ECR Spotlight is a series of interviews with early-career authors from a selection of papers published in Journal of Experimental Biology and aims to promote not only the diversity of early-career researchers (ECRs) working in experimental biology but also the huge variety of animals and physiological systems that are essential for the ‘comparative’ approach. Cristina Ottocento is an author on ‘ Diet influences resource allocation in chemical defence but not melanin synthesis in an aposematic moth’, published in JEB. Cristina conducted the research described in this article while a PhD Researcher in Johanna Mappes's lab at the University of Jyväskylä, Finland. She is now a Postdoctoral Researcher in the lab of Johanna Mappes at the University of Helsinki, Finland, investigating chemical ecology and chemical communication.
How did you become interested in biology?
I am a curious person and I have always been fascinated by nature. However, when I reached the crossroads of choosing my career path after high school, I found myself torn between my love for art and literature, which I still cherish, and the world of evolutionary biology. During a visit to the University of Padova, Italy, I became immensely enthusiastic about the biology course, especially the prospect of delving into ethology, evolution and the philosophy of science, all intertwined with chemistry, maths and physics. My master's degree in Evolutionary Biology was a great choice I truly relished, and I had the opportunity to prepare my master's thesis as an Erasmus student at the University of Jyväskylä in Finland under the supervision of Johanna Mappes, Bibiana Rojas and Emily Burdfield-Steel. Every step in this journey has shaped my passion for biology, culminating in the completion of my PhD degree at the University of Jyväskylä in September 2023. I am grateful for my supervisors and collaborators and all the experiences that have brought me to this point.
Describe your scientific journey and your current research focus
My research interests centre on chemical ecology and chemical communication. In the past years, my work has been focused on pheromone communication in moths and the importance of their chemical defences, which often exhibit substantial and unexpected variation within and across species. The initial plan for my PhD research was to determine whether differences in sex pheromones between wood tiger moth (Arctia plantaginis) populations from North Europe (Finland and Estonia) and the Caucasus Mountain region are one of the processes that could explain pre-zygotic isolation in this species. Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic has harmed my research and led to a change in the work planned for my PhD: I had to cancel fieldwork in Georgia from 2020 onwards, which was essential for my research. However, together with my supervisors, I modified my thesis plan. It was not easy, but this experience has taught me the importance of flexibility and resilience in the scientific pursuit. My dissertation was focused on the evolution and ecological drivers of chemical communication in wood tiger moths. My research utilises methods from chemical ecology and behavioural ecology, including fieldwork and laboratory experiments. I hope to continue work along this vein as a researcher in my future career.
How would you explain the main findings/message of your paper to a member of the public?
Chemical defences play an important role in the communication between predators and their prey, but their variation within and between organisms has long puzzled evolutionary biologists. If the chemical defence is important for prey fitness, selection should erode variation and select defence strategies that are, in general, as effective as possible. The aposematic wood tiger moth, Arctia plantaginis, produces strongly smelling compounds and advertises this chemical defence to predators with vivid warning colours on their wings. Birds find those compounds repellent and often desert the moth because of its smell. However, these defences often present unexpected variation in their amount, and one possible explanation is that they come at a cost. This study found that early-life nutrients are key to shaping the armour. In our work, by manipulating specific nutrients (proteins) in the diet of the wood tiger moth, we were able to investigate how resources are distributed between growth, chemical defence and colour pigmentation, and whether trade-offs between those traits occur. We discovered that moths reared on a high-protein diet had more efficient defensive fluids than those raised on a low-protein diet. However, the black melanin components of the warning signals were only marginally influenced by nutrient availability, but there was a positive correlation between the melanin amount in the wings and the effectiveness of the chemical defences. In conclusion, we learned that the food moths eat during their early-life stage plays a big role in their ability to produce chemical defences, but melanin synthesis in adult wings might be less environmentally regulated and prioritized (canalized) by selection.
What do you enjoy most about research, and why?
My favourite part of conducting research is knowing that our work contributes to the collective understanding of the world around us and uncovers answers to questions that have not been explored before and/or stimulates new questions. Every project presents its unique challenges, pushing us to think critically and expand our understanding of the ecological and evolutionary processes. Collaboration and being part of a community of diverse scientists who come from all over the world with completely different backgrounds, languages and education, and sharing ideas with them, are other important aspects of doing research that I truly enjoy.
What is the hardest challenge you have faced in the course of your research and how did you overcome it?
Dealing with the impact of the pandemic was a significant challenge, both personally and for my research. Fortunately, I had a backup plan. Although it wasn't ideal, it worked out well, and I had great supervisors! I had to be flexible, adapt my research, and persevere. While this was perhaps the biggest challenge during my PhD, other aspects of the research process present their own (sometimes quite hard) difficulties. Rejections, whether from journals, grant applications or job positions, are often tough. And some of these challenges hit harder than others. Failed experiments can be difficult too. How do I overcome them? I remind myself that my personal success is not based on a grant loss or a paper rejection. Easier said than done for sure, but there is always a solution or an alternative, and sometimes it can lead to unexpected perspectives. Having or building a support network, whether it's family, friends, colleagues or a therapist, and resources from the university are a huge help too.
What is the most important lesson that you have learned from your career so far?
The most important lessons that I have learned from my career so far are to be resilient, perseverant and kind. In academia and in life more generally, there will always be challenges, changes, loss, risks and rejections. Sometimes it can be overwhelming and stressful. Flexibility, adaptability and perseverance help in overcoming adversity. I also want to add that kindness and empathy have been extremely important to me. It may seem obvious, but it is often overlooked. Being kind and surrounded by people who treat others with respect, kindness and empathy improve massively the work environment, and, in my opinion, enhance productivity and collaboration especially in a highly competitive environment such as academia.
What's next for you?
I am currently in the process of actively seeking a postdoctoral position, where I hope to further delve into my passion for ecology, evolution and chemical communication. I am excited about the prospect of contributing to research and expanding my expertise in these fascinating areas.
Cristina Ottocento's contact details: Organismal and Evolutionary Biology Research Programme, Faculty of Biological and Environmental Sciences, Viikinkaari 1, PO Box 65, 00014 University of Helsinki, Finland.