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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!
In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, the great plant breeder Norman Borlaug said that ‘Food is the moral right of all who are born into this world’. We now face two challenges to hold up this right: Man-made climate change and an ever-growing population. Due to plant breeding crop yields are still growing, but projections have shown that this growth is not enough by far to cover a growing population’s needs. We need to double food production by 2050 but for most major crops it looks like we will only increase yield by 50% if we do not change our approaches (Ray et al. 2013).
Since starting my PhD at the University of Queensland five years ago I have been working in the computational side of plant breeding. I have gained insights in the genetic background of important agricultural species such as canola, cabbages, wheat, chickpea, soybean, and pigeonpea, all the while helping plant breeders with their breeding programs.
I find plants fascinating: plants transform sunlight into energy, they work with bacteria to pick nitrogen out of thin air, they can live for hundreds of years, they look like female insects to trick males into pollinating them, they create acid to digest animals, and other ‘endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful’. Plant genomes are more complex and often much bigger than human genomes: for example, the wheat genome is 5 times bigger than the human genome.
My research at UWA will (among other things) focus on the genomics of wheat collections. These are older bread wheat cultivars collected from all over the world that are usually not being used in modern wheat breeding for many different reasons. These old varieties harbor unexplored genetic diversity such as novel and unknown resistance genes, genes linked to yield, or genes linked to salt tolerance. I will use genome sequencing technology to search for these genes in several forgotten wheat cultivars. I hope that my work will play a part in upholding the moral right of access to food.
I am very happy and excited to be a Forrest Fellow. I am thankful to the Foundation for giving me a place to pursue my research and for my family to live. I am also very happy to see that the Forrest Foundation is very supportive of my teaching efforts, providing me with rooms and infrastructure to hold programming and computational analysis workshops. I believe in teaching others since knowledge stored in one location is lost easily.
At UWA I will continue my work in the groups of Prof. Dave Edwards and Prof. Jacqueline Batley in the School of Biological Sciences.