My current research focuses on what genes are driving the phenomenon of migration in insects. A lot of people know about the great annual bird migrations, but perhaps less well known, is that billions of insects also migrate each year. Each migration is multi-generational. In other words, the offspring inherently know that they must migrate and in what direction. This means there must be a genetic basis. However, migration is not a simple phenomenon. It is a complex biological process that requires many changes in behaviour, morphology, and physiology in order for insects to undertake these vast journeys, which can sometimes reach up to thousands of kilometres. The specific genes responsible are therefore likely to be involved in many aspects of the insect’s biology which makes it a big challenge.
In our lab at Rothamsted Research, we are able to quantify at least one parameter which is strongly associated with insect migration – flight. Using an electronic tethered flight mill – which is like a fairground carousel for insects – we can characterise differences in the flight of migrating insects in a controlled environment. My role is to apply the latest DNA technology to uncover specific genetic differences in those insects which display migratory flight.
I trained at Durham University and the London School of Tropical Medicine & Hygiene where I developed an interest for insect biology. When it comes to genetics I was a late starter and didn’t begin learning about molecular biology until my PhD at Rothamsted Research. I then spent four years at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine where I studied the evolution of insecticide resistance in malaria mosquitoes combining field and lab work, often in Africa. I have been fortunate to learn from some very inspiring lecturers and supervisors over the years and if I can convey half as much passion and knowledge as they have, then I’ll have done a good job.
I am an ardent fan and season ticket holder at Liverpool Football Club and if the call does come through one day that Liverpool FC need an extra player then I might just be the first molecular entomologist to become a footballer.