Kirsti Abbott, entomologist: An obsession with ants

From little things…

I think all kids are born scientists, and our interest and curiosity is beaten out of a lot of us at some point in our education. But never me.

I’ve always been incredibly curious. When I went to uni I actually started off studying marine biology, but I had an amazing lecturer who introduced me to insects, and biosecurity, and all things entomological. So I became obsessed with the “little things” – they really do run the world.

For my honours project I was part of a big team in the campaign to eradicate the papaya fruit fly back in 1997, up in North Queensland. I became absolutely fascinated with pest insect control in natural environments. We’ve been controlling insects in agricultural environments for a long time, but it’s a lot more nuanced and often more complex in natural environments, and you do it for different reasons.

During my PhD my specialty became invasive ants on islands – their ecology and management, understanding what they do, why they do it, and how we can reduce the impact on fragile tropical environments. I got an opportunity to look at yellow crazy ants and their invasion of Christmas Island. They had completely changed the ecosystem and even took out the red crab, a keystone species on the island. The removal of the red crabs by tiny yellow ants changed the structure and the composition of the rainforest – it was, and still is, a huge invasional meltdown story.

As different people look through the collections and view exhibitions, they form their own concepts, tell their own stories and narratives

Yellow crazy ants are a pantropical species that originated somewhere in mainland Asia. But they’ve been transported on boats and in plant and building materials all through the tropics. They arrived on Christmas Island in the early 1900s but really only boomed and caused these problems in the 1990s. The question I helped answer was “why now?”

I had always appreciated and valued communication, whether it be with end users of a particular project , or people who live in the areas that we’re doing the work in, or if it seems to be a really interesting story. People who know me will tell you I don’t mind a chat! A lot of people were interested in crazy ants on Christmas Island, so I shared stories and my experience and my science, and am still doing so today.

When I came back from Christmas Island, I worked at Monash University and co-coordinated a core unit that really unpicks scientific practice and communication, the history and philosophy of science, ethics and how good science gets done. It really took me back to those fundamentals of what is science and what it means for our society. The need for science education and communication just grabbed me. There’s amazing science going on all over the world, but I was like, “Oh my God, not everybody knows about this! Why not? What can I do to help?”

When I saw the position of Head of Science at MAGNT, I thought , “That’s my gig. I want to do that!”

The museum and art gallery represents a junction between science and the public, and includes all the art, cultures, histories and science housed here. Aboriginal heritage, cultures and history is a big focus. We’ve got an amazing artefact and art collection that helps meld together indigenous perspectives on art, history and science. For example, we’ve got a natural sciences exhibition here in the museum that’s called Transformations – it’s about understanding the cyclical and seasonal nature of the environment, and not just in terms of the “wet” season and the “dry” season. Indigenous seasonal calendars can describe seven, nine or even 13 different seasons, with all these beautiful nuances that we can learn from.

Science communication is now more important than ever

This is what I love about this museum/art gallery concept. You’ve got thousands upon thousands of specimens or objects and artefacts and art pieces. As different people look through the collections and view exhibitions, they form their own concepts, tell their own stories and narratives. And so we’re able to explore the collections from Indigenous perspectives, but also Western, Southeast Asian, and Northern Australian. I love seeing those perspectives take shape that inform us about our world.

Science communication is now more important than ever. With continuing and escalating global challenges we have at the moment – whether it be climate change, species loss, habitat destruction, pandemics, even war, right? – people are fearful, which makes communication difficult.

One of the reasons people become scientists, including myself, is that they have an intense curiosity around how something works, and to understand it requires intense focus, and work that is often tedious and long-term. What scientists aren’t always naturally good at is getting out of that headspace and having a look around at where the people are to talk to, who else wants or needs to know about their work.

Now, I don’t blame science for being tucked away in the lab, or on an island somewhere and out of sight, because that’s what it takes to get good science done. But I definitely think there’s an important place for the science advocate in diverse organisations, who can stand up and go, “Hey, hang on! Look at what’s over here! These people have been making important discoveries and I want to tell you about it! I want to tell you about the impact they’re having and what they’re doing to help the world.”

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