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Dr Pieter Pelser, Senior Lecturer in Plant Systematics, University of Canterbury

Through my research, teaching and outreach, I aim to improve our understanding of botanical biodiversity and to promote its appreciation and conservation. My research focuses on studying evolutionary patterns and processes and uses data collected in the field, lab and herbarium. I am especially interested in (1) documenting plant diversity in the Philippines, (2) using morphometric, molecular phylogenetic, and population genetic approaches to improve taxonomic delimitation in challenging plant taxa, (3) understanding the role of hybridisation in plant evolution, (4) the conservation genetics of threatened plant species and habitats, and 5) the diversification of parasitic plants. For more on my research, please visit and

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IMG_7659Dr Tammy Steeves, Associate Professor in Conservation Genomics, University of Canterbury

My research interests focus on the ecological and evolutionary processes that contribute to the formation and maintenance of species boundaries, and the application of this knowledge to enhance the recovery of species at risk. I co-lead the Conservation, Systematics and Evolution Research Team (ConSERT) at Te Whare Wānanga o Waitaha/University of Canterbury. In partnership with relevant Māori (indigenous peoples of Aotearoa/New Zealand) tribes (iwi or hapū) and in collaboration with conservation practitioners, we use genomic and non-genomic data to co-develop conservation genetic management strategies for some of Aotearoa/New Zealand’s rarest taonga (treasured) species.

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Research Associates


Roger Moraga, Msc, Bioinformatician, TeaBreak Bioinformatics

I became a Bioinformatician from the Biology end of the spectrum, holding a B.Sc. in Molecular Biology.




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Michael Bartlett, PhD Candidate, University of Canterbury

I have a broad interest in evolution, ecology and conservation, while my research focuses on better understanding the adaptive value of traits and the associated underlying evolutionary processes. My current research project investigates sexual selection on ejaculate quality in chinook salmon, and aims to (1) determine if males strategically adjust sperm performance in response to social cues that signal changing sperm competition risk, (2) determine the impact on reproductive success (i.e. fitness) for males making strategic adjustments, and (3) improve our understanding of the unknown mechanism(s) behind such adjustments, specifically looking at the seminal fluid proteome.

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DSC_2093Lily Brailsford, MS Student, University of Canterbury

I am a Masters student with a keen interest in the conservation of terrestrial ecosystems. My current research investigates the genetic diversity and gene flow of trees within forest fragments on the Mambilla Plateau, in Nigeria. The Afromontane forests of this region are of significant conservation importance, boasting high levels of species endemism, and are some of the last of this forest type remaining in Western Africa. I am using microsatellite loci to measure the genetic diversity of the tree species Albizia gummifera (Fabaceae) and Clausena anisata (Rutaceae) as a proxy for genetic diversity of all plants in these forests. From this research, I will be able to make well informed recommendations for the protection and reforestation of Mambilla Plateau.


IMG_9598Levi Collier-Robinson, MS Student, University of Canterbury

I am a MSc student at the University of Canterbury and have strong links to Ngāi Tahu and Ngāti Apa ki te rā tō. I am investigating adaptive variation in one of our taonga species, the kōwaro/Canterbury Mudfish. Kōwaro is one of five taxonomically diverse Aotearoa/New Zealand endemics that are the focus of a larger interdisciplinary project (Project 1.4) that seeks to integrate mātauranga Māori (indigenous knowledge) with western science to develop a culturally-responsive, evidence-based position statement regarding the benefits and risks of prioritising adaptive potential to build resilience in threatened taonga species, including mahinga kai species destined for customary or commercial harvest.


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Ilina Cubrinovska, PhD Candidate, University of Canterbury

While I am fascinated by all aspects of biology, I am particularly interested in using molecular techniques to gain insight into evolutionary processes and applied conservation efforts. I am currently working on a PhD to inform captive breeding and translocation efforts for the nationally-critical shore plover/tuturuatu (Thinornis novaeseelandiae) using genomic data (i.e., genotyping-by-sequencing and low-coverage genomics). Results from this research will help improve management efforts for this nationally-critical bird and can be applied to other at-risk species around the world.

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Natalie Forsdick, PhD Candidate, University of Otago

My research focuses on the use of population genetics and genomic techniques to understand evolutionary processes and inform conservation management of threatened avian species. My current research project  based at the University of Otago aims to assess the genome-wide effects of hybridisation in an endangered New Zealand bird, the Kakī, with the objective of generating conservation outcomes to benefit management programmes in New Zealand and overseas.

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IMG_2684Stephanie GallaPhD Candidate, University of Canterbury

I am interested in interdisciplinary conservation efforts for threatened species, and in particular, how genetic/genomic technologies can be incorporated into conservation and management strategies. The goal of my PhD thesis is to evaluate techniques for estimating relatedness (e.g., pedigree, genetic, and genomic-based approaches) in the critically-endangered kakī/black stilt (Himantopus novaezelandiae). By evaluating these approaches, I hope to better inform captive management efforts for kakī and 350+ captive breeding programmes worldwide.

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DSC_0078Jasper John Obico, PhD Candidate, University of Canterbury 

My research aims to determine patterns of genetic diversity and connectivity among the populations of a common woody vine, Tetrastigma loheri, in highly fragmented forest on Cebu Island in the Philippines. This informs conservation management by contributing to the identification of forest fragments that are at risk of losing genetic diversity and selecting priority forest sites for conservation in Cebu, which is home to endemic and endangered plants and animals. The project also aims to resolve the taxonomic delimitation of T. loheri, which displays large morphological variation and close affinity with other Tetrastigma species. Because of its ubiquity throughout the Philippines, T. loheri is potentially a suitable indicator of patterns of genetic diversity and connectivity in Philippine forests. Therefore, it is important that the species boundaries of T. loheri are unambiguous.

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Stephen D7X_1788 (1)Steve Pohe, PhD Candidate, University of Canterbury 

I have a passion for conservation biology. My research and professional interests center around ecology and biological monitoring of freshwater habitats. I am fascinated in the natural history of freshwater invertebrates; particularly mayflies, dragonflies and stoneflies. I also have an amateur interest in mayfly taxonomy. I am 4 years into a PhD assessing latitudinal and altitudinal temperature effects on the diversity, distribution, body size and population structure of New Zealand mayflies.

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IMG_2274Justin Pomeranz, PhD Candidate, University of Canterbury

Ecology and evolution have always captivated me. I am particularly interested in how human activities alter and impact these processes. My PhD research focuses on how food webs in stream environments respond to mining activities. I am specifically studying how acid mine drainage from legacy coal extraction operations on the West Coast of the South Island effects the freshwater communities. Acid mine drainage often has a low pH, and high concentrations of heavy metals, creating an extreme environment to contend with. Amazingly, however, bugs and even some fish are able to survive in these harsh conditions. I am interested in understanding how they survive, and how ecological processes and ecosystem services are affected by this change in environment. I hope that my research will help inform the sustainable management and operation of future mining activities, and help in the restoration strategies for dealing with legacy mining operations.

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Aisling Rayne, PhD Candidate, University of Canterbury

I am passionate about tackling key global problems, in particular biodiversity loss and resource shortages, with a focus on working with local communities. My PhD incorporates adaptive variation into a conservation genomics approach to achieving conservation, customary, and commercial outcomes for the declining mahinga kai species kewai/freshwater crayfish (Paranephrops zealandicus). This research forms part of a Biological Heritage National Science Challenge project (Project 1.4) in partnership with an exceptional team of scientists,  practitioners and local mana whenua.

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Jennifer Schori, PhD Candidate, University of Canterbury 

My current research project investigates translocation as a conservation management strategy for terrestrial insects. I am looking at ways to improve conservation translocation success and developing monitoring methods for a rare and highly cryptic braided river insect, the nationally endangered robust grasshopper. The outcomes of this research will be evidence-based recommendations for the conservation management of terrestrial insects.

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IMG_1185Jana Wold, PhD Candidate, University of Canterbury 

I have a strong interest in the evolutionary insights that genetic/genomic data provide, particularly in the context of genetic management of threatened species. The overall aim of my PhD thesis is to utilise genomic tools to co-develop management strategies for the critically endangered New Zealand Fairy Tern/tara-iti (Sterna nereis davisae). This project will be conducted in collaboration with the Tara-iti Recovery Programme.

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Honours Students

IMG_8034 copy copy1Ashley Overbeek, Honours Student, Stanford University

I am an Earth Systems major with a broad range of interests ranging from fourteenth century Medieval cooking practices and recipes, to indigenous agricultural systems, to sonifications of Antarctic ice core data, to practical applications of genetic research for conservation in New Zealand. My current project focuses on genetic analysis to asses extra-pair parentage in Kakī/Black Stilt (Himantopus novaezelandiae), a critically-endangered, endemic, avian species.

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hale2Dr Marie Hale, Senior Lecturer Emeritus, University of Canterbury

My research involves using population genetics to understand evolutionary processes in populations (e.g. local adaptation, mating systems, hybridisation and migration/dispersal) and the development and application of population and conservation genetic resources for the genetic management of species. My speciality is in the development and use of microsatellite markers to assess levels and patterns of genetic diversity, fine scale population structure, and changes to population structure over time. I have successfully used DNA methods on both ancient and modern specimens to assess taxonomic status (published in Biology letters) and changes in genetic diversity over time (published in Science and Conservation Genetics), and been involved in the development of the first ever set of microsatellite markers for an extinct species (moa; published in Biotechniques and PLoS ONE).

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Dr Jasmine Chia Liew

I have a broad interest in biodiversity and the evolutionary processes that contribute to the diversity. I am also interested in the application of high-performance computing (e.g., parallel computing) and data visualisation in biological research. I now am working for the University of Nebraska – Lincoln as a member of their bioinformatics team.

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Gemma McLaughlin, PhD Candidate, University of Otago

I have always been fascinated by invasive species research, something that is ever present in New Zealand’s ecology. For my PhD, I am currently developing a form of CRISPR-Cas9 to tackle invasive wasps (Vespula vulgaris/germanica) in New Zealand. This would invoke the use non-homologous end joining (NHEJ) of an exon in the doublesex gene. The methods developed would ideally produce solely female populations with female only offspring; these changes would be present in succeeding future generations and result from all matings with male wasps. This could act as a method for removing an invasive population from the country in a gentler manner than say, poisoning large areas of beech forest. I am hoping these techniques can then be extended to other invasives in the country.

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Dr Rachel van Heugten

I’m a ConSERT alumnus who recently completed her PhD investigating population genetics and hybridisation of a range restricted tree weta species. I recently moved to the UK where I hope to continue being involved in conservation/genetics and science outreach. As I act as the ConSERT’s UK correspondent, I’m more than happy to answer any questions about what it is like to be involved in this lab group.

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IMG_0514Ayla van Loenen, PhD Candidate, University of Adelaide

My research focuses on using a variety of molecular and bioinformatics techniques to understand population genetics and evolutionary patterns and processes of species over time. My current research project based at the University of Adelaide (Australia) investigating the evolutionary history of European bison (Bison bonasus), involves working on an integrated approach which combines ancient DNA data from samples across a broad geographical and temporal range with other available associated sample metadata (including historical climate and environmental data, modern DNA data, isotope analysis and radiocarbon dating). This project aims to provide information on a detailed view of population history as a species (almost) becomes extinct, and answer key questions about the response of megafaunal populations to periods of rapid environmental and climatic changes.

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Lab Mascot


Shelly, ConSERT Lab Mascot, University of Canterbury

Meet our lab mascot, Shelly! Shelly is a kakī (black stilt) who has been constructed out of shells from Kaikoura, New Zealand. Every fortnight, Shelly is gifted to a member of ConSERT to provide inspirational support. Check out her Instagram account for more updates from Shelly and ConSERT.