Pat Hutchings joined the Australian Museum (AM) in 1970 as the Assistant Curator of the Marine Invertebrates department. She became the Museum's first Senior Principal Research Scientist in 2009.

In 2010 the Australian Marine Scientists Association presented Pat with a Jubilee Award for outstanding contributions to marine research in Australia.

Currently, a Senior Fellow of the Australian Museum Research Institute, Pat Hutchings has dedicated her life to the study of polychaeta sea worms.

Early career

Listen to Pat talk about the early days of her career studying polychaeta sea worms. She shares her experiences as a young scientist, beginning a journey that would inspire future generations of polychaeta scientists from around the world.

In those days, I mean we're talking about the mid, late sixties, you couldn't go to a shop and buy a wetsuit so we had to make our own wetsuits. And I learned to dive. Pat Hutchings

We had a series of lectures about sea worms, polychaetes, and the fact that these worms can breed on one night of the year, and yet these worms have got a brain the size of a pinhead. How do they do it? Anyhow, I thought this. They're the lowest group of animals that have a hormone system. And I was really riveted with these lectures and anyhow, word got around to the then Prof[essor]. And so a few week or so later, I got a message. Go and see. Prof. I thought, what have I done? So I went to see Prof. And he said, I've been talking to the guy at Newcastle at the Royal Society meeting yesterday who did all that work on the endocrine system, the hormone system of worms. He's got a Ph.D. scholarship. He'd like to meet you. And so I duly caught the train up to Newcastle, was interviewed by him, and he said, OK, you've got the job, you've got the fellowship, providing you get a good degree. So that was an incentive.

But then when I went to, when I did my Ph.D., I think there were three women in the department at the in the Marine Station. At that stage Newcastle Uni has something like 80 postgraduates. So it was a very large department. But I certainly do remember going out on the Meek, the boat, the converted fishing boat that we used to go out to sea to collect, and we had this Norwegian guy who used to be as sick as anything. So I just used to do his sorting. I mean, sorting samples on a rocking boat can be a little challenging. But I also very early on worked out I'd done competitive swimming, you know, going scuba diving was just natural.

In those days, I mean we're talking about the mid, late sixties, you couldn't go to a shop and buy a wetsuit so we had to make our own wetsuits. And I learned to dive. So one of the first things when I got to the Australian Museum, a few weeks after I arrived, Frank Talbot came back. He'd been on the underwater habitat expedition in the Virgin Islands in the States, came in and introduced himself and we started talking. And he said "Can you dive?" I said "Of course I can." And that was quite unusual for somebody coming from England in the 1970s. I mean scuba diving had really only just started coming in round the world in about 1967, 1968. It was a very new talent whereas today if you interview a student, they've all learned to dive. So he said "Right, come to One Tree." And so we trotted off to One Tree and I had to do some work for Frank. But you know, that's what really drove my passion to work on coral reefs.

I just like to give some examples as to the importance that polychaetes, sea worms, play in the marine environment. They're found from the intertidal to the deep sea. We currently working on some stuff from the abyss, and there that in soft sediments, I mean they occur predominantly in soft sediments, not all, but in those if you dig up a mud flat or subtidal sediments, the dominant organisms are sea worms. Polychaetes, either both in terms of diversity, the number of species, and in the number of individuals. They're the bottom of the food chain, they break down organic matter. They're fed on by lots of animals above them, the fish, the prawns. Without worms, you would have a rather smelly environment. It's like if you have a compost bin in your backyard and without worms, it's not a healthy compost bin. Worms really play a critical role, and their importance today with climate change and our impact on the environment is because polychaetes - most of them have a relatively short lifespan, ranging from a few months to a few years - they're going to be the ones that really are going to exhibit changes much quicker than some of the large, mega charismatic animals that people are concerned about. It's going to you know, you're going to see those changes in a few generations.

Establishing the collection

Hear Pat talk about her time working for the Australian Museum as a researcher, establishing a world class collection of polychaeta sea worms.

...We have built up an enormous collection here at the Australian Museum and it's very well curated in terms of them being registered and available and increasingly now when we sample, we collect stuff both morphological and molecular. Pat Hutchings

So when I got to Australia I realised, and I also talked to Professor Don Anderson, who was at Sydney Uni at the time, and I realised that, together with talking to Don, was the fauna here just wasn't known. There had never been a polychaete worker here at the Australian Museum or any other museum in Australia at that time. So I spent those first few years basically going out and collecting and I've continued to do that until very, very recently. I think I've been fortunate that I've seen probably a large proportion of the Australian coast collecting, and so we have built up an enormous collection here at the Australian Museum and it's very well curated in terms of them being registered and available, and increasingly now when we sample, we collect stuff both morphological and molecular. But it's really... I don't know how many new species I've described, but it's quite a large number. We're talking about five or 600 species in new genera, but I've also... Say for the first 20 years of my life or 20 years, perhaps 15 years of my time here, I was basically going out there and collecting and I started because I was a bit isolated here in Australia. There weren't other polychaete people to talk to, whereas I'd come out of a lab where there was something like ten or 12 people.

We used to have worm nights at the prof[essor]s house, because he was too busy to come to the lab, so once a month we'd go to his house and he'd supply the beer and the chips or something because he wanted to know what we were all doing. So suddenly I was here in Australia not knowing, with nobody to talk to. So it soon became obvious that I needed to collaborate with people. And so I started working with ecologists at Fisheries and universities and I would identify their animals for them so that when they did their ecology, they actually had proper names. And then gradually I started to attract students and some of those students have now become curators in their own right in Darwin and in Melbourne, but also attracted a lot of other PhD students, not only from Australia but from overseas to come and work with me. And I really enjoy working in that collaborative way.

So the value of our collection is, first of all, it's well curated, but it's also we make it available to other people, which really encourages people from other parts of the world to come to Australia. I mean I've just had a Spanish PhD student and he had this vision that he needed to come to Australia. And so we got him a scholarship and he's just he submitted last week. So, you know, there's a lot of attraction for people. Last year I have I have a French student who unfortunately came for nine months but had to leave because of COVID. But Nicolas said, you know, I wanted to come and work with you and collaborate and it's so much easier to talk to somebody face to face.

I think the other the other thing that I initiated, because we have these collections, was back in 1983 the museum had been having a regular series of international meetings. We had one on molluscs, one on echinoderms, and there was fish and I thought, hang on, why don't we have one on worms? We'd never had a polychaete international conference. So the year before I went around to colleagues and in Los Angeles and in Washington DC, then in London and in Europe, and I said, If I ran a conference in Sydney, would you come? "Yes please!" And this was before the Internet. So with the support of the then director Des Griffin, we got money to come and we got something like 96 people came from something like 20 countries. And we had a ball. It was just a week and then I took some of them to Lizard Island for a two week workshop. And that started, as a result of that we ended up with the International Polychaete Association, and the next meeting was in Copenhagen, and we've had meetings every three years since that.

Anyhow, back in something like 2010, we were all at Lecce in Italy and somebody said, you know, where are we going to have the next polychaete conference? And I thought OK, 30 years later, why don't we... And once I said, I'm interested in running another polychaete conference, nobody else competed. They said, "Right, we're coming." so in 2013 we had another one here in Sydney. We had 160 people at that conference and from all over the world. And these conferences you get to know people and then it's much easier to collaborate. And of course there's the internet now, which there wasn't in '83, and then we ran a workshop at Lizard Island for two weeks, and we got money from the Lizard Island Reef Research Foundation, and we took 17 people to Lizard [Island] for two weeks, and we ended up describing 96 new species as a result of those two weeks. And there's more since. There's a big 900 page volume of zootaxa. But what I'm saying is that once you develop all these contacts, people say, I want to come to Sydney to work on your collections because the material's here, it's been well curated, it's got lots of labels, from a variety of habitats. So that I think it's fair to say that a significant proportion of polychaete taxonomists around the world have spent time here in Sydney. So not only is it good for them, they describe new species, but it means that our collection is continually being worked upon and that's the value of collections. We can use these collections to see how species distributions are changing over time with climate, because as the water warms, a lot of those worms are going to come further south.

The importance of face-to-face communication

Hear Pat talk about the former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser's trip to the Lizard Island Research Station and how this trip contributed to the Great Barrier Reef's nomination for world heritage status. Pat discusses her thoughts on the importance of face-to-face museum programs for helping people to connect with the world around them.

And I know that there was a Cabinet meeting a few days later and he [Malcolm Fraser] actually showed those photos he took around the Cabinet. The Australian [government] the next week nominated the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area. Pat Hutchings

So Malcolm Fraser was staying at the resort, Lizard Island resort, and he came with a minder who was obviously a naval diver. I presume he had a gun or something in his bag. We had an American who came with us and he said "I can't believe you can get this close to the Prime Minister." I said, "Y'know, we're fine." So at this stage we had to go and look at some moorings out on the outer barrier. This is Barry Goldman, who was then the Director of Lizard Island Research Station and myself, and we said we're going to look at these moorings which were collecting long term data sets on ocean currents for CSIRO, and then we'll come back to one of the blue holes where it's a really nice, safe place to dive. And we gave Malcolm Fraser a bit of a lesson, and we got him in the water and he had a Nikonos and he took some photos. And remember, this was before we had the David Attenboroughs of the world. You couldn't just turn on the television and watch these amazing footages. Anyhow, we had some dives, or a dive, and then on the way back to the research station he managed to pour us a gin and tonic, and I can remember Fraser saying to me "Oh, you're based in Canberra?" I said "No, the National Museum of Australia hasn't yet been built." I explained why the Australian Museum was called the Australian Museum, even though we were based in Sydney. Anyhow, he thanked us very much. We were actually on the boat from the resort, so that's why the gin and tonic was available.

Anyhow, the next morning we saw we saw him walking on the beach and his camera, the film had got stuck. And so we took it into the dark room and we rewound it and everything. And I know that there was a Cabinet meeting a few days later and he actually showed those photos he took around the Cabinet. The Australian [government] the next week nominated the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area. I think the situation has changed today, but I think face to face meetings are still so important. I think you've only got to see it when you take a group of people around the collections or even show them live material. I mean worms... a lot of people say "eww - what are those." And yet when we've had open days here and then you say "OK, let's look at these animals." And then when they actually see these live worms, a lot of them are brightly coloured. Okay - once they're fixed they don't look quite so exciting. But people can see that once you can explain to somebody why it's important. And I think, I often use that concept of look what's in your compost heap, how important that is. So I think it is important for us to communicate to the public, but also to the powers that be.

The importance of the Australian Museum

In this video, Pat shares her thoughts on the importance of the Australian Museum and the role the Museum has as a research center and a public educator. She explains why people want to work for the Australian Museum, and the passion they bring to work every day.

In the future we need to constantly be providing information to government in terms of biodiversity conservation sort of management issues. We need to continue to remain relevant. Pat Hutchings

How do museums survive and how do museums like the Australian Museum survive? And since what 1827? I think what is apparent is that, I mean, why do people like me, five years after after retiring still come in on a regular basis? And I think that even a lot of our technicians will be quite happy to work way after 5 o'clock. They're not looking at the clock. They might occasionally because they've got to catch a train. But I think it's because there's a group of very dedicated scientists and collection managers. I think it's interesting that even in the prep shop or exhibitions, some of these some of those people have really spent their careers here because it is an amazing place to work. I think a lot of people come to the Museum because they don't necessarily regard it as a job almost. It's something they want to do. They want to communicate either the science or the collections to the public. So I would hope that we will continue to survive. I mean, things change. I mean, think about we didn't have a molecular lab when I first arrived. So now we have collections not only stored in alcohol in the spirit house, but we have them stored in the freezers and things like this. So I think, some of those collections can be reused.

You can perhaps see where records of animals were in Sydney, which are no longer there because of housing developments and things like that. So you can see changes. We need to, in the future we need to constantly be providing information to government in terms of biodiversity conservation sort of management issues. We need to continue to remain relevant. And I think the days I think I said earlier, where people just sat in offices and described their animals are probably almost long gone. We need to become socially aware, get into the media. It's like the conference at the end of this month. We've had to record our talks because there won't be a live conference, but then we're going to be able to distribute those talks through the through the media channels. Last year I gave an online lecture to some students in Rio de Janeiro, and then we got a copy of that and we've been able to distribute that quite widely here in Australia, and people have been actually listening to it. So I think we need to just become, we just need to make sure that we're out there and remembered that we exi