Profile SpotlightResearch23 Aug 2019

Introducing Forrest Scholar: Kit Prendergast

Each profile in this series will shed a little more light on a Forrest Scholar or Fellow and their fascinating research.

Kit-Prendergast
Forrest Research Foundation Scholar Kit Prendergast Photo Credit: Benjamin Horgan.

The Forrest Research Foundation Fellows and Scholars are some of the brightest minds in Western Australia. They study a range of subjects from plant DNA, to emerging technology to cognitive neuroscience.

One of these scholars is Kit Prendergast. Kit was one of the first scholars appointed in the inaugural
2016 scholarship round.

We caught up with Kit to learn more about her important work.

Can you tell us a little about your research?

KP: My research involves surveying the urbanised southwest Western Australian biodiversity hotspot for native bees, to document their diversity and how to conserve them.

This involves identifying what flowers they prefer; what habitat types – urban bushland remnants vs. residential gardens – are important for native bee populations; what local and landscape factors influence the abundance, diversity, and reproductive output of native bees; and whether the introduced European honeybee is outcompeting native bees.

What was your undergrad and where did you study?

KP: I studied at UWA, merging both my artistic, creative side, with my passion for understanding nature and science, doing both a Bachelor of Arts, majoring in English and Cultural Studies, and a Bachelor of Science, majoring in Zoology and Conservation Biology. I then did an honours project on horses, achieving First Class Honours, investigating the ability of horses and ponies to respond to visual and auditory cues.

What drew you to this area of research?

KP: I love the natural world, and the only way to truly understand and protect it is through scientific study. Bees showcase how natural selection has led to a diversity of species that have co-evolved with flowering plants, and how these creatures, through their pollination abilities, play important roles in the health and functioning of ecosystems, and thus biodiversity as a whole.

What previous work have you done in this field?

KP: Before this project (which I devised myself) I had never studied bees.

My previous work was on horses (one of my favourite animals) and in the field of ethology. Whilst I am also studying bee behaviour, my work is more ecological focussed, and on organisms very different from equids! However, I have always loved studying ecology, and was a lab demonstrator for ecology units in the year between my honours and commencing my PhD.

How did you hear about the Forrest Research Foundation?

KP: I had devised this bee-rilliant project on studying how native bees respond to urbanisation in this biodiversity hotspot, but was then faced with the task of finding a supervisor. This was a very novel situation, because usually most PhD students just fill a position in a project that has been already devised by their supervisor.

As this was a new project, I had no funding to back it. Prof Kingsley Dixon saw the potential in me and my ideas, and encouraged me to apply for the Forrest Research Foundation scholarship.

Who has been the biggest inspiration on your work?

KP: The bees themselves. The diversity of these amazing evolutionary creatures, their beautiful forms, fascinating behaviours… Nature is the ultimate source of inspiration.

Who in your field would you most like to collaborate with?

KP: In the field of natural sciences…David Attenborough of course! Like Sir David, I have a great passion for the natural world, and not only am dedicated to understanding it through scientific research, but communicating my research discoveries to the general public.

What would you like to do after you finish your studies?

KP: Ideally, I would like to continue to study native bees. A key issue that urgently requires investigation is how native bees and honeybees respond to fire – both wildfires, which are projected to increase under climate change, and prescribed burns.

Another key area is the potential to harness the abilities of native bees to improve crop pollination. A area where this is especially promising is in the emerging and highly popular area of indigenous bush tucker foods.

I would also like to write a book for the general public called, “Bees in the burbs in a biodiversity hotspot”, to work on describing new species of native bees, and to create a bee-friendly certification scheme for farmers.

I have so many ideas that make me buzz!

Nina Derbyshire
by Nina Derbyshire
Nina supports Minderoo Foundation, particularly the Building Communities portfolio, in monitoring and evaluating the outcomes of our investments and partnerships. Her background in project co-ordination across a range of industries brings operational expertise to this role.
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