Who I am
I have always had a passion for the environment and concern for endangered species. Throughout my degree in biochemistry and my Master’s in forensic science I became fascinated by genetic identification and Lab-on-a-Chip technology. In 2006 I was fortunate to do a PhD that involved developing a portable device for carrying out DNA profiling at a crime scene. So what is Lab-on-a-Chip and why is it so cool as a technology? Essentially it is all about getting scientific techniques out of the lab and into the field where they can be most useful. By miniaturising scientific techniques and integrating them, you can put a sample on a tiny device and get a read-out answer telling you about the DNA in that sample without having to do anything yourself – the Lab-on-a-Chip does it for you. This means we get results faster, cheaper and where we need them. So unlike other project leaders who spend their time in exotic ocean locations, I spend the majority of my time in a white coat in a lab before heading out to test our devices in the field! With my experience of conservation work in a safari park in the UK looking at genetic analysis of white and black rhinoceros, I realised I could apply this technology to support marine conservation and fulfil my aspiration to save the declining populations of sharks. This is such an exciting area, as it has not really been explored in depth and there is such great potential to help increase the numbers of these magnificent animals!
Where I work
I work in a team that is based both in Manchester, in the United Kingdom (myself, Guuske Tiktak and Richard Preziosi), and in Ecuador with project partners Cesar Peñaherrera Palma (Pontificia Universidad Católica del Ecuador) and Margarita Brandt (Universidad San Francisco de Quito) and the National Biodiversity Institute. The project will be implemented along the coast of Ecuador at artisanal fisheries in Salinas, Puerto López, Manta and Esmeraldas. Specifically, we will be looking at threatened species of hammerheads that inhabit the Eastern Pacific Ocean. Most people think of the Galápagos Islands when they think of Ecuador, the hotspot for frequent visitors such as whale sharks, manta rays and schools of scalloped hammerheads. But mainland Ecuador is also rich, with a high diversity in marine and terrestrial life –an often-forgotten gem compared to the Galápagos Islands.
What I do
Threatened shark species, such as scalloped and smooth hammerheads, are caught in large numbers by artisanal fishers as a result of by-catch or when they are targeted specifically for their fins. Monitoring which threatened shark species are caught and sold in fisheries is essential to reducing illegal fishing, as is monitoring the export of shark products restricted by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). Current methods for species identification rely on either visual examination of whole caught sharks by experts or costly and time-consuming DNA barcoding in specialist laboratory facilities. This project will focus on the development of a portable Lab-on-a-Chip system, which will allow species identification by genetic analysis, using a tiny fragment of tissue. The system will be designed to produce a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ result with regard to identity as a threatened shark species, and can therefore be used by non-scientifically trained personnel. We are also strongly committed to public outreach and will be hosting a number of events both in the UK and Ecuador to tell people about our research and increase awareness of the man-made threats to these wonderful creatures.