Supercomputers in a Pinch
Dr Tara Hopley is a biological scientist at the Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions in Western Australia. There, with the help of the Pawsey Supercomputing Centre, she uses supercomputers to map the base genetics of native and invasive plant species.
Camping was an important ritual for Dr Hopley and her family. Her father grew up camping along the Snowy River. Years later, with a family of his own, he would return to the same spot to show his children the natural wonders of the Victorian High Country.
They would set up along the Pinch River – a tributary to the famous landmark, slaking its thirst all year round with the crisp snowmelt of the Snowy Mountains Range. It was this early exposure to nature that would have an unconscious, profound effect on Dr Hopley’s later life.
“I always loved being outside as a kid. We did a lot of camping and hiking and that sort of stuff. I always felt at home outside and looking around in the bush. That’s what made me gravitate towards environmental science.”
Her father was a mechanic who ran his own auto repairs shop. Her mother would often do the paperwork for the business during their younger years, alongside taking care of the family. Dr Hopley excelled at maths and science in high school and there was a lot of encouragement from her parents to continue into university.
“I think my dad would have loved to go to university if he could have. It was very encouraged and natural for me. I was never one of those people who knew what they wanted to do forever though. Those sorts of plans can set you up for failure. I just did what I enjoyed.”
Dr Hopley began studying as an environmental engineer, before moving to science. For her PhD, she returned once more to the Snowy River. Plant life has a profound effect on the river’s course. There are over 1,200 native plants that call the river home. The growth of native plants by the river’s bank and bed regulates water flow and catches sediment before it pollutes the ocean.
The first big research project of her career was to study the country of her youth, to map and control the spread of grey sallow. It’s a noxious European bush that grows flower clusters called catkins. It spreads thickly by the river bank and can choke native plants and even stopper the river’s course with its mass of twiggy leaves and roots. It’s an incredibly difficult weed to get rid of and work continues to this day.
“It would be nice if it was that simple to change things. The simplest things we do nowadays are still a lot of work to do. Even the base-level genetics – looking at pollen movement and seed movement – it’s still time-consuming and expensive.”
While her work does see her out in the field collecting samples, it mostly relies on studying and modelling plants. Dr Hopley uses supercomputers to simulate the spread of plants, as well as map plant genetics. A plant’s genome holds all of its genetic information. It’s like a blueprint within each cell of the plant. Analysing the genomes of native and invasive species is an important part of Dr Hopley’s work. Genomes hold huge amounts of information and analysing them is almost impossible without supercomputers.
By analysing genomes, Dr Hopley has been looking for how plants adapt to climate. This helps plan plant conservation and environment restoration. She also looks at the genetic patterns of invasive plant species to discover to discover where they come from and how to stop them.
Dr Hopley is inspired by the general public’s interest in conservation. There is a power there which may lead to a future of preservation and coexistence between humans and their environment.
“We have so much native flora and fauna here. More people are becoming aware of it and the importance of conservation. That’s the first step. We need to build awareness and education so people come to love it as much as I do, and we get to work together.”
Dr Hopley now lives in WA. She’s currently studying other invasive weeds with the help of Pawsey Supercomputing Centre, looking for natural predators to limit their spread. While her work is often indoors, she still makes time to return to the environment. In this new state, she recreates the connection to the land first found with her father, forged by the rushing water and wild bush of the Victorian High Country.