Start here – Rutherford Discovery Fellowship – get your four cents worth

So late last year (last November) I was awarded a Rutherford Discovery Fellowship* from the Royal Society of New Zealand.  This is a fellowship specifically designed for early – mid career scientists and is a five year research fellowship. The scheme started in 2010 and each year the Royal Society of New Zealand awards 10 fellowships across all Sciences in New Zealand. So at any one time there can be no more than 50 Rutherford Discovery Fellows. The total value of the award over the five year term is $800 000 per fellow. Of course this doesn’t all go directly to the fellow; there is a $70k contribution towards the Fellow’s salary; $30k contribution towards overheads and $60k towards the research costs you can read about them here. I googled the current population of New Zealand (as of Tuesday, 17 Sep 2013 at 03:47:15 pm the estimate is 4,482,925). Basically, that boils down to $0.036 p.a. (just under four cents each). Which nicely illustrates the inverse of one of my favorite rules of all time (i.e., Rule #13 “Multiply any number, no matter how small, by a very large number and you get a large number”). So get your four cents worth – keep reading and find out what I’m doing.

As the New Zealand public is sponsoring my research for the next five years I thought I’d try and keep a more regular blog telling everyone what I’m doing. Originally I had intended to start this Blog series on the first of July to coincide with the start of my Fellowship. Unfortunately things don’t always go to plan and to avoid any unpleasantness I’ll just say that I’ve been “self-funded” for the last we while which included my very exciting trip to Germany (visiting collaborators in BIK-F) and the UK (IntEcol13 and more visiting collaborators from BioSS, The University of York and the Durham University) – all of which (the exciting travel, meetings, conference and collaborations) I will post about in the very near future in separate posts. Luckily we also had the evenings and some of the weekends to catch up with some family and friends. More about the pros and cons of an academic life in following posts.

So what is my fellowship about?

I guess this depends on a) who’s asking and b) how much do you want to know? Given I’m not sure who if anyone is reading this blog post I might start off with the short answer and elaborate over time as, hopefully, the public clamor to see how their 4cents are being spent.

So the really short answer is in the title of my research program:

“Battlegrounds and safe havens: disentangling the roles of ecology and evolution in the response of biological communities to climate change”

The slightly longer answer is in my press release when they announced the 2012 Rutherford Discovery Fellows:

Alpine environments have steep climatic gradients and therefore represent ever-changing battlegrounds. Here, species’ interactions and responses to changing climatic conditions are played out in small arenas.  Temperature decreases with elevation; therefore, in a warming climate the expectation is that species will shift their distribution upslope.  The combination of aspect, slope and shading within mountainous landscapes gives, at any given elevation, a variety of cooler and warmer microclimates. On a local scale, this landscape heterogeneity creates safe havens.  Using ecological niche models to locate climatically suitable areas through time this research will identify potential past, present and future distributions of species.  This will be compared with genetic data to assess how these niches coincide with hotspots of current genetic diversity on a local and regional scale.  This research aims to balance advances in ecological modelling with new empirical data bringing significant applied benefits to the New Zealand conservation community.

I’m planning to look at three things:

  1. Thermal refugia and population genetics/dynamics
  2. Community structure and biotic interactions
  3. Conservation prioritization for individuals, communities and ecosystem services in a changing world


I just looked back at my title and realized that’s a bit of a mouth-full. Ok. So by biological communities I mean groups of species that live together in the same place and time. I’m planning to do this mostly in New Zealand montane and alpine environments and mostly with Plants, but also with Bacteria and hopefully some pretty cool Invertebrates (probably moths and butterflies). I started out as a botanist studying plants and investigating the interactions between plants on different scales. This means the group of species I know best are plants so I’m starting with plants (there are other good reasons for starting with plants that we can explore later – but start with what you know is not a bad rule).

The aspect of biological communities that I’m interested in investigating is how these different species and groups of different species respond to climate change. Firstly, how they may have responded in the past in response to natural climate change that the cycles through ice- ages or glacial periods produce. Secondly, how they might therefore respond to the future anthropogenic climate change. While I’m doing this I’m trying to understand the processes involved and I’m especially interested in disentangling those that are ecological from those that are evolutionary. This basically boils down to short time scales vs long time scales (don’t quote me on that this is a gross over simplification).

In any case five years is a long time, not in evolutionary or even ecological terms, or even mortgage terms – actually I’m not at all convinced it’s a long time. To me it seems like a really short time. But then time is one of those concepts which is all a bit whibly – woobly isn’t it.  In any case I think its long enough to do a lot of really cool stuff.

*Note: I was briefly at James Cook University (Townsville), but largely at the excellent University of York, UK. Based in Dunedin, Otago, New Zealand NOT at the University of Otago but at the adjacent wonderful Landcare Research building next door.


About Tinkerbel405

I am an Ecologist based at Landcare Research, Dunedin (in Otago, New Zealand). I mainly work on species responses to environmental change. In 2012 I was awarded a Rutherford Discovery Fellowship from the Royal Society of New Zealand. This fellowship has allowed me to return to New Zealand where I am embarking on an exciting new research program: Battlegrounds and safe havens: disentangling the roles of ecology and evolution in the response of biological communities to climate change.
This entry was posted in Rutherford Discovery Fellowship, Science, Science I Do and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Start here – Rutherford Discovery Fellowship – get your four cents worth

  1. Mark Brewer says:

    Best of luck Barb, glad you’ve found a home with a welcoming attitude.

  2. Kate says:

    Loved reading this, Barb. And looking forward to more posts 🙂

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