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How is it that villagers in remote Himalayan communities can show remarkable resilience in the face of extreme poverty, while rates of depression, anxiety and suicide are at all time highs in nations with great material wealth? This is the question I began grappling with seven years ago, while working for the United Nations World Food Programme in Nepal.
Depression is a debilitating and recurring condition set to become the number one cause of the global disease burden by 2020 (World Health Organisation). Depression also significantly increases the risk of death by suicide, which is the leading killer of young people in Australia, particularly in disadvantaged communities and minority groups. Alarmingly, even for those who can access treatment, our best evidence-based psychological and pharmacological therapies only work for a third of them, with a high rate of relapse.
While in Kathmandu, the chance discovery of an Economist article about a promising new experimental therapeutics technique called “cognitive bias modification” led me to Professor Colin MacLeod’s lab at UWA in 2012. Through my Psychology Honours research, I learnt that an array of rose-tinted biases protects us against stress and adversity, and such features of the healthy mind collapse in the presence of depression and anxiety.
What particularly fascinated me was how depressive states altered our capacity to access past emotional experiences and to simulate hypothetical ones in the future. This propelled me to complete a PhD at the Medical Research Council Cognition & Brain Sciences Unit, University of Cambridge. At Cambridge, working within the Mental Imagery & Emotional Disorders Lab directed by Professor Emily Holmes, I learnt about the neural basis of mental imagery, and how mental simulations of the past and future shaped our emotions, motivations, decisions and behaviours in everyday life.
My research as a Forrest Fellow at UWA will focus on how mental imagery representations of past and future experiences can be leveraged to alleviate depression and build resilience. To do this, I will be the first to bring together insights from the cognitive neuroscience of memory and emotion, as well as social and moral cognition, to the field of clinical psychology. Ultimately, my Fellowship research will drive the development of an innovative cognitive training tool with the potential to enhance depression treatment efficacy by restoring the wanting and seeking of rewarding experiences in daily life.
I am extremely grateful and proud to be an inaugural Forrest Research Fellow. I believe psychological scientists have a unique and vital role to play in generating novel solutions to complex and large-scale problems in society. I am attracted by the Forrest Foundation’s bold and global vision that values knowledge discovery and propagation above geographic and disciplinary divides.
Upon returning to UWA, I am joining Australian Laureate Professor Colin MacLeod and his team of postdocs and students at the Centre for the Advancement of Research on Emotion (CARE), as well as the broader vibrant research community within the School of Psychology and affiliated research institutes.
Animal behaviour has fascinated me since I was a child when I used to spend most of my time observing animals on my family’s little farm just outside Rome. During 10 years of research experience this passion has grown even stronger. As a result, I have received two B.Sc. and one M.Sc. from Sapienza University of Rome (Italy), a Master’s degree from the International University of Andalusia (Spain), and a Ph.D from the Humboldt University of Berlin (Germany) in the fields of biology and life sciences.
I believe that science is especially important when it is applied directly to real-world problems and policies. I thus seek to expand my expertise on behaviour, physiology, and life history of animals and explore their response to climate change. Global warming indeed threatens biodiversity, especially in freshwater ecosystems where the ability of animals to disperse is limited. However, while most organisms do not tolerate environmental changes well, others perceive such changes as ecological opportunities. The spread of invasive species accelerates the general loss of biological diversity worldwide with tremendous costs to the ecosystem functioning and ultimately to society. Understanding the general mechanisms underlying the adaptive capacities of invasive species and the evolutionary bases for their ecological success is thus crucial for developing efficient plans for combatting their diffusion and predicting their impact on native species in a changing world.
My project aims to investigate the role of phenotypic plasticity in the ecological success of invasive fishes over native Australian ones to predict species response to rising water temperatures, as expected at the end of this century. In addition, my research will integrate an interdisciplinary component at the interface between animal behaviour and engineering to investigate whether bioinspired robots can effectively represent a novel, autonomous, and effective solution to selectively combat invasive species in Australian freshwater ecosystems. Australia’s unique richness in endemic species compared to other continents makes it the best possible location for me to study the dynamics of animal invasions under climate change to inform management plans and safeguard endangered ecosystems. The Forrest Fellowship offered me a unique opportunity to join The University of Western Australia, a leading university for scientific research in the fields of ecology and evolutionary biology. I am very honoured for being awarded one of the inaugural Forrest Fellowships and I sincerely thank the Forrest Foundation for its generosity. Ad maiora!