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Based at Auckland University, Paulina’s work on unravelling the DNA of soil biota contributes to New Zealand Winegrowers’ Vineyard Ecosystems programme which began last year and is co-funded by the Ministry of Business, Innovation & Employment (MBIE) through its Science and Innovation Partnership programme.
For this Colombian born scientist, the research is a dream come true. She has long been an enthusiastic conservationist and is keen to provide the evidence that ecosystems are integrated, as opposed to operating independently of one another. That is, she says, very much how early civilisations such as the Greeks viewed the cosmos.
“They used to think very systemic, not systematic. They thought about how things are connected to one another. Then we started getting all this scientific knowledge, we saw genetics and physics (coming into the equation) and then we started studying individual things under a microscope per se, very like one thing at a time. But now we have so much knowledge we can go back and put everything together. We are getting back to the system and we are understanding how things actually work.”
Paulina’s BSc was undertaken at the University of California and saw her majoring in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, with her final semester thesis concentrating on hermit crabs in the Virgin Islands.
“I was interested in how humans actually distract animals from doing what they are supposed to be doing and hermit crabs were a good system to study,” she says.
She wanted to know whether the impact of high-pitched noises, such as boats and jet skis, were impacting on the reaction patterns and lifestyle of the crabs, and it became clear they were.
“Crabs have different responses when they see a predator. The first thing they do is run very quickly and when they see the predator is really close, they hide themselves in their shell. That is normal behavior. But what we noticed was when we had really loud noises around, those predator behaviours were taking significantly longer to happen. So they are that much more at risk when a lot of humans are around.”
Paulina is unlikely to come across any hermit crabs in her new research project. But the human impact on the soils that make up our vineyards is likely to provide some interesting data.
Her PhD is looking at the impact of synthetic pesticides on the biodiversity of New Zealand vineyards. Within the research, the soil samples from 24 vineyards, (12 in Hawke’s Bay, 12 in Marlborough – broken down according to vineyard management practices) will be thoroughly analysed right through to DNA. Soil is the perfect repository to study, she says, since, due to gravity, everything finally ends up on the ground.
“It is a really good repository for life and as a proxy for what lives in the specific environment,” Paulina says. “I am taking soil samples, extracting all the DNA, or the life blueprint from the soil and addressing that and looking to see what I get.”
The beauty of the Vineyard Ecosystems programme, is that it is over seven years.
“Because if I take DNA from soil from one place at one time, it is just a picture of that circumstance at that moment. Now we have the opportunity to do three tests a year for so many years, and we get to see different patterns. There may be yearly patterns, there may be bi-yearly patterns, we don’t know. It is so important right now because we do have evidence that biodiversity does change.”
What’s more, the findings will not be limited to the seven years of the programme, or the current research techniques available. All the soil samples are being frozen and held at Auckland University, so as new technology becomes available, even more in-depth tests can be conducted in the future.
“We have this information which is going to be unbelievably valuable when the technology changes. We have these (soil samples) from so many years and we will get to play with it and read it with different technology in a few years to see different things.”
While most people’s eyes would glaze over at the millions of DNA sequences found in the soil samples, Paulina is exactly the opposite. To say she is enthusiastic about the programme is putting it mildly. For her the DNA sequences are like discovering a pot of gold.
“Exactly. You see that coming and it’s like – Yes! There is so much there. It is not only the identity of organisms, but it is also evolutionary history. It is what you see in those bowls of letters, services that they provide to the ecosystem in which they live.
“It is personal to me,” she says. “It is something that is good for the entire country, which I love and it is good for nature. Every way I look at it, is something good. I wake up in the morning happy to come to work.”
However it does present a few challenges for her. Number one, not knowing very much about wine – although she says she is quickly remedying that particular challenge. But mostly, because she is adamant that she doesn’t want to be “a dead end for science”. Instead she wants to be able to communicate the information to those that can use it, in a way they can comprehend.
“My greatest challenge is learning to communicate the actual science behind the programme to the very different types of groups I need to communicate this to. I think it is one of the most important goals of my life as I grow as a scientist. Science doesn’t make sense if you don’t communicate it to everyone else. English is not my first language and this is something that is very complex. I want to learn to explain it simply and I want people to see it as beautiful as I see it.”