Katarina Piponi, Research Postgraduate

Katarina Piponi is a PhD researcher, working with the Savolainen Laboratory (run by Professor Vincent Savolainen). She is researching the evolutionary genetics of same-sex sexual behaviour in primates, using genetics to disentangle the ‘darwinian paradox’ of homosexual behaviour.

Homosexual behaviour lacks direct contribution to reproductive success. It’s generally accepted that for traits to evolve, they either need to improve survival or reproduction and, at first glance, homosexuality would appear to do neither, hence a paradox.  As a result, previous theories aiming to address reasons for homosexuality have focused on the seeming ‘paradox’ of its existence. These theories assume negative fitness consequence for spending time engaging in same-sex sexual behaviour

Katarina's work aims to explore the evolutionary importance of Same-Sex Behavior (SSB) using genetics as a key tool. This research sheds light on the often-underestimated role of SSB in socio-sexual interactions, with potential implications for human evolution. The focus is on understanding the genetic basis and exploring reasons behind, as well as consequences of, aversion to same-sex sexuality. Her research zeroes in on both individual and group levels, using rhesus macaques as a model species to unravel these fascinating insights.

“My excitement for this research lies in unravelling the mysteries of life's development and nature. Introduced to evolutionary research, I became captivated by the intricate web of biological interconnectedness, especially how genetics unveils the subtle manoeuvres of natural selection. I am eager to know how same-sex socio-sexual behaviour impacts evolution, a behaviour that has persevered continentally and across 1500 documented species. Through this multifaceted approach, I hope to help further our understanding of the burning questions of how and why life persists the way it does.”

How it all started

While studying for her Zoology undergraduate degree at the University of Nottingham, Katarina was drawn to the variety of shapes that life has molded to and the journeys that evolution took to get there. For her dissertation, she had the opportunity to undertake a project where she could artificially evolve green fluorescent proteins using multiplying bacteria. The outcome produced brighter emitting protein clones and she became fascinated by the application of zoological research: understanding biological life allows us to develop our psychologies, medications, therapeutics and more.

"These nuances between ourselves and the rest of the animal kingdom inspired me to dedicate my life to exploring evolutionary animal research and, ultimately, to help further our understanding of how we got here.”

She developed a passion for unraveling the mysteries of animal life through the lens of genetics and so pursued a master's thesis in evolutionary genetics. Her focus was on the snail Cepaea nemoralis, where she delved into the molecular, genetic, and evolutionary progress of the potential genes responsible for the polymorphism present in their shells.

Even though Katarina wanted to continue in academia, she graduated in the heart of COVID and wanted to gain more experience before committing to anything like a PhD. So, she decided to make the leap into the Biotech sphere where she focused on pre-clinical molecular research to produce new Adeno-associated virus (AAV) constructs as a gene therapy treatment for rare genetic conditions. She had the privilege of running her own projects, designing and generating molecular material that underwent in vitro testing in mammalian cell lines, and in vivo testing in animal models.

“I got to see first-hand the application of laboratory research on a human-impact scale and was inspired to soak up as much knowledge from the experienced scientists I was surrounded by. I used my two years in biotech as an opportunity to learn about all the trials and tribulations of conducting research. I experienced the monotony and frustration of repeating failed experiments, screening huge molecular repositories, and the snail-pace of building a cloning procedure. Despite all the adversities, I relished the underlying objective, and that was scientific discovery. That was when I knew I was ready for a PhD."


"During my upbringing, studies and biotech experience I never saw myself differently to the men around me, whether they saw me differently or not. As a result, my initial inspirations were the big male names such as Darwin and Mendel who built what is now evolutionary genetics. I was simply always inspired by their curiosity and tenacity despite them being a different gender to myself.

As someone with a Czech heritage, I was also heavily inspired by Miroslav Holub – a Czech poet and immunologist who used his scientific knowledge to poetic effect. He wrote more than 150 scientific papers and continued his science despite being banned by the totalitarian communist regime in the 1960s for being a political dissident – any mention of his work was forbidden in Czechoslovakia and yet his work was published in over 37 languages. It is this passion and perseverance that I find inspiring."

My advice for women

  • Pursue what excites you. It sounds simple but it is often forgotten about or put aside.
  • See every failed experiment or frustration as a challenge. What can you learn from each mistake - because trouble shooting in the laboratory is where I learnt the most.
  • It is important to not see yourself differently to your male peers. This helped me to not put extra pressure on myself or be overwhelmed by feeling like I needed to play catch-up. I kept my focus on myself and my own journey, rather than what others were doing around me.
  • I would also like to emphasize the importance of building a supportive network. Whether it's mentors, colleagues, or fellow researchers, having a support system can be crucial for navigating challenges and celebrating successes.