CSI Australia Museum: Rebecca Johnson joins Real Scientists

From regional Australia, we move back top Sydney to meet our next curator, Dr. Rebecca Johnson/@DrRebeccaJ of the Australian Museum. Museums are much more than repositories of stuff: they are hugely important centres for the preservation of cultural artefacts, animal history and prehistory, research and, as we will see, in forensics.

We’ll be following the life of Dr Johnson as a full time ‘scientist and manager’ at the Museum.  Rebecca assures us it is much more interesting than it sounds, as she believes she has the best job in the world as Head of the Australian Centre for Wildlife Genomics (ACWG) at the Australian Museum (www.australianmuseum.net.au/acwg) where over the past 10 years she has established the ACWG as one of the leaders in wildlife forensic science and is engaged in a broad program of museum genomics research.



A museum is often not top of mind when you think ‘all things CSI’ but at the Australian Museum, scientists apply a combination of our genetics expertise and our huge natural history collection to solving forensic mysteries for law enforcement purposes but also for management of species in the aviation industry and the zoo and aquarium field. The ACWG is one of the few facilities in Australia to be accredited for Wildlife Forensic work under ISO17025 and they have experience working with sample types as diverse as shark fins, bird embryos, gall bladders, seized fish meat, salted animal skin, bones, horns etc. A number of these cases have resulted in prosecution and heavy penalties in court.

When not doing wildlife forensic work the ACWG is working on the Koala Genome Project through the Koala Genome Consortium www.koalagenome.org (a project they co-lead with researchers at QUT) as well as collaborative projects with other museum scientists on birds, mammals, reptiles, marine invertebrates, molluscs, fish….”pretty much you name it we have probably worked on it!”

Rebecca represents the Museum on a number of government and industry committees in her area of expertise and is a member of the International Society for Forensic Genetics, the Society for Wildlife Forensic Science and a committee member of the NSW Branch of the Australia New Zealand forensic Science Society (ANZFSS), and executive member of the Australian Aviation Wildlife Hazard Group as well as the secretary of the Genetics Society of Australasia and co-chair of the 2014 GSA conference. She has published her case work in the scientific literature and has also published on specific genetics applications of wildlife forensic science. She has presented her work both in Australia and overseas and also regularly presents to students and the public on the importance of wildlife forensic science and the key roles and museums and herbaria can play in this field.  So, please welcome our second curator from the Australia Museum, Dr Rebecca Johnson.


Over and out of the field: Thanks and farewell, Dr Dave Watson

Understanding the moods of a vast and fertile planet requires patience, excellent equipment, and excellent scientists.  Everywhere is a unique ecosystem with unique flora and fauna, and challenges from agriculture, pollution to invasive species. We thank our brilliant curator this week, Dr Dave Watson, for enlightening us on the delights and challenges of studying and maintaining ecosystems, as well as the best ever crash course in mistletoe and parasite management ever.  For instance, Dave’s specialty, mistletoe is a plant parasite without roots that manages to spread from tree to tree across vast distances. Did you ever think mistletoe was so fascinating outside of attempted kisses at Christmas? No you did not.

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Out in the field in Western NSW, the scientists – Dr Dave and his co-workers and students and his family! – set up for a week’s field work.  We were treated to photos from the site as well as from Dave’s work in Panama and elsewhere.  There was a crash course in mistletoe biology, host mimicry and adaptations, and beautiful photos of sunrises and sunsets.  There was also discussion on creativity in science and research, the pressures on family and partner’s careers, and one of the best summaries of the nature of research we’ve seen:


“I’ll discuss why becoming a research scientist is only one path emanating from a PhD and why it suits only a particular kind of person..I’ll focus on three concepts: productivity, creativity and inspiration, and suggest researchers need a good measure of all three..Essentially, what researchers do is think about one particular thing in depth, considering it from all sorts of angles & perspectives..An important aspect of this is immersing ourselves in what has been done before, critically reading everything that has been written..Reading critically is just as important as actually conducting novel research or writing up the results of what you found–provides context. Reading within your discipline to remain current is only part of the job–must read widely as well–look for connections and parallels..Reading outside your discipline is also a great way of discovering new ways of doing things, apply them to your study system..Science should be artistic..science need not be formulaic and repetitious–the best stuff is as creative as any of the arts.”


Science is a creative endeavour – it requires something more than just data analysis.

So thank you, Dr Dave, for such a spectacular and engaging week at Real Scientists.  You can catch up on the tweets in the Storifys, and you can follow Dave’s adventures at @D0ct0r_Dave.







Under the Mistletoe, out in the meadow – David Watson joins Real Scientists

What happens to ecosystems when humans arrive?  What did the planet look like before humans started farming? How do habitats change over time? Our next curator, Associate Professor David Watson of Charles Sturt University, works on ecosystems, fragmented habitats and introduced species – in fact, he’s the King of Misteltoe!  While mistletoe is a fun Christmas prop in the Northern Hemisphere, in Australia, misteltoe is a significant invasive parasitic plant that can destroy forests. We’re delighted to welcome David to Real Scientists, where he will be live-tweeting from the field in regional New South Wales.  David has spent many years working in different ecosystems from the United States to Australia studying the subtle and not so subtle interactions between different species and the environment. What this kind of work tells us is how to track changes in the environment with all its variables, as well as giving us a greater understanding of the planet we live in, with it’s astounding biodiversity. Here’s David in his own words:


“I grew up in Melbourne, Australia and apparently I announced to my family at the tender age of three that I was going to be a biologist.  My father trained as a behavioural ecologist (both in Australia and post-graduate work at Princeton) and my Mum has a Masters in fine arts, so scholarship, learning and natural history were always around and encouraged in the family home.   Biodiversity–especially the many and varied forms of animals–have long fascinated me, and to this day still provide my inspiration as a researcher.

Throughout my school days, science was always my favourite subject, but physics and chemistry felt a lot like cough medicine–although I was sure they were good for me, I didn’t enjoy the experience very much!  It was when I got to university (Monash) when I first studied biology, and realised all the books and documentaries that I’d been voraciously devouring gave me a solid base to work from.  I loved every aspect of university, got involved in the Monash Biology Society in first year, eventually becoming President and leading trips to northern Australia.

For my honours degree, I worked with Ralph Mac Nally and Andrew Bennett looking at the effects of habitat fragmentation on wildlife–focusing on birds in a poorly-known habitat type in western Victoria–Buloke woodlands.  These two scholars were generous with their time and their wisdom, and are still mentors for me (as well as close friends).  it was during field trips to these woodlands surrounded by agricultural land that I made two important realisations— whole lot of amazing habitat exists on private land; and mistletoes are really cool!

I moved to the USA for my doctoral research, working with Town Peterson, Bob Holt and norm Slade at The University of Kansas.  My interest was still on habitat fragmentation, but I was conscious of the mismatch in timescales between how long ecosystems take to adjust from major disturbances, and the age of many of the fragmented landscapes that were being studied–generally, less than 100 years since they were cleared for cities and agriculture.  So, for my PhD, I undertook a series of studies in Mesoamerica to investigate the long-term effects of habitat fragmentation, looking at high elevation habitats (cloud forests and humid pine-oak forests) that became fragmented 30,000 years ago or so, as these cold-adapated forests that used to extend throughout the region (from Texas to Colombia) retreated up-slope as regional climates became warmer and drier.  During this work, I spent many months in remote areas visited by very few people, gaining privileged access to some amazing places.  Birds abundance, also undescribed reptiles and amphibians, unbelievable food and, oh yes, lots of mistletoes.

Having completed my PhD, i was madly applying for jobs (back in Australia and also is Canada and the USA), but decided to look into this mistletoe caper in a bit more depth.  The University of Kansas had two key resources–a library that contained an immense collection of biological literature, and an editor of a very influential ‘by invitation only’ journal.  So, I did a bunch of reading, decided that my hunch based on limited experience may actually be more generalizable, and pitched a review paper to the editor on the topic of mistletoes as a keystone resource.  She though it sounded worthwhile, encourage me to formally approach the journal, and so it began–Dr Dave was on the road to becoming a mistletoe expert!  The paper was published in 2001 with the humble title: ‘Mistletoe–a keystone resource in forests and woodlands worldwide’ and it had three effects for me: widespread agreement’ offers of collaboration, and recognition that I was a mistletoe expert.

Meanwhile, I had accepted a job offer from a small regional university back in Australia, Charles Sturt University, which taught a graduate-level course in ornithology.  With a wife and first child on the way, I accepted the position, re-located to regional New South Wales and have been there ever since.  I’m now an Associate Professor, working on a whole range of projects in three main themes–The ecology of parasitic plants, the biological consequences of habitat fragmentation, and biodiversity conservation in agricultural landscapes.  I currently have five research students and a wide range of collaborators (17 at last count) with ongoing projects in southern Australian woodlands, central Australian deserts and Mesoamerican rain forests.”


Please welcome Dr David Watson/@D0ct0r_Dave to Real Scientists!

The Chemistry was Right: Thanks and Farewell Steve Maguire

What happens when you can’t decide if you want to be an actor or a scientist? You become an award-winning science communicator and chemistry teacher just like our curator for the past week, Steve Maguire! This week Steve took us on a journey through many different aspects of chemistry, a little physics, science communication, and teaching.

Steve uses the varsity soccer team to power the lights in his classroom (that is totally what is happening here.

Steve uses the varsity soccer team to power the lights in his classroom (that is totally what is happening here).

Steve talked to us about his PhD research in biofuels and biopolymers, including aspects of chemical synthesis and the pros and cons of different renewable fuel types.

Steve also reflected on winning the Flame Challenge, and the difficulties in making videos to explain complex scientific concepts to the general public. On the plus side, Steve says winning such a prize makes one feel like an actual real expert professional,  but does not assist in comprehending the fact that Hawkeye from M*A*S*H wants to talk to you about how awesome an actual real expert professional you are.

The Flame Challenge, Steve won it he did.

The Flame Challenge, Steve won it he did.

We even got a crash course in explosives because everyone knows, there ain’t no point becoming a chemist if you can’t blow some shiz up every now and then.

Some quite excellent timing meant that we also got to share the news of Steve’s new job at the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory, where they SCIENTS thousands of metres underground down a mine shaft.  Just looking for some teeny tiny particles that barely interact with anything, you know, as you do, no big deal, pretty easy… WOW. All the best in your new employment Steve!


If you missed anything this week, catch up on storify; part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4.

Science Isn’t Scary – Steve Maguire joins Real Scientists

Scientific research is pursued for many reasons. Curiosity. To solve a problem. To invent something new. The pure pursuit of knowledge. And because the processes of nature that science can reveal are beautiful. It’s this aesthetic component that keeps many people in science, and it’s certainly why our next curator, Steve Maguire (@sciencenotscary) is in science.

Steve Maguire is the 2013 winner of the Flame Challenge (Video), sponsored by the Alan Alda Centre for Communicating Science.  He is currently teaching chemistry at Lakehead University’s Orillia campus, around 80 miles/130 km north of Toronto, in Canada.  Steve did PhD work at the University of Ottawa under Professor Tom Baker (no relation to Doctor Who), and obtained a Masters at the same institution with Professor Tito Scaiano.  Steve’s research interests are in iron-catalysed production of biofuels (PhD) and photogenerated nanoparticles (MSc).  Steve is also the creator and host of Science Isn’t Scary, a YouTube series describing everyday science in everyday words.  Steve swears he is going to be famous some day, just you wait and see… which if it happens this week, we’ll know all about it!

We asked him some non-scary questions:
1. How did you end up in science? What is it that interests you about science?
I’m a scientist because of Star Trek.  I identified with the character of Wesley Crusher (I was the obnoxious kid that nobody liked).  I got into chemistry because of my high school chem teacher.  I like how science is part storytelling, part detective work: building a picture of something from evidence gathered from multiple avenues of investigation.
2. What is it about science communication that got you into it and keeps you there?
I got into scicomm because it combines three of my interests: science, teaching and theatre.  I’m an incorrigible ham, and when I was in grad school I didn’t have enough time to commit to doing plays.  Doing science outreach was the only way I could indulge my passion for the stage.  I did Chemistry Magic Shows for an organisation called Let’s Talk Science.
3. Where did you grow up, and how did you come to be where you are?
I was born in North Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada and lived there until I was six.  We moved to Brisbane, Australia (my dad’s home town) for a couple of years before returning to Canada and settling in Kelowna, BC.  I did my B.Sc. there at Okanagan University College (which has since been assimilated by the University of British Columbia), and grad school (M.Sc. and a failed PhD) at the University of Ottawa.  Currently I’m finishing up a year of teaching at Lakehead University’s branch campus in Orillia.
4. Any hobbies outside of your work?
Theatre and role-playing.  After spending what seems like an eternity in grad school I’m rediscovering what it’s like to have free time.  The first day of my tenure at @realscientists is the last performance of Inherit The Wind.  I play Bertram Cates, the young schoolteacher on trial for teaching evolution.  Playing a science teacher was a huge stretch for me.
5. Can you talk a bit about the What is a Flame challenge? It sounds very cool.
The Flame Challenge was started by Alan Alda (of M*A*S*H and Scientific American Frontiers) based on an incident in his childhood: he asked his teacher what a flame was, and she said “It’s oxidation, go away”.  He wasn’t happy with that answer, so in collaboration with the Centre For Communicating Science at Stony Brook University, he started this contest for scientists to clearly and concisely explain to an 11-year-old audience what a flame was, and the entries would be judged by actual 11-year-olds.  I didn’t hear about it in time to enter during the first year, but the second year, I won.  The question, What is Time?, was selected by the kids themselves.  My video can be found here: http://www.centerforcommunicatingscience.org/the-flame-challenge-2/meet-the-finalists/, along with the winner of the written category. The approach I took was to not talk down to the kids.  I remember being eleven myself – dimly – and the one thing that annoyed me most was being patronised.  I was careful not to use that fake-enthusiastic tone that so many children’s presenters use, and instead talk to them as if they were friends or colleagues.  I tried to keep it simple, but I threw in a couple of technical terms and then defined them – people say not to use jargon, but I disagree.  If it’s a term you can easily define with a quick aside, by all means take the opportunity to teach your audience a new word.

So please welcome Steve Maguire, chemist, thespian and champion science communicator, to Real Scientists!

Y leaving so soon? Farewell and thanks, Dr Melissa Wilson Sayres

Another tremendous week of @RealScientists has come and gone under the stewardship of evolutionary geneticist Dr Melissa Wilson Sayres of UC Berkeley. As discussed in her welcome post, Melissa’s main research focus is to understand the evolution of sex chromosomes (X and Y in mammals), and is also interested in using the unique properties of these chromosomes (e.g. that they spend different amounts of time in the male and female germlines, and are subject to different selective pressures) to address how genetic mutations accumulate. To address the first area of interest, she is cataloging and interpreting variation among Y chromosomes from populations around the world. She has also been comparing diversity of sex and non-sex chromosomes across hundreds of individuals to determine how population demography, selection, and sex-specific mutation processes combine to contribute to the accumulation of mutations in the human genome.

Melissa talked about her research (of course), but also job applications, collaborations, courtroom science (the ideas of uncertainty and reasonable doubt), science funding, why or why not to do a PhD, how to become a bioinformaticist (you don’t have to learn how to code, but it helps), the role and importance of academic outreach… you name it, Melissa dived into it. And if that wasn’t enough, during her week of tweeting for RealScientists, Melissa jetted cross-country to the Conference of World Affairs (#CWA2014) in which she was involved in several panels. particularly on sex and gender. This inspired some deep and meaningful dialogue about the complex meanings of these concepts, and how concepts of sex and gender are ascribed those meanings in a genetic, cellular, physiological, psychological, legal and societal sense.

Though it’s possible the only thing which inspired more comment than those discussions were Melissa’s sciency leggings…

Screen Shot 2014-04-13 at 6.07.02 pmMelissa’s legged it (sorry) for a hard-earned refreshing beverage, but you can rewind through her fantastic week of curation via our Storify account. We thoroughly recommend keeping up with Melissa by following her on Twitter at @mwilsonsayres.


Next week: We prove that science isn’t scary; our next curator Steve Maguire has video evidence. He joins us shortly.

Frogs Glorious Frogs – thanks and farewell Jodi Rowley

How shall we measure the health of the planet? Is it measured by the parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere? The acidity of the oceans, the amount of rainfall?  It can be measured by all of these.  But we also measure the health of ecosystems by measuring animals, bioindicators like bees. And bioindicators like frogs, which were the subject of this week’s tweets by Jodi Rowley, along with her other Amazing Amphibians (TM).  Frogs are extremely important indicators of the health of wetlands and water systems, and their abundance tells us about the level of pollution  in these systems.


Jodi shared some of her amazing frog and amphibian finds – salamanders, and the super-freaky Caecilians with retractable face tentacles from her travels through Vietnam, Cambodia and more local climes (Sydney).  It was a frog-festival at Real Scientists this week and we were really treated to some beautiful photography, introduced to unique species, and the process of sifting through leaf litter and mud to find tiny frog beautifully adapted to their environs, some even camouflaged as..well..bird poop.

Here is a composite image of the frog eyes from frogs Jodi has documented. Eye of Sauron not half as awesome.


This one is one of my favourites: a frog with green blood and turquoise bones. Nature produces the most amazing animals:


Jodi’s travels reminds us of the way naturalists like Alfred Russell Wallace used to head out into the wild blue yonder to collect specimens. In modern times, the collection of specimens takes on an important ecological role in observing the health of the species as well as the environments, as well as allowing to carry out molecular analyses that help us better understand adaptation and evolution.

We thank Jodi Rowley for her awesome week at Real Scientists – we say it every time, but it’s true. You can follow her further adventures at the Australia Museum with @austmusreserach and her personal account at @jodirowley.

Why Y? Evolutionary biologist Dr Melissa Wilson Sayres joins RealScientists

As we observed in a post mid-last-year: sex is bizarre. In an evolutionary sense, in particular. Despite sexual dimorphic species existing throughout animal kingdom, there isn’t a lot in common between the ways different animals – for instance birds, reptiles, mammals – trigger the development of male vs female embryos. Mammals, as we know, use the inheritance of the sex chromosomes X and Y to determine sex – XY embryos typically develop as males, XX as females. The sex-determining region on the Y chromosome (Sry) was defined in the late 80s and shown to be necessary and sufficient to drive male development in mammals in the early 90s; apart from some defects in sperm production, XX mouse embryos (chromosomally female) which are ‘transgenic’ for an introduced copy of the Sry gene develop as normal males. Which raises the question – so what’s the rest of the Y chromosome for? It’s tiny (compared to other chromosomes), carries few genes, and the main job it has to carry out – determining maleness – can be done by one gene.

MelissaWilsonSayresThis is a question of particular interest to this week’s curator, Dr Melissa Wilson Sayres of UC Berkeley. Melissa’s research uses bioinformatics and genomics to study the evolutionary dynamics of sex chromosome evolution, male mutation bias, and pregnancy. Recently she published work in PLoS Genetics showing that human Y chromosomes are much more similar to each other than expected, and that this is because natural selection is acting to maintain the useful gene content that still survives there. Rumours of the Y chromosome’s demise are, it appears, somewhat exaggerated. “After that initial loss of genes, the primate lineage has been whittled down to a core set of genes that are necessary in humans for function,” Melissa told The Huffington Post. “Although there was initially a huge loss of genes from the Y chromosome, that rate of loss has transitioned from a gush to a trickle, and we expect that there will not be much more loss from the human Y chromosome.”

Aside from her research interests in evolutionary genetics, Melissa is also an advocate for science outreach advocate, having spearheaded several efforts to communicate science to the public including developing the content and infrastructure for a bi-annual workshop to introduce teenage girls to diverse scientific disciplines that has now been running for seven years, and organizing hands-on science activities for over 10,000 participants at the National Science and Engineering Festival. In addition to increasing appreciation of science among youth, Melissa is a vocal advocate for evolution education at all levels. She writes about her own science and other primary research articles for the public on her blog, mathbionerd.blogspot.com, and discusses evolution with anyone who wants to engage at pandasthumb.org. She tweets at @mwilsonsayres, apart from this week, when she’s tweeting for us!

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

I was born in Stillwater, Oklahoma. I lived in Oklahoma for five years, then to Garland, Texas, then Tempe, Arizona, then to Syracuse, Nebraska (yes, such a place exists, where I graduated high school with 43 people. I majored in Mathematics at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska. Then, I drove ~1,025 miles East on I-80 to attend graduate school in Integrative Biology: Bioinformatics and Genomics at The Pennsylvania State University in State College, PA. After graduate school, we (my husband – a physical chemist, our 5 month old daughter, and our adopted Chihuahua-mix) piled in the car and drove the 3,000+ miles West on I-80 for postdoctoral positions at UC Berkeley.

So how did you end up in science?

I always liked math. For awhile I just liked doing it, and thought I was good at it. During high school, I started to worry that I was particularly good at it, but I liked it, so I kept taking course after course. Then, in college, I majored in math. The summer between my junior and senior year of college I did a research experience for undergraduates (REU) in the Math department at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln in “Math Biology.” We modeled tumor growth to the point of metastasis using a series of differential equations, and something clicked. For the first time I really appreciated Biology, outside of the pre-med scheme. That year I applied to graduate programs and decision day came down to choosing between a program in pure mathematics and a program in bioinformatics. I choose the program in bioinformatics and can say that I found what I love to do. Even so, it took a few rotations to find my particular motivation in science. First, I worked growing yeast (the lab smelled amazing) and studying how proteins interacted with their chromatin. Then, I learned about microRNA in the mustard weed, Arabidopsis. Finally, I did a rotation studying sex chromosome evolution, and I was hooked. For now, and forever.

What is is about evolutionary biology that interests you?

The sex chromosomes are pretty amazing for a lot of reasons: the spend different amounts of time in the male and female germ lines, they carry a unique set of genes, they evolve following different patterns that the non-sex chromosomes, selection acts differently there, they are involved in sex determination, they used to look identical but now are very different, and on and on!


How did you end up in outreach? What’s been the highlights of that side of your work?

I can’t help myself. I like talking about my research, and about science in general wherever I am. If I’m on a plane, I bring up my work. Today I was at a toddler birthday party and I talked about armadillos with the adults, and explained pollen to the kids. Now, I still talk to whomever I’m with, but I also write about my field of science (both my own research and the research of others) at my own blog: mathbionerd.blogspot.com, and at pandasthumb.org. I get a lot more discussion and tangents at the latter, especially from people who don’t accept that evolution happens.

I started doing formal outreach during graduate school. I had just joined the local Graduate Women in Science (GWIS) group, and together with another grad student, we put together a day-long workshop to help a local girl scout group earn a badge in Engineering. Afterwards I was hooked and put together the infrastructure to recruit more troops, and to run bi-annual workshops, that are still being continued three years after I’ve left: http://www.clubs.psu.edu/up/gwis/GSW.html.

In a similar vein, I organized an activity, and volunteers from across the US, to teach the ~10,000 people about polymer chemistry at the USA Science and Engineering Festival. Here’s a picture of us, making about half of the 10,000 samples: http://mathbionerd.blogspot.com/2010/10/4354.html

I also have worked with local high schools, both in Pennsylvania and California, judging science fairs, and talking to Biology classes. Most recently I’ve ran an activity teaching the basics of phylogenetic analysis: http://mathbionerd.blogspot.com/2012/04/teaching-phylogenetics.html.

So what’s next for you and the family?

Now, with a few months left on our postdoctoral positions, we do not yet know where we will be, other than our lease ends, and we won’t be staying in California. I’ll be sure to share whenever I know!

We wish Melissa all the best with the job search, and for her week of curation on RealScientists!