Killer spiders and bad memories win Young Tall Poppy success

Michelle Moulds
Friday, 15 October, 2010
Bob Beale

Two outstanding young researchers from the Faculty of Science have been recognised among five UNSW winners in the 2010 Young Tall Poppy Awards.

The Tall Poppies recognise young scientists who excel at research, leadership and communication. The program aims to inspire young people and the broader community about the possibilities of science and to encourage a culture of innovation alongside the promotion of scientific literacy.

With research interests as varied the mating habits of redback spiders and the psychology of depression, Dr Michael Kasumovic and Associate Professor Michelle Moulds were among those honoured last night at a gala event held at the NSW Powerhouse.

Professor Moulds was also awarded the UNSW Medal and named as the Young Tall Poppy of the Year for NSW. Her nomination records that Professor Moulds, of the School of Psychology, has made an outstanding contribution to the scientific understanding of depression, with more than 75 journal publications and scores of conference papers and posters to her credit. She has given almost 30 invited seminars and is a peer reviewer for more than 40 journals.

Her research program is comprised of experimental and clinical studies that examine cognitive and memory processes in psychological disorders; in particular, depression. She investigates the impact of cognitive processes on memory functioning in depression; specifically, the role of rumination in the maintenance of established depression-related memory disturbances such as intrusive memories, over-general autobiographical memory and retrieval biases.

"Depressive rumination refers to a pattern of repetitive thinking in which a depressed person becomes ‘stuck’ in an unhelpful cycle of analysing their depressed mood, replaying events from the past and evaluating themselves negatively," Professor Moulds says. "Rumination is a core cognitive feature of clinically and residually depressed individuals, and has been linked to the duration, severity and maintenance of depressive episodes.

"Memory disturbances are also an important feature of depression. Little is known, however, about the interplay of rumination and memory processes in depression. So we are conducting a series of experimental studies that apply cognitive paradigms to investigate how rumination maintains disturbances in the retrieval of both positive and negative autobiographical memories in depression."

Recurrent and distressing intrusive memories also feature in post-traumatic stress disorder but have been understudied in the context of depression – other research aims to fill that gap.

In her clinical studies, she is applying her experimental findings to develop new treatment approaches for depression that specifically target memories of negative past events and aim to prevent depression recurrence.

Dr Kasumovic is an ARC Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Sciences and is regarded as a future world leader in evolution and ecology. His nomination records that in his relatively short career he has already published 20 scientific papers and developed a broad and growing expertise that spans experimental field biology and physiology to developmental biology and evolutionary genetics.

He is credited with international expertise in creating a whole new field of research in what is known as adaptive developmental plasticity through his studies into how environmental conditions change mate choice behaviour and the complex links between demography, competition for mates and development.

"Examples across the animal world demonstrate that it’s the biggest, strongest, most colourful males that mate with the most females," he says. "But if females prefer these males, what happens to all the other males that don’t quite measure up?

"My research uses the Australian redback spider to explain why poorer quality males exist. Male redbacks perform a curious behaviour while mating—males somersault and place their body on the female’s jaws where she happily consumes his body while he continues to mate.

"This ultimate sacrifice means that males only have one chance to mate, and success depends on successfully locating mates and outcompeting rivals. My research demonstrates that immature males use pheromones to determine the presence of females and the density of surrounding males. When males smell more rivals, it means that competition is more intense, so males delay maturity in order to grow larger to out-compete rivals.

"In contrast, when females are abundant and rivals are scarce, males sacrifice size to mature more quickly in order to reach and mate with females first. By shifting their development, males can take advantage of their surroundings, demonstrating that it’s not the size that counts, but how well you know your competition."

Media contact:
UNSW Faculty of Science media liaison – Bob Beale 0411 705 435