CSI True Science Detective: Thanks and farewell, Rebecca Johnson

In the frontline against poaching of endangered species and illegal trade of animals are a bunch of scientists at the Australia Museum.  This is the story of one of their scientists.


We’ve been delighted to have scientists and manager Dr Rebecca Johnson of the Australia Museum in Sydney curate for us this week.  Rebecca showed us that the distant savannahs of Africa can be linked to the scientific labs on the other side of the world, that a museum can be critical to tracking criminal activity through the smuggling of animals and animal parts. Most of us have been to a museum at some stage in our lives, usually as kids on a primary school excursion.  Museums are a repository of objects and artefacts – they can be cultural, scientific and so on.  They can, like the Australia Museum, be old neo-classical edifices, or glassy contemporary ones like the Melbourne Museum.  But as Rebecca showed us this week, rather than being static storehouses and curated exhibitions of esoteric objects, museums are active, lively places that are the first communication point between science and the public, and they are also research institutions.  Rebecca’s work includes managing facilities that trace animal species through genetic analysis, especially in samples that can sometimes come through customs. It truly is CSI: Australia Museum and the scientists are detectives.


Here’s Rebecca’s team:




Rebecca’s team work on both tracking animal-derived parts for customs as well as conservation genetics.  After all, to understand which specific species are being traded, you need to know where they live and how they vary genetically. This week’s samples included a baby penguin and a huge rhino horn.

We had a tour round the facilities and day to day activities of staff at the museum, saw some of the samples being worked on and how these genetic analyses are carried out. Best of all, we had a tour of the excellent Tyrannosaurs exhibition which runs there until July:



Which led to a #museumselfie with our curator:




which led to a #museumselfieday with snaps from around the world. If you missed any of the adventures we had, you can catch up with the Storifys: Part 1 Part 2 Part 3.


It’s been a big week at Real Scientists, with our awesome curator taking us through the museum; we introduced two new staff members and we also reached over 11,000 followers.  Thank you to all of you for your support and we hope you’ll continue supporting our Real Scientists project.

So a huge thanks to Dr Rebecca Johnson for her most excellent week as a True Science Detective and for throwing open the doors of the Australia Museum for Real Scientists.  You can follow her continuing adventures on twitter at @DrRebeccaJ.

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.