Friday profile: to name a species is to know a species

“Homogeneity is so boring!” Dr Rebecca Johnson says when asked to outline her passion for conservation. “Keep the diversity, it’s a good thing.”

Johnson is a conservation geneticist and director of the Australian Museum Research Institute (AMRI) in Sydney.

When we chat, she has just landed in Canberra to attend the presentation ceremony of the Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science – an event she revels in each year for its recognition of work in Australian science and also for the chance to dress up.

“I love to frock up, and I get many opportunities thanks to my role as director of AMRI,” she laughs. “A lot of scientists would probably not have the interest nor opportunity to do so as frequently as me, but I attend a lot of events.”

When not attending events, Johnson – the Australian Museum’s first-ever female director of science – oversees and champions more than 100 researchers across a range of projects.

Her job is to communicate the institute’s work to the wider community, but her favourite aspect is the discovery of new species.

“We describe several hundred new species per year. They might have been in our collection for 20 years, or they might have been collected in the field as recently as this year,” she explains. “It’s important because so much of Australia’s biodiversity is not known, and it’s hard to make sensible judgements on what you don’t know.”

Johnson’s passion for applied science started when she was a child: “I read a book when I was 11 where a young girl died of cancer. I remember being devastated, and then announcing that was what I would like to do: cure cancer.”

The drive to use science to make a difference has carried Johnson through an Honours project on fruit flies at the University of Sydney, a PhD on green tree ants at La Trobe University in Melbourne, and then all the way to Boston, Massachusetts to study the origins of introduced paper wasps.

In 2003, she moved back to Sydney for a job at the Australian Museum, and has been there ever since. 

Johnson is most passionate about genetics in terms of evolution – using DNA as a tool to understand how species evolved, and how they might be related.

“Since European settlement we have changed the landscape so dramatically in Australia,” she says. “We’ve created artificial barriers for a lot of species, through putting in roads, introducing invasive pests or clearing land.” 

“You can understand if those barriers will have an effect in the long term by assessing the genetic diversity of a population, and this can really inform how you go forward with conservation management.”

Johnson is currently working with a team of scientists to sequence the koala genome for the first time, which she describes as a “mega project”. Only three marsupials so far have had their genomes sequenced: the tammar wallaby, the Tasmanian devil and the gray short-tailed opossum of South America.

“We’re getting pretty close,” Johnson says of the koala project. “Predominantly we want to use the information that we get from it for conservation, and also to understand the genomic basis behind some of the koala’s adaptations, such as their ability to basically eat poisonous leaves.”

Johnson also uses her knowledge to identify animal and plant species that are traded illegally, including those taken in and out of Australia. This criminal practice is all too common, she says, and receives less attention than it deserves. “It happens everywhere unfortunately, and it’s one of the highest-value transnational trades, thought to be worth up to $200 billion per year globally.”

Along with her myriad research projects, Johnson is also an avid cricket fan, and proudly says she has been to a Test match at every ground in Australia: “The SCG is one of my spiritual homes.”

A career in science is never a 9-5 job, Johnson says, but if science is your true passion you don’t resent the hours. 

“Describing 50 species of snails might sound esoteric,” she says. “It’s not only helping to understand the deep evolution of our biodiversity but also has an application: some of those species might be endangered, traded, or exist in a limited range, so they need to be protected.

“People are busy, or living in a bubble, and they don’t realise this knowledge is on their doorstep.”

Johnson is here to tell you the knowledge exists, the research is happening, and there is always something new to be discovered.

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