For the love of science- Finding my passion: Meet Rachel van Heugten

Rachel is a healthcare scientist working for the Royal Devon and Exeter NHS Foundation Trust. She works as part of a group using their scientific detective skills to uncover possible genetic causes for a patient’s disease. Before working on humans, Rachel lived in New Zealand where she employed those same skills to help endangered species ranging from mudfish to parakeets. Whatever she is working on, Rachel loves sharing her enthusiasm for science. On the 22nd of September she’ll be at Princesshay Eastgate, Exeter, to share a story filled with giant insects, mystery, adventure, romance and a tiny hero! She hopes you’ll join her.

 

By Rachel van Heugten

I remember sitting in this stuffy lecture hall during my first year of university. Striding back and forth across the front of the room was one of my chemistry lecturers. He gestured widely as he preached about atomic orbitals or… something. What struck me wasn’t what he said, obviously, but how he said it. He overflowed with passion for something he couldn’t even see. I hoped that one day I would find work that filled me with an ounce of that passion. Little did I know, that passion was inside me all along. Horribly cheesy I know but it’s true. I’m Rachel van Heugten and I’m in love with deoxyribonucleic acid or DNA.

Myself and an adorable DNA plushie

For those who haven’t been formally introduced, every living thing is made up of teeny tiny building blocks called cells and each of those cells contains a structure called DNA. DNA is the instructions which tells our cells how to function and how to assemble together into a working body. It is a molecular blueprint. The DNA of each type of plant or animal is different but just like all buildings need walls and a roof, the blueprints of all living things share similarities. The science surrounding DNA is called genetics and scientists, like myself, who work with DNA are called geneticists.

Now, it wasn’t love at first sight. I didn’t lock eyes with an evolution text book and know it was the one. My love grew slowly. Each year of my undergrad I pruned away the subjects I enjoyed least and tended to those I enjoyed most. By my final year I wasn’t sure where I was headed but I knew I wanted to get there with DNA. Luckily, there was no shortage of destinations.

I set off on a tour of my university’s genetics department. Along the way I questioned each of my lecturers on their research, searching for something to fuel my passion. Their answers took me on a journey from “the evolution of early forms of life”, passing by “how bacteria become resistant to drugs” and through onto “the use of genetics in the conservation of endangered animals.”. All of the potential projects tugged at my interest but one in particular took my fancy. The opportunity to combine my passions for genetics and conservation was one not to be missed.

My postgraduate research focused on the conservation of a large native New Zealand insect, the rare Banks Peninsula tree wētā.  My mission was to investigate if this rare insect was interbreeding with the widespread Canterbury tree wētā. Mating with the more common Canterbury wētā would reduce the number of pure Peninsula wētā left and could eventually lead to their extinction.

Holding my first tree wētā

However, questioning an insect about its love life is tricky. Tree wētā in particular are protective of their privacy. They spend their days snug inside tree cavities. Emerging at night, they ascend to the tree tops far from view. Yet somehow, I was meant to survey an area of over 400km2 for evidence of interspecies relations. This looks like a job for genetics!

The DNA of the Banks Peninsula and Canterbury wētā is similar but distinct. By setting up artificial tree cavities, like an insect “bird house”, I could collect a tiny tissue sample from hundreds of wētā across Banks Peninsula. In the lab I crushed up each tissue sample, washing it with a series of different liquids until only the DNA remained. Machines in the laboratory allowed me to detect any differences in the DNA of each insect. By comparing the results to wētā who had a clear identity, I could uncover if an individual was a Banks Peninsula wētā, a Canterbury wētā or a mixture of the two. The results were great news for the future of the rare Banks Peninsula wētā. But what of my future?

Searching for insects on Banks Peninsula, New Zealand

My research’s focus on a rare insect restricted to a small region of a remote island fostered some concern within my extended family. Surely the job market related to my research must be smaller than the insects themselves. I lightly batted away their concerns. My camera might’ve been full of pictures of insects but my science utility belt was loaded with tools for studying DNA. Every single living thing on the planet has DNA. Since my time with insects, I’ve extracted the DNA of pīngao plants, minute mudfish and perishing parakeets. I now find myself working on one of the most widespread species on the planet, humans.

Where I work now, helping to diagnose diseases

Last year I joined a team helping to diagnose diseases using genetics. Your DNA instructs your body on how to grow and function. The instructions are pretty robust and the odd change usually goes unnoticed. However, sometimes a change in the instructions occurs which disrupts how your body usually works, leading to disease. Pin-pointing the exact mistake can help us to determine the risk to other family members, how a person’s symptoms are expected to progress and the best line of treatment or support. While I spend less time out in the sun these days, I’m grateful to genetics for allowing me to continue to do work I find meaningful.

Later this year I’m taking part in the Exeter Soapbox Science. You’ll find me in front of a crowd, arms gesturing widely, speaking passionately about something I cannot see. DNA and I might be past our honeymoon phase but the love’s still there. I love that you can determine if chimpanzees in neighbouring forest patches are related from the DNA they leave on the surface of their droppings. I love that my friends can extract DNA from bones 1000s of years old, to learn about the past and relate it to the present. I love that someone can spit into a tube in Australia, send it around the world and we can tell them why they have diabetes. I love where genetics has taken me so far and I can’t wait to see where it takes me next.

If you’re keen to learn more about conservation, genetics and large New Zealand insects then come check out my Soapbox Science talk at Princesshay Eastgate (between Topshop and New Look), Central Exeter on the 22nd of September. I look forward to seeing you there.

If you want to see more science writing by me you can find some here:

Learn about how geneticists helped solve the mystery of a fossilized bird….

Learn more about genetics and evolution with a story from the Valley of Fire

 

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