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Meet A Wildlife Forensic Scientist

Meet A Wildlife Forensic Scientist

Meet Dr Rebecca Johnson, a Wildlife Forensic Scientist, conservation geneticist, Chief Scientist of the Australian Museum, Director of the Australian Museum Research Institute, co-chief investigator of the Koala Genome Consortium, co-founder of the Oz Mammals Genome Initiative, and the newly appointed chief scientist at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington DC!

KZ: Hi Rebecca! How would you explain your job as Chief Scientist of the Australian Museum and Director of the Australian Museum Research Institute?

R: My job is incredibly varied. As Director I manage nearly 100 people working in science at the Australian Museum, and as the Chief Scientist I am also expected to keep up with the current science, including my own research. My research focus is conservation genetics and wildlife forensics. It is a little difficult to describe a ‘usual’ day because no two days are the same! One day I might be giving advice to our Minister on fossils or koalas, and the next I might have a technical presentation on my research to scientists at an international conference. One thing I particularly love is speaking to school kids about the new species we have discovered at the Australian Museum. It’s also very fun when I visit our scientists behind the scenes at the museum, where we have over 20 million specimens!  

KZ: What inspired or influenced your decision to work in this industry?

R: Science is never boring, you get to work with passionate and super smart people and you feel like you are making a difference every day. I first remember wanting to become a scientist when I was about 11 years old. I read a book about a young girl, Sadako Sasaki, who had leukaemia and it was such a sad story, I remember wanting to become a scientist so I could cure her disease so others wouldn’t suffer. It is the same motivation – wanting to make a difference – that fuels my passion for my actual research, where I work to conserve wildlife. One of my first heroes was the extraordinary Polish/French scientist Marie Curie – she developed the theory of radioactivity and won TWO Nobel prizes, one in physics and one in chemistry! She had to study in secret at a time when women were not admitted to university and reading about her never fails to inspire me.

KZ: Did you study any subjects, take part in any activities or have any hobbies as a child that helped with your career?

R: I always had a part-time job during my high school and university days and I loved doing ballet from about the age of five until I finished high school (when I was young I had hoped to become a ballet dancer). It was always busy but I think that ability to juggle many things has been a very handy skill I have drawn upon throughout my career. Dancing brought me joy and I also I think it taught me discipline and persistence. As Chief Scientist I’m invited to deliver a lot of speeches. I think ballet taught me that going on stage is not as scary as you think!

KZ: Can you share an interesting behind the scenes fact about your job?

R: I am always amazed by the people I meet through my job. The scientists I work with are passionate and fascinating people, but I also have the opportunity to work with communities in Australia and overseas. Recently, I was in a remote part of the Solomon Islands, where I walked up a mountain for 8 hours to visit one of the communities we work with there on wildlife conservation projects. Although the track was steep and often muddy, the journey ends with a ‘welcome to country’ with everyone dressed in traditional attire. The experience was absolutely amazing.

KZ: What has been the highlight of your career so far?

R: It is difficult to choose one highlight. I have been involved in so many amazing things in my career so far; the koala genome, starting wildlife forensics in Australia and being the first female director of science are pretty great. I think the highlight is working with young researchers and students and watching them grow into great scientists so there are as many brilliant minds as possible out there working on conserving our precious wildlife.

KZ: What advice would you give to K-Zoners who want to work in a similar role?

R: Find an area of study or work that excites you! Don’t be afraid to juggle the many things in your life (as there will be a lot) and if you love what you do, remember it takes discipline and persistence. Never stop asking questions and don’t be shy in seeking out role models you can ask about what it is like to be a scientist. Be persistent, and don’t leave it to others to define your story. It is never too late to foster a love of science.

Want to read more of our interview with Dr Rebecca Johnson? Grab the March issue of K-Zone, on sale now!

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