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Federal Research Center 
"Krasnoyarsk Science Center of the Siberian
Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences"

 Федеральный исследовательский центр «Красноярский научный центр Сибирского отделения Российской академии наук»

Federal Research Center 
"Krasnoyarsk Science Center of the Siberian
Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences"

Natalia Kirichenko: "It is important to find your own scientific object and love it for life"

21 April 2021 г.

Наталья Кириченко: «Важно найти свой научный объект и полюбить его на всю жизнь»
Another researcher has become a Doctor of Sciences at the Federal Research Center "KSC SB RAS". It is especially pleasant as this is a woman, because according to statistics there are only a quarter of doctors-women in our research center. We sincerely congratulate the senior researcher of the V.N. Sukachev Institute of Forest, Natalia Ivanovna Kirichenko, now a Doctor of Biological Sciences. While she is awaiting the approval of her degree by the Higher Attestation Commission, we decided to ask her about the work done, plans for the future and role of women in science.

What does such an event as the defense of a doctoral thesis mean for a scientist?

This is an important step for which a scientist must become ready. A doctoral thesis is a milestone symbolizing the solution to a significant fundamental problem. And this implies a lot of work, where the results and achievements, like building blocks, are collected into a single system. At the same time, you need to understand that defending the doctoral thesis does not put a fat point in the work. This does not mean that everything has been achieved and it is time to have a rest. On the contrary, this step made should also provide an understanding of where to move next, in what directions to develop.

How did you understand that the time came for this step?

At a certain moment, there arose a desire to systematize the results obtained over the past 15 years.  During this time, many interesting problems were solved within the framework of one major scientific task. Structuring the work done made it possible to highlight the fundamentality and possibilities of practical application, and to outline the directions for further development. All the sections of the doctoral thesis were to be verified and presented in publications in rating scientific journals, as well as discussed with experts. In my case, thirty papers were published on the topic of my thesis, mainly in publications indexed in the international databases Web of science and Scopus, the results were reported at almost eighty Russian and international conferences, and large experience was gained during internships in well-known international scientific centers. Thus, the results obtained and the accumulated experience have found a logical embodiment.

What is your thesis devoted to?

The research deals with the identification of patterns in the formation of new trophic relations and analysis of trends in invasive processes in leaf miners in the Asian part of Russia. It is one of the largest families of moths damaging plant leaves. Their larvae live in the inner tissues of the leaves, making peculiar passages, or mines, in them. Among such insects, there are many pests of woody plants, both in artificial plantations and in forests. It is also important that among these species there are more and more of those that have begun to expand their habitats. Aliens often become pests in the regions where they penetrate, while in their homeland they are background species. I investigated the factors of the emergence of new trophic relation between alien species of leaf miners and local plant species and local species of moths with foreign plants brought from different regions of the world to Siberia. Knowledge of trophic relationships is also important for understanding the distribution mechanisms of alien species. All this is summarized in the work. My findings are important for predicting situations with alien species of mining insects for the country in general and Siberia, in particular.

What else is significant about your research?

There is a very interesting module in my work devoted to the development of molecular genetic libraries of leaf miners. It includes the results of the study of the species diversity of leaf miners using modern methods of molecular genetics. The revision of the local fauna is the basis for the knowledge of the species diversity of insects in the regions and for the study of their ranges and trophic relationships. Such knowledge is indispensable. The difficulty lies not only in the vast geography of research, but also in the fact that the collections of insects are numerous and often represented by immature stages, which does not always allow to specify the species. The solution can be found in modern technologies, which I use in my work.

How are molecular genetic libraries developed and why they are needed?

They are based on DNA barcoding, which means reading a species-specific fragment of one of the mitochondrial DNA genes. The DNA barcode has the same principle as the barcode of goods in a supermarket; according to the latter, the cashier can easily determine the name of the product and its cost. Similarly, using the developed libraries and DNA barcodes, a researcher can establish to which species a biological object belongs and obtain additional information about its feeding relationships and its current habitat.

The results of such studies and, in general, the development of molecular genetic libraries for herbivorous insects are of great practical importance for the diagnosis of species, for example, for quarantine and emergency services. And this is only one part of their application. For example, with the help of molecular genetics, it is possible to establish from which region the insect began to expand its habitat, which can clarify the history of the invasion of the species.

This direction is also considered in my dissertation at an example of a model species, harmful lime leaf miner. I investigated not only the current habitat of the moth, but also the historical one, referring to the largest century-old herbarium collections, which are found in 20 museums and herbarium depositories in nine countries of Europe and Asia. Studying herbarium 250-year-old specimens, I was able to reconstruct the early habitat of the species. Using a new generation sequencing method, we obtained the molecular genetic characteristics of caterpillars and pupae of the lime leaf miner found in mines on leaves in the herbarium collections.

Among Doctors of Science at the Federal Research Center KSC SB RAS, only 23% are women, why do you think they are so few?

Science has historically been the privilege of men. The trend has been changing lately. In the modern world, women have more opportunities in science, which is very encouraging. Of course, there are some difficulties. In everyday life, women have to solve numerous everyday problems, and to devote themselves to raising children. Men have more freedom in this regard. But even in such a busy schedule, women can do science, as they are flexible, quickly grasp and solve problems, can find non-standard solutions, and finally, they are very purposeful. This does not mean that there should be some kind of competition in science. In science there is no gender, there is a scientist, whether it is a woman or a man, the main thing is that they have the same rights. It is necessary to evaluate people by the contribution to science, achievements and ideas, but not by gender.

This year the Nobel committee plans to allocate quotas for women scientists, what do you think about that?

It is right. This is an opportunity to encourage not only outstanding men in science, but also women, because the latter also generate breakthrough ideas, make important discoveries, but often remain in the shadows ... For example, it was Rosalind Franklin who was the first to get high-quality X-ray picture of DNA, which allowed to identify a spiral in its structure. And later, the American explorer James Watson, and the two English scientists Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins were awarded the Nobel Prize for the discovery of the molecular structure of DNA.

What prospects does the new status open to you?

I am interested in the directions that I only touched on while working on my thesis. I would like to further develop the applied aspect of molecular genetic methods for solving problems associated with insect invasions. To study the invasion of alien species into the ecosystems of our country from its southern borders. It is from this area that an increasing number of alien species of herbivorous insects enter Russia. Thus, we could study the expansion of their habitats in terms of the global transformations taking place in the environment today, and also explore the capabilities of biotic factors for controlling the number of harmful insects.

In this regard, there are a number of tasks that I have already been working on, as the head of the RFBR project "Secrets of secular herbarium collections: retrospective molecular genetic analysis of the history of invasion and the search for agents of biocontrol of the harmful lime leaf miner in the Palaearctic" (project no. 19-04-01029а) ... This year, we start joint research with the support of the Russian Science Foundation under the project “Formation of modern habitats of herbivorous invading insects and their ecophysiological adaptations to the conditions of southern Russia” (No. 21-16-00050) under the leadership of Dmitry Leonidovich Musolin, Doctor of Biological Sciences from St. Petersburg State Forestry University.

As to the doctorate degree, it allows one to further develop in science. This status is rather formal, but it is very important for the implementation of further work and large projects. This is an opportunity to move further.