Winners at 'Competition in Biology' symposium

31 January 2014

PhD students Joshua Christie and Isobel Ronai are double-winners. Firstly in receiving a grant to attend the EMBL PhD symposium in Germany and secondly in winning poster prizes whilst there!

Isobel Ronai and Joshua Christie, poster prize winners at the 15th EMBL PhD symposium
Isobel Ronai and Joshua Christie, poster prize winners at the 15th EMBL PhD symposium

The European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) hosted the PhD symposium at their headquarters in Heidelberg last November. The theme for 2013 was Competition in Biology: the race for survival, from molecules to systems.

Biological competition is a theme in both Isobel's and Joshua's research work. "I presented a poster entitled 'Anarchy in the honey bee colony: the genetic basis of worker sterility'," said Isobel. "It outlined the results my PhD project so far." Isobel is studying an anarchistic strain of bees in which the workers are non-sterile. "I am manipulating gene expression using RNA interference and observing reproductive phenotype. I want to determine whether there is a relationship between the manipulated genesand ovary activation."

The competition in Joshua's work stems from the inheritance of mitochondria. Mitochondria are maternally inherited in most organisms, but what is wrong with Dad's organelles? The theory goes that if mitochondria were inherited from both parents they would be competition to the detriment of the cell as a whole. "I am using mathematical modelling to examine a novel explanation for the evolution of the uniparental inheritance of mitochondria," Joshua said. "I hope to experimentally validate the assumptions of this model using my study organism - slime mould."

The grant which took Joshua and Isobel to the meeting was provided by EMBL Australia and won on the basis of a ranked application. "We had to submit an application which was 'reviewed and ranked solely on the basis of qualification and scientific potential' by a selection committee," explained Isobel.

Joshua said, "The meeting was a great chance to meet PhD students and academics with similar interests to my own. It was also encouraging to find that many people seemed genuinely interested in talking to me about my research."

"I met really interesting people, both PhD students and plenary speakers, from all around the world," said Isobel. "Having the grant to travel to Europe also meant I could visit a laboratory group in Northern Germany who are doing cutting-edge research in honey bee genetics. The techniques they are developing, that I saw first-hand, should help revolutionise my research area."

"The poster prize was a great way to finish off such an enjoyable event," exclaimed Isobel. "I should mention that Australia dominated the prizes - we won over half of them!"

Isobel and Joshua both belong to the Social Insects lab in the School of Biological Sciences.