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ScienceWise - Jan/Feb 2009

Gecko researcher with a taste for the classical

Article Illustration
Mitzy Papper
Article Illustration
A typical day of fieldwork in the Pilbara, working with Department of Environment and Conservation (DEC)

PhD candidate Mitzy Pepper sheds light on gecko evolution in the Pilbara

The remote Pilbara, with its ancient rocks and arid landscapes is not the first place you would look for a classical violinist. But it's here, amongst some of the oldest rocks on earth, that ANU‘s Mitzy Pepper, a PhD student, gecko researcher and professional violinist, is continually drawn. "It's just got the most amazing landscape, I did a geology degree", she says "and the geology up there is fantastic, it's just so old and unique".

Mitzy is just one of many young researchers in the Botany and Zoology (BoZo) department of the ANU, discovering more about our unique and diverse Australian flora and fauna every day. And in the previously research-neglected Pilbara, Mitzy is doing just that.

Mitzy first discovered her love for the Pilbara when she took part in a six-year biological survey to discover and document the flora and fauna of the Pilbara. Costing over 12 million dollars, the survey was funded by the Western Australian Department of Conservation and Land Management with the assistance from the Western Australian Museum.

"I'm looking at an area where very little genetic research has been done before; we've only just done the survey to find out what biodiversity exists there".

Mitzy is using this iconic Australian backdrop to map the evolution of the local geckos. "The Pilbara has a huge diversity of geckos," she explains. By analysing geckos DNA, Mitzy is using genetics to map the geckos' family tree and finding out how the environment has moulded their evolution.

Now half way into a three year PhD, Mitzy's current project is continuing on her honours work on Pilbara geckos. In 2006, Mitzy, along with Paul Doherty and Scott Keogh, published a journal article describing how the Sand-plain gecko (Diplodactylus stenodactylus) has two distinct populations, one that lives in the Pilbara and prefers hard rocks and one that lives outside the Pilbara and prefers sandy habitats.

After her success in mapping the Sand-plain gecko genetic history, Mitzy felt too many questions were left unanswered and returned to the Pilbara to see if these results were consistent across other gecko species in the region.

Mitzy's research has already uncovered a number of new species of gecko previously unknown to science. "These lizards haven't been studied at the same level as birds for example" she explained. "When you're looking at a lizard that hasn't been studied at a molecular level before, if it has a wide range over a large area, it is unlikely that it will all be one species".
However, it is not all rocks and geckos for this young doctorate hopeful, Mitzy is also an avid violinist and plays in a number of quartets. "I had a big decision to make when I came to university," she says. Torn between music and science, Mitzy was able to study both by doing a combined Bachelor of Arts/Bachelor of Science degree. That way she could keep playing her violin as part of her arts degree while studying geology and geography at the same time.

Now in her spare time, Mitzy teaches violin and plays at functions to earn money. "Most people here (at ANU) tutor students or mark papers, but I get to go and listen to little kids playing violin which is quite pleasant". When asked if she would like to further her classical music career when her research is finished, Mitzy says, "I'm really enjoying doing it just as a hobby, it's way more fun this way"


By Ben Knox

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