An insight into PhD life at Cawthron
Laura Biessy – Cawthron PhD student (Drs Susie Wood and Kirsty Smith (Cawthron), Prof. Ian Hawes (Waikato) – PhD supervisors)
Focus of study: Tetrodotoxin
Part of the important work undertaken at the Cawthron Institute is to support the next generation of scientific minds, including students completing their PhD studies. Meet Laura Biessy: Cawthron employee and current PhD student. Laura is from Lyon, France and came to Cawthron in 2013 to complete her Masters in Environmental Toxicology. Laura successfully completed her Masters by undertaking a 6-month internship with Dr Louis Tremblay, an Environmental Toxicologist at Cawthron.
While based at Cawthron and gaining the laboratory and research experience she needed to complete her Masters, Laura fell in love with the Nelson Tasman region and the science and vitality of Cawthron and decided to stay on as an employee.
She started working fulltime as a research technician with the Environmental Technologies group in 2014, and began her PhD in September 2017 through the University of Waikato, while continuing to work part-time. “I really enjoy being able to work and study at the same time – it allows me to interact with a wide range of scientists and learn many new techniques, but I also get to develop and work on my own research project which allows me to learn a whole range of new skills,” says Laura.
Laura is receiving an inaugural PhD scholarship from the New Zealand Food Safety Science and Research Centre for the next three years and also some internal funding support from Cawthron for her studies.
The focus of Laura’s studies is tetrodotoxin (TTX), a neurotoxin found in some aquatic and terrestrial animals, including the Japanese seafood delicacy known as fugu (pufferfish). It’s not known where the toxin comes from – some researchers believe the organisms produce it themselves, while other scientists suggest it is produced by bacteria or algae that the organisms eat.
The first time TTX was detected in New Zealand was in 2009 when some pet dogs became ill after licking or chewing sea slugs that were washed up on beaches around Auckland. Cawthron scientists identified tetrodotoxin in the slugs and found that they contained some of the highest levels ever detected in marine organisms. Following this incident, Cawthron Institute received Marsden Funding through the Royal Society Te Apārangi to support a three-year research project with the aim of discovering the source of the toxin. Many new discoveries were made, but the source was not identified.
Laura’s PhD topic: Elucidating the source and transmission of tetrodotoxin in New Zealand bivalves, picks up where the Cawthron’s Marsden Fund research left off, and she hopes to find the toxin’s source by expanding the search and looking at bivalves. Bivalves are filter-feeding shellfish that have two shells. Laura’s research will mostly focus on pipi, a popular customary and recreationally harvested seafood in New Zealand.
At the moment there are no regulatory levels for tetrodotoxin in shellfish although it is possible that such levels may be introduced in Europe as a result of a recent review by the European Food Safety Authority.
Laura’s research will proactively contribute to understanding about whether TTX is present, the level of concentration of the toxin where it is found to be present, and whether or not its occurrence is seasonal – all of which will help both industry and consumers.
A sense of completion is hard to achieve in PhD studies, says Laura. “One of the main challenges of a PhD is you can’t really tick things off your list really quickly – not like in your job where you can complete a lab experiment relatively rapidly. With the PhD there’s always something more to do or to think about. For me, that’s the hardest part!”
There’s a large amount of writing involved during a PhD. “I’ve just finished my research proposal which I had to present to the University. You have to plan your research experiments for the next three years. You need to read a lot so you can write a literature review and that helps you to learn everything about your subject. I’ve just presented my proposal so it was good to get that done! Now I can start writing about my experiments and research.”
Having worked in the laboratory before and being able to continue working at Cawthron is a plus, says Laura. “I already know my way around the laboratory and that’s quite a big advantage. I’ve found a subject that I really love and I’m really glad I had the opportunity and put in the time to learn the techniques that I am now using to do my PhD.
“When I’m not reading or writing, I’m designing or running experiments. I’ve completed two experiments so far. I collected pipi that contain TTX from a harbour located at the top of the North Island and I’ve been investigating the time that it takes for the shellfish to remove the toxin using tanks located at Cawthron. I am also looking into where the toxin is located in pipi. This might help explain its source and function – for instance if it’s in the digestive system then it’s more likely that the toxin is coming from an outside source, but if it’s in the reproductive organs then it’s possible that they’re producing it themselves, perhaps even as a protection for the eggs and larvae for the next generation which is something I’m exploring right now.”
“My research requires a lot of toxin extractions as well as looking after the organisms themselves. For my first experiment I kept over 200 pipi alive for 150 days and had to look after, monitor, and feed them every two days, which was quite time intensive.
“I also have to do a lot of training. Biology requires a lot of statistics and biostatistics and this will probably take at least six months out of the three years just to learn what I need – but it’s really important.”
Laura is a passionate advocate for science and enjoys encouraging young people to break down their misconceptions about what a career in science has to offer.
“I am part of the Association for Women in Science group at Cawthron and last year we hosted students from all the high schools around Nelson Tasman that are interested in sciences. What was really interesting was that a lot of them didn’t want to go into science because they thought there weren’t many jobs, or that they couldn’t do a diverse range of work so it was good to tell them that there are plenty of options in science.
“It was really good to see that kids in general seem more and more interested in science as a career. You have to be really passionate about it and when other people might be saying ‘ugh, I still have another hour of work to go’, I am thinking I only have another hour left and I have so much more to do. I’m never bored and the days just fly by. The more people coming into science the better, as we need more brain power to solve the world’s issues.”
Meanwhile Laura is excited to be working at Cawthron and to be able to work alongside leaders in their fields.
“Here at Cawthron, everyone has such a diverse set of skills that I can learn from and it’s an amazing environment to be learning in. For example, researchers like Drs Lesley Rhodes and Lincoln MacKenzie have been here a long time and know a great deal. I am also very lucky to have supportive supervisors: Drs Susie Wood and Kirsty Smith are amazing scientists and I learn a massive amount from them every day. Having a good relationship with your supervisors is probably one of the key components of a smoother PhD process. Scientists at Cawthron are always available if I have questions. Cawthron is a really good place, it’s really diverse and people are always friendly and ready to help.
“What I really love about my job is you never do the same thing. That’s why most people get into science – it’s never boring and there is always progress and things are constantly evolving, so you keep learning.”