Auckland)
My research aims to uncover the genetic causes of autism. Autism affects 1% of New Zealand’s population – that’s more than 40,000 people – and we know that it has a strong but complex genetic component.
A typical day for me involves time in the lab doing experiments and analysing results – for example, analysing DNA sequences – and writing them up, hopefully for publication. I also write grant applications so we can expand our research programme.
I enjoy being able to ask questions and trying to figure out the best way to go about getting an answer. It’s pretty exciting to get a result or a piece of the puzzle. I also enjoy the fact that our research might ultimately help affected families.
Great research is done with great people, and I have been particularly fortunate to have wonderful scientists and friends to work with. A group of us recently launched a new autism research initiative called minds for minds, in an effort to try and get researchers, clinicians and the community to work together to better understand autism. This has been particularly exciting and rewarding.
I think the drive to know new things and the desire to want to make a difference for human health are two of my personality traits that are useful in this sort of work. I can also be a bit stubborn, which can help stop you walking away from a difficult experiment.
I chose to do my study at the University of Auckland because it’s a great place to learn. The passion of my lecturers and, later, my supervisors made me realise just how exciting scientific research can be.
Debbie Hay, Professor, Lecturer in Biochemistry and Pharmacology
BSc (Hons) (Sheffield), PhD (Imperial College)
I am hoping that my current research will lead to new treatments to fight cancer. I’m a pharmacologist by training, and I’ve always had a strong interest in developing new medicines. One of the hallmarks of cancer is the increased formation of blood vessels, called angiogenesis, and this process is mediated, in part, by a particular hormone. We know that by inhibiting this increased formation of blood vessels we can stop tumour growth, so we are looking at how we can reduce the influence of this hormone. It’s a potential first step towards identifying a new drug capable of halting tumour growth.
I am also leading research that we hope will help combat migraine and obesity, which are also major health problems in New Zealand. And I have always had an interest in the chemical changes inside cells that trigger colour change in animals. For example, how exactly do chameleons change colour?
My days are very varied. Some days, I am lecturing to undergraduate students. Other days I am helping my postgraduate students, or conducting experiments in the lab. Often I am at my desk writing up research for publication. Most of the research from my laboratory is published, ensuring that others out there in the world can use it to help their own research endeavours.