This issue’s Grad Interview is with Christina Ruiz-Rodriguez who studies Koala genetics.
“Ultimately, the findings of my research will benefit both Zoo and wild koala populations”
“One of the coolest things about koalas is that they are only found in Australia.”
“Koalas … eat eucalyptus leaves, which can be poisonous to other mammals”
Tell us more about yourself and your research.
I have a bachelor in Biology from the University of Puerto Rico at Mayaguez.. My first experience with research was as an undergraduate. I worked in a genetics lab helping graduate students with their experiments and sometimes going out to the field to collect samples. While I was an intern at the National Cancer Institute in Frederick, Maryland, I got the opportunity to attend a conservation genetics course in Panama. There I learned about the different research areas in conservation genetics, and I also met my current graduate advisor, Dr. Alfred Roca. A few of months later, I received an email with an invitation to do koala research at the University of Illinois in Dr. Roca’s research laboratory. I was very excited and delighted to become part of his research group. In August 2012 I joined Dr. Roca’s lab and started working on a koala project which eventually became my master’s thesis. My project involved analyzing Koala DNA to examine genetic diversity in three koala populations.
What makes koalas cool?
One of the coolest things about koalas is that they are only found in Australia. You can find koalas in zoos, but they are originally from Australia. Koalas are marsupials not bears, and therefore they have a pouch where the joey – a baby koala- feeds and grows. The koala lineage has existed for millions of years, but the koala that exists today has existed for at least 20,000 years. In the past, there were at least 16 species of koalas. Today only one species of koalas – Phascolarctos cinereus – remains, and the closest living relative to koalas are the wombats.
Another interesting thing about koalas is that they eat eucalyptus leaves, which can be poisonous to other mammals, but the koala has evolved to tolerate and digest the toxic leaves. Koalas tend to be sedentary, but young male koalas are capable of moving long distances in search of a home and a female to mate.
Koala conservation is really crucial since millions of koalas were once hunted and killed for their fur almost leading to extinction. However, a low number of koalas survived in Victoria, and they were used as founders to establish new populations. In Queensland, koalas are threatened by urbanization and loss of habitat. Another threat to the koala has been disease. Koalas are infected with diseases such as Chlamydia and leukemia, which in turn is linked to a retrovirus. All northern koala populations have been shown to be infected with this retrovirus, and it’s currently spreading south to New South Wales and Victoria. We need to help them out!
How will your research benefit koala conservation?
For my project, I looked at the genetics of three populations. Two populations from Victoria in southern Australia and the other population included zoo koalas that originally came from Queensland in northern Australia. I was able to determine how genetically diverse the koalas from zoos are compared to the koalas from Victoria. I was also able to compare the levels of genetic diversity of zoo koalas with wild koalas from Australia using previously published data.
Ultimately, the findings of my research will benefit both zoo and wild koala populations. Zoos in the US will be able to use the results of this project for to inform both management and conservation strategies. For example, zoos can refer to this data when making decisions about how to reduce the levels of inbreeding in zoos. This research has also increased our understanding of koala population structure and genetic diversity and may have important implications for wild koala management strategies in Australia.
Any tips for undergrads that want to do your kind of research – what do they need to do to become a cool koala researcher?
My advice for students who want to do conservation research with koalas, and any other species that is threatened or endangered, is to get in contact with a scientist that does that type of research. They can do this by attending seminars and local campus symposiums and asking questions to the graduate students. They can also search in PubMed for research articles and find information about the authors. I think the best thing to do is to join a lab and start doing research as an undergrad; that’s what I did.