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National recognition for Royal Botanic Garden young scientists

August 2012

One of the scientists, Dr Nathalie Nagalingum, who recently debunked the theory today’s cycads were around during dinosaur times, is now on the way to becoming Australia’s foremost cycad expert after being awarded a prestigious Winston Churchill Memorial Trust Fellowship.

Minister Parker said Dr Nagalingum will now be able to develop vital skills in cycad conservation genetics in overseas laboratories.

'There is a real need to enhance our understanding of cycad conservation genetics in Australia and this opportunity will allow us to develop the necessary expertise,' Minister Parker said.

'Today, cycads are listed as the most endangered plants and most likely victims of a mass extinction caused by humans. 

'Dr Nagalingum identified there are studies for cycads of Tonga, Japan, Guan, Fiji and other countries but limited information in Australia. Dr Nagalingum will now develop skills that can be applied to cycad conservation problems here, contributing to the conservation of the Australian flora.'

Dr Nagalingum said her goal is to use her knowledge to train younger scientists and raise awareness of the problem of cycad conservation.

'I’d also like to break the stereotype that scientists are nerds in lab coats and inspire others to become scientists too,' Ms Nagalingum said.

Ms Parker said as well as Dr Nagalingum’s significant achievement, three of the youngest new scientists based at the National Herbarium of NSW at the Royal Botanic Garden have brought in over $500,000 through the Australian Biological Research Study (ABRS) grant scheme - including salaries for two three-year postdoctoral positions.

'The funding goes towards three projects that will help the NSW Government and the Royal Botanic Gardens & Domain Trust meet our goals to contribute to understanding and conserving Australian plant biodiversity and as these grants are highly competitive, success indicates how well regarded these workers are nationally,' Ms Parker said.

For one project Yola Metti, in collaboration with Dr Alan Miller, will investigate the Laurencia complex - a group of common red algae or seaweeds.

These seaweeds are very important in near coastal ecosystems in temperate and tropical parts of the world and provide food, oxygen and shelter to a vast array of organisms including fish and worms. The group of algae contains approximately 170 known species and Australia is a major centre of diversity with 61 identified species.

Ms Parker said the coastline along the bottom half of Australia, including most of the New South Wales coast, is the world’s most diverse algae zone - making us custodians to all this diversity.

'Algae helps our fisheries, protects our coast and contributes to clean water, our fisheries and natural ecosystems wouldn’t survive without it,' the Minister said.

'This important three-year study by Yola and Alan, in collaboration with many overseas workers, could lead to doubling or tripling the number of known species and will make an important contribution to our knowledge of Australia’s marine flora biodiversity.'

The second ABRS grant awarded is for a three year study of Australian native mints. Dr Trevor Wilson, the principal investigator will work in collaboration with Dr Barry Conn (Royal Botanic Gardens & Domain Trust) and Dr Murray Henwood (University of Sydney) to undertake the country’s first rigorous comprehensive revision of the subfamily Prostantheroideae (Lamiaceae, the mint family). The mint family, which also includes herbs such as oregano, is particularly diverse in Australia,

'The study will look at documenting our biodiversity and will provide a platform so that plants can be named confidently,' Ms Parker said.

The third ABRS grant was received by Dr Richard Jobson. In this three-year project he will study all 62 Australian species of the carnivorous bladderwort genus Utricularia.

Dr Jobson said a well resolved phylogeny will shed light on the evolution of the carnivorous suction bladder-traps that are possessed by all species.

'These extraordinary modified leaves have evolved for capture of small aquatic prey, thereby sustaining the plants in nutrient deficient habitats,' Dr Jobson said.

All three ABRS projects will provide treatments for the Flora of Australia or the Algae of Australia.

Nathalie_Nagalingum
Dr Nathalie Nagalingum

Alan and Yola Lord Howe Island
Yola Metti and Dr Alan Millar collecting marine algae on Lord Howe Island. Photo: Julie Picket-Heaps

Prostanthera-lasianthos
Prostanthera lasianthos being visited by a bee-fly (Bombylidae), Mt Buffalo National Park, Victoria. Photo: Trevor Wilson