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Take 10 with...Dr Christina Painting

Dr Christina Painting, School of Biological Sciences, working in the field
Dr Christina Painting

Dr Christina Painting, from the School of Biological Sciences, gives us 10 minutes of her time to discuss the fundamental challenge for biologists - understanding why animals are so diverse in form and function.

1. Describe your research topic to us in 10 words or less.

Evolution of exaggerated animal traits such as weapons and ornaments.

2. Now explain it in ‘layman’s’ terms!

My research uses insects and arachnids to understand patterns of species diversity, with a particular focus on the evolution of structures that males use to fight for or attract mates. Understanding why animals are so diverse in form and function is a fundamental challenge for biologists and I’m currently contributing to this by working on weapon evolution in several groups of quirky endemic New Zealand insects and arachnids.

3. Describe some of your day-to-day research activities.

It depends on what time of the year you ask me that question. During the summer I can often be found in the forest doing field observations of New Zealand giraffe weevils or harvestmen. In my current project this involves a lot of night work because harvestmen are nocturnal. Otherwise I’m in the lab identifying or measuring specimens, at my desk writing grants and papers, meeting with students or in a quiet spot with a cuppa planning new projects.

4. What do you enjoy most about your research?

I love that I get to work on creatures that have often never been studied before, meaning that I get to start from scratch to figure out their mating system. This is challenging but leads to exciting new discoveries and you quickly become the world expert on that particular species! I also feel at home in the bush and am very grateful that this is a large part of my job. Sitting for hours in the bush watching an insect can be a little tedious, but then you observe something exciting and it makes it all worthwhile. I also love the additional wildlife that you encounter by sitting still in nature for long periods.

5. Tell us something that has surprised you in the course of your research.

I am surprised by how little we know about our endemic insects and arachnids, despite them making up a large proportion of New Zealand’s biodiversity. When I started my PhD on the New Zealand giraffe weevil there was so little known about this species that I didn’t even know if they were diurnal or nocturnal and if I would be able to find enough of them to work on. We are still yet to discover and name a large number of New Zealand insects, let alone learn about their ecology.

6. How have you approached any challenges you’ve faced in your research?

A very recent challenge for me is learning how to balance motherhood and my research. I previously relied on long periods away from home in remote locations to collect data, but at the moment this isn’t practical with a young baby at home.

7. What questions have emerged as a result?

This challenge has made me think about equity issues for parents of young children in field biology, particularly those in the unstable postdoc years. I’m currently planning new projects that will allow me to have field sites closer to home so I can do research and still be home in the evenings with my family. Luckily, I’ve demonstrated giraffe weevils to be a fantastic model in sexual selection studies and I can work on them less than an hour from the university. I am excited to be starting a new line of research addressing the relative importance of pre- and post-copulatory traits in shaping giraffe weevil reproductive fitness.

8. What kind of impact do you hope your research will have?

I address fundamental questions in evolutionary biology so my research doesn’t necessarily have any applied impact. However, I hope to contribute to the way we understand exaggerated trait evolution in animals. I also aim to raise the profile of New Zealand’s ‘small majority’ by telling fascinating natural history stories about our endemic arthropods. I really enjoy doing outreach and speaking to media about my work in a way that the public find interesting, and hope to change the way people perceive the role of insects in their lives.

9. If you collaborate across the faculty or University, who do you work with and how does it benefit your research?

So far my collaborations have mostly been with other colleagues in the School of Biological Sciences, but I’ve recently started working with Dane Gerneke at the Bioengineering Institute to take micro-CT scans of harvestmen to create 3D models of chelicerae (jaws). This allows us to use a high tech piece of equipment not used before in studies of weapon evolution to understand how these traits vary and diverge in shape among species.

10. What one piece of advice would you give your younger, less experienced research self?

I would say to find yourself a couple of good mentors and learn from them how to navigate the path to being a scientist. I quickly learnt that there is no one way to be an academic and not many people have followed a straight path! I include mentors that are helping me to learn how to balance motherhood and academia, as well as those that have taught me how to be a good supervisor, colleague and scientist.

Dr Christina Painting was honoured to be a finalist in the 2018 Zonta Science Award. Read more about our researchers in the Take 10 with... series