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Dr Pieter Pelser, Associate Professor in Plant Systematics, University of Canterbury

Through my research, teaching and outreach, I aim to improve our understanding of botanical biodiversity and to promote its appreciation and conservation. My research focuses on studying evolutionary patterns and processes and uses data collected in the field, lab and herbarium. I am especially interested in (1) documenting plant diversity in the Philippines, (2) using morphometric, molecular phylogenetic, and population genetic approaches to improve taxonomic delimitation in challenging plant taxa, (3) understanding the role of hybridisation in plant evolution, (4) the conservation genetics of threatened plant species and habitats, and 5) the diversification of parasitic plants. For more on my research, please visit and

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IMG_7659Dr Tammy Steeves, Professor in Conservation Genomics, University of Canterbury (She/Her)

My research interests focus on the ecological and evolutionary processes that contribute to the formation and maintenance of species boundaries, and the application of this knowledge to enhance the recovery of species at risk. I co-lead the Conservation, Systematics and Evolution Research Team (ConSERT) at Te Whare Wānanga o Waitaha/University of Canterbury. In partnership with relevant Māori (Indigenous peoples of Aotearoa New Zealand) tribes (iwi or hapū) and in collaboration with conservation practitioners and local communities, we use genomic and non-genomic data to co-develop conservation genetic management strategies for some of Aotearoa New Zealand’s rarest taonga (treasured) species.

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Research Associates


Dr Aisling Rayne, Social Scientist, Cawthron Institute (She/Her)

Aisling is a social scientist at Cawthron Institute. Her research focuses on the diverse relationships between people and nature, with a focus on freshwater systems and community-based approaches. Aisling is also interested in the possibilities and pathways for change in complex systems, including the science community (as part of the Te Pūnaha Matatini Kindness in Science project).

Aisling successfully completed her PhD with ConSERT in mid 2021. She remains active on a number of collaborative ConSERT projects, including Kindness in Science.

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Molly Magid, Research Associate, University of Canterbury

I’m interested in using genomic data to understand the functional genetic diversity of vulnerable populations. My research focuses on characterizing the innate immune gene diversity of a number of threatened New Zealand bird species to inform conservation management efforts. I’m also the host of UC Science Radio and am passionate about finding ways to communicate science to the public in a clear, novel, and engaging way.

Molly successfully completed her MSc with ConSERT in early 2021. She is now a freelance science communicator who continues to collaborate with ConSERT.

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IMG_9169Dr Natalie Forsdick, Postdoctoral Researcher, Manaaki Whenua Landcare Research Auckland (She/Her)

During my PhD at the University of Otago, I assessed the genome-wide effects of hybridisation in an endangered New Zealand bird, kakī (Himantopus novaezelandiae), and generated outcomes to benefit conservation management programmes of species threatened by hybridisation in Aotearoa New Zealand and overseas. Now a postdoctoral research fellow in the Genomics Aotearoa High Quality Genomes project at Manaaki Whenua Landcare Research, I am applying genomic tools across a range of species including birds, insects, and frogs. She aims to work with mana whenua and other collaborators to build high-quality genomic resources to support conservation of threatened species.

Nat successfully completed her PhD at the University of Otago in mid 2020. She remains active on a number of collaborative ConSERT projects.

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Dr Stephanie Galla, Assistant Professor in Avian Biology, Boise State University

I am interested in interdisciplinary conservation efforts for species in decline, and in particular, how genomic technologies can inform management decisions. Our research group—The Conservation Genetics Lab at Boise State University—uses genetic and genomic tools to better characterize avian diversity and use this information to manage for resilience in a changing world. In response to conservation practitioner need, we are co-developing genetic research in Columbian Sharp-tailed Grouse (Tympanuchus phasinellus columbianus) to better understand spatiotemporal decisions in herbivory and how this may affect species demographics. Along with researchers and practitioners in Alaska and Iceland, we are also studying immune gene diversity in a holarctic species, the Gyrfalcon (Falco rusticolus), using whole genome resequencing to understand how these species may respond to novel pathogens introduced in a warming arctic. In addition to conservation genetic research, I’m interested in how we can create inclusive research environments through approaches from Kindness in Science, leading to a greater sense of belonging amongst all people and improved science outcomes.

Stephanie successfully completed her PhD with ConSERT in late 2019. She remains active on a number of collaborative projects.

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Roger Moraga, Msc, Bioinformatician, TeaBreak Bioinformatics

I became a Bioinformatician from the Biology end of the spectrum, holding a BSc in Molecular Biology. My main research interest focuses on the world of genomics, assembly and analysis of genomic, transcriptomic, and metagenomic data. Additionally, I am skilled in sequence analysis and large scale data processing, with substantial expertise in genome-wide analyses such as genome evolution, structural and copy variant characterization, and comparative genomics. I also have an interest in open source software, data analysis and software carpentry, as well as sourcing workflows for bioinformatic analysis.

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Postdoctoral researchers

IMG_1185Dr Jana Wold, Postdoctoral Researcher, University of Canterbury

I am fascinated by the evolutionary implications and population dynamics of structural variants (SVs), and particularly what this may mean for the persistence of threatened populations. My PhD was centered on establishing genomic resources for SV discovery and population-scale genotyping of SVs, with the overall aim to assess the diversity of SVs in critically endangered species.

Jana successfully completed her PhD with ConSERT in mid 2022.

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Postgraduate students

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Ilina Cubrinovska, PhD student, University of Canterbury

While I am fascinated by all aspects of biology, I am particularly interested in using molecular techniques to gain insight into evolutionary processes and applied conservation efforts. I am currently working on a PhD to inform captive breeding and translocation efforts for the nationally-critical shore plover/tūturuatu (Thinornis novaeseelandiae) using genomic data (i.e., genotyping-by-sequencing and whole genome resequencing). Results from this research will help improve management efforts for this nationally-critical bird and can be applied to other at-risk species around the world.

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Robb Eastman-Densem, BSc student, University of Canterbury

I am interested in how genetic and genomic data can be used to answer questions concerning the evolution, phylogeography and conservation of plants. My BIOL307 project focused on understanding the Brachyglottis rotundifolia species complex. This involved a pilot study into the morphological features used for the identification of taxa within this complex, with the results of this hopefully being able to inform further research and revision of these species in the future.


Lucy Howell, PhD student, University of Canterbury

I am interested in the development of non-invasive survey methods for studying genetic diversity. My research looks at the applicability of eDNA for assessing kororā/little blue penguin (Eudyptula minor) populations, particularly the white-flippered morphotype unique to the Canterbury region. My introduction to eDNA research was through the Polar Sciences, working on Weddell seal (Leptonychotes weddellii) DNA in Antarctic snow samples. I maintain an interest in adapting eDNA protocols to remote environments by using portable technology for in-field analysis.

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Olivia Janes, MSc student, University of Canterbury

I am interested in all areas of conservation biology and ecology, but particularly in the use of genetic/genomic tools to aid in the recovery and conservation management of our endangered species. I am beginning my MSc at the University of Canterbury, which will be looking into how augmenting captive populations of tūturuatu/shore plover with wild birds impacts population diversity and immune response, which has implications for future conservation breeding programmes.

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Seoljong Kim, PhD student, University of Canterbury

My current PhD research project is a genomic and taxonomic study of Eucalyptus species using SNP data to inform future genomic selection in breeding programs in active partnership with the New Zealand Dryland Forests Initiative (NZDFI). The ultimate goal of this project is to help enable the sustainable production of naturally durable hardwood in New Zealand as a substitute for unsustainably harvested tropical hardwoods. Additionally, I am interested in resolving the taxonomic delimitation of two morphologically similar species (E. argophloia and E. bosistoana), understanding population genetic patterns and mating system of Eucalyptus species.

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Ashleigh Marshall, PhD student, Institute of Zoology, ZSL and University of College London (She/Her)
I aim to investigate the main behavioural, environmental, and disease-related drivers of hatching failure in managed populations of threatened bird species. I am collecting data from species in the UK such as the black-tailed godwit (Limosa limosa), and species endemic to New Zealand including kakī/black stilt (Himantopus novaezelandiae), tūturuatu/shore plover (Thinornis novaeseelandiae), kākāriki karaka/orange-fronted parakeet (Cyanoramphus malherbi) and hihi (Notiomystis cincta). The results of my research will help to support the implementation of management interventions to reduce hatching failure and increase reproductive success in endangered species.
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Dr Tara McAllister, Postdoctoral Researcher, Te Pūnaha Matatini 

I am a freshwater ecologist who recently completed my PhD on toxic cyanobacteria at the University of Canterbury. I have a broad range of interests including, freshwater management and ecology, te ao Māori, science outreach and pathways and experiences of Māori scholars in academia.

I am currently working part-time on a postdoctoral fellowship working with Dan Hikuroa and Cate Macinnis-Ng which will involve understanding how Māori values can inform conservation, outreach with students at kura kaupapa and meaningfully co-developing research with Māori communities.

Tara completed her postdoctoral fellowship in late 2021.


IMG_9598Levi Collier-Robinson (Ngāi Tahu, Ngāti Apa ki te rā tō, Te Whānau-ā-Apanui, Ngāti Porou), PhD student, University of Canterbury

Levi grew up immersed in Te Ao Māori and is a PhD student at the University of Canterbury investigating adaptive variation in kōwaro / Canterbury mudfish. He seeks to integrate Indigenous knowledge with western science to develop a culturally-responsive, evidence-based position statement regarding the benefits and risks of prioritizing adaptive potential to build resilience in threatened taonga species.

Levi’s PhD thesis research is currently on hiatus.

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Max Croll Dowgray, MSc student, University of Canterbury (They/Them)

I am in the early stages of a MSc at the University of Canterbury. My interests are broad in the realm of biology, but I am particularly interested in conservation and population genetics. I also enjoy animal behaviour. My MSc research will focus on conservation genomics of robust grasshopper (Brachaspis robustus), a nationally endangered insect, with implications for conservation translocations.

Max’s MSc thesis research is currently on hiatus.



Jasper John Obico, PhD, University of Canterbury

My research aims to determine patterns of genetic diversity and connectivity among the populations of a common woody vine, Tetrastigma loheri, in highly fragmented forest on Cebu Island in the Philippines. This informs conservation management by contributing to the identification of forest fragments that are at risk of losing genetic diversity and selecting priority forest sites for conservation in Cebu, which is home to endemic and endangered plants and animals. The project also aims to resolve the taxonomic delimitation of T. loheri, which displays large morphological variation and close affinity with other Tetrastigma species. Because of its ubiquity throughout the Philippines, T. loheri is potentially a suitable indicator of patterns of genetic diversity and connectivity in Philippine forests. Therefore, it is important that the species boundaries of T. loheri are unambiguous.

Jasper successfully completed his PhD in early 2020.

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Jennifer Schori, PhD, University of Canterbury

My current research project investigates translocation as a conservation management strategy for terrestrial insects. I am looking at ways to improve conservation translocation success and developing monitoring methods for a rare and highly cryptic braided river insect, the nationally endangered robust grasshopper. The outcomes of this research will be evidence-based recommendations for the conservation management of terrestrial insects.

Jen successfully completed her PhD in early 2020.

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IMG_8034 copy copy1Ashley Overbeek, Honours, Stanford University

I am an Earth Systems major with a broad range of interests ranging from fourteenth century Medieval cooking practices and recipes, to indigenous agricultural systems, to sonifications of Antarctic ice core data, to practical applications of genetic research for conservation in New Zealand. My current project focuses on genetic analysis to asses extra-pair parentage in Kakī/Black Stilt (Himantopus novaezelandiae), a critically-endangered, endemic, avian species.

Ashley successfully completed her Honours in early 2019.

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Stephen D7X_1788 (1)Steve Pohe, PhD, University of Canterbury

I have a passion for conservation biology. My research and professional interests center around ecology and biological monitoring of freshwater habitats. I am fascinated in the natural history of freshwater invertebrates; particularly mayflies, dragonflies and stoneflies. I also have an amateur interest in mayfly taxonomy. I am 4 years into a PhD assessing latitudinal and latitudinal temperature effects on the diversity, distribution, body size and population structure of New Zealand mayflies.

Steve successfully completed his PhD in late 2019.

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IMG_2274Dr. Justin Pomeranz, PhD, University of Canterbury

Ecology and evolution have always captivated me. I am particularly interested in how human activities alter and impact these processes. My PhD research focuses on how food webs in stream environments respond to mining activities. I am specifically studying how acid mine drainage from legacy coal extraction operations on the West Coast of the South Island effects the freshwater communities. Acid mine drainage often has a low pH, and high concentrations of heavy metals, creating an extreme environment to contend with. Amazingly, however, bugs and even some fish are able to survive in these harsh conditions. I am interested in understanding how they survive, and how ecological processes and ecosystem services are affected by this change in environment. I hope that my research will help inform the sustainable management and operation of future mining activities, and help in the restoration strategies for dealing with legacy mining operations.

Justin successfully completed his PhD in early 2019.

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Dr. Michael Bartlett, PhD, University of Canterbury

I have a broad interest in evolution, ecology and conservation, while my research focuses on better understanding the

adaptive value of traits and the associated underlying evolutionary processes. My current research project investigates sexual selection on ejaculate quality in chinook salmon, and aims to (1) determine if males strategically adjust sperm performance in response

to social cues that signal changing sperm competition risk, (2) determine the impact on reproductive success (i.e. fitness) for males making strategic adjustments, and (3) improve our understanding of the unknown mechanism(s) behind such adjustments, specifically looking at the seminal fluid proteome.

Michael successfully completed his PhD in late 2018.

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DSC_2093 Lily Brailsford, MSc, University of Canterbury

I am a Masters student with a keen interest in the conservation of terrestrial ecosystems. My current research investigates the genetic diversity and gene flow of trees within forest fragments on the Mambilla Plateau, in Nigeria. The Afromontane forests of this region are of significant conservation importance, boasting high levels of species endemism, and are some of the last of this forest type remaining in Western Africa. I am using microsatellite loci to measure the genetic diversity of the tree species Albizia gummifera (Fabaceae) and Clausena anisata (Rutaceae) as a proxy for genetic diversity of all plants in these forests. From this research, I will be able to make well informed recommendations for the protection and reforestation of Mambilla Plateau.

Lily successfully completed her MSc thesis in mid 2018. 



Dr Marie Hale, Senior Lecturer Emeritus, University of Canterbury

My research involves using population genetics to understand evolutionary processes in populations (e.g. local adaptation, mating systems, hybridisation and migration/dispersal) and the development and application of population and conservation genetic resources for the genetic management of species. My speciality is in the development and use of microsatellite markers to assess levels and patterns of genetic diversity, fine scale population structure, and changes to population structure over time. I have successfully used DNA methods on both ancient and modern specimens to assess taxonomic status (published in Biology letters) and changes in genetic diversity over time (published in Science and Conservation Genetics), and been involved in the development of the first ever set of microsatellite markers for an extinct species (moa; published in Biotechniques and PLoS ONE).

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Dr Jasmine Chia Liew, PhD, University of Canterbury

I have a broad interest in biodiversity and the evolutionary processes that contribute to the diversity. I am also interested in the application of high-performance computing (e.g., parallel computing) and data visualisation in biological research. I now am working for the University of Nebraska – Lincoln as a member of their bioinformatics team.

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Gemma McLaughlin, PhD Candidate, University of Otago

I have always been fascinated by invasive species research, something that is ever present in New Zealand’s ecology. For my PhD, I am currently developing a form of CRISPR-Cas9 to tackle invasive wasps (Vespula vulgaris/germanica) in New Zealand. This would invoke the use non-homologous end joining (NHEJ) of an exon in the doublesex gene. The methods developed would ideally produce solely female populations with female only offspring; these changes would be present in succeeding future generations and result from all matings with male wasps. This could act as a method for removing an invasive population from the country in a gentler manner than say, poisoning large areas of beech forest. I am hoping these techniques can then be extended to other invasives in the country.

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Dr Rachel van Heugten, PhD, University of Canterbury

I’m a ConSERT alumnus who recently completed her PhD investigating population genetics and hybridisation of a range restricted tree weta species. I recently moved to the UK where I hope to continue being involved in conservation/genetics and science outreach. As I act as the ConSERT’s UK correspondent, I’m more than happy to answer any questions about what it is like to be involved in this lab group.


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IMG_0514Ayla van Loenen, PhD, University of Adelaide

My research focuses on using a variety of molecular and bioinformatics techniques to understand population genetics and evolutionary patterns and processes of species over time. My current research project based at the University of Adelaide (Australia) investigating the evolutionary history of European bison (Bison bonasus), involves working on an integrated approach which combines ancient DNA data from samples across a broad geographical and temporal range with other available associated sample metadata (including historical climate and environmental data, modern DNA data, isotope analysis and radiocarbon dating). This project aims to provide information on a detailed view of population history as a species (almost) becomes extinct, and answer key questions about the response of megafaunal populations to periods of rapid environmental and climatic changes.

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Lab Mascot


Shelly, ConSERT Lab Mascot, University of Canterbury (She/Her)

Meet our lab mascot, Shelly! Shelly is a kakī (black stilt) who has been constructed out of shells from Kaikōura, New Zealand. Every fortnight, Shelly is gifted to a member of ConSERT to provide inspirational support. Check out her Instagram account for more updates from Shelly and ConSERT.