When she was in year 12 at school, Jessie Bird won the NIWA Wellington Regional Science and Technology Fair with a project about the antibacterial properties of the fungi she found near her home. But that’s just the beginning of the story.
Jessie was curious about the fungi she had noticed in the bush and in early winter, collected eight different specimens. She made extracts with methylated spirits and tested them against two common bacteria. One fungus in particular showed good antibacterial properties and Jessie named it ‘Sienna velvet’ herself, since she was unable to match it to known varieties.
“Many commonly used antibiotics in the world today are becoming ineffective as bacteria develop resistance to them and new, untreatable ‘superbugs’ are emerging. It is really important that new medicines are researched and developed to combat these diseases. Penicillin, the first antibiotic discovered is derived from a fungus, and many plants have antimicrobial properties, so perhaps fungi found in New Zealand native bush could also have antibacterial properties and be of use in medical research. This project explored the possibility that fungi could once more be the needed medical miracle,” says Jessie.
At the Science Fair, Jessie was nominated for the Realise the Dream competition where she won an award for excellence in research. She also began the CREST programme and for her gold award, was mentored by Suzanne Boniface and Peter Roberts in the School of Chemical and Physical Sciences. She worked in the lab during school holidays, doing a variety of different experiments to study the antibacterial properties of the fungus. Last summer she worked with Emma Earl, a Masters student of Dr Ronan O’Toole in the School of Biological Sciences, testing Sienna velvet against a mycobacterium species, and attempting to extract and analyse its DNA for identification.
Jessie is now in her second year of a Bachelor of Biomedical Science, funded by the Victoria University scholarship she won at the Science Fair.
“Victoria University have been very supportive to me with what I’m doing – it’s been amazing. I’m really enjoying my study here – there is so much to learn.”
The CREST scheme is the Royal Society of New Zealand’s international awards scheme designed to encourage years 6–13 students to be innovative, creative, and to problem-solve in science, technology and environmental studies.