The Chadwick Biodiversity Research Fellowship provides a recent PhD graduate an opportunity to establish a career in biodiversity research at the Australian Museum. Dr Yi-Kai Tea is our newly appointed Fellow, in our Ichthyology division – we sat down with Kai to hear about his first few months, and future plans.

Yi-Kai Tea onboard the CSIRO RV Investigator voyage

Yi-Kai Tea on the CSIRO research vessel (RV) Investigator.

Image: Claire Rowe
© Australian Museum

Many already know you as Kai the Fish Guy on Twitter – but for those of us who are unfamiliar with your work, please tell us a bit about yourself!

Although I go by ‘Kai the Fish Guy’ on my socials, I’m interested in all sorts of biodiversity as a whole – my first love was actually butterflies! When I’m not working on fishes, I like to spend my time out in the bush, or in rainforests, photographing all sorts of wildlife. That being said, I am obviously very passionate about fishes; I’m interested in uncovering hidden biodiversity and the evolutionary histories of coral reef fishes. Our coral reefs are brimming with new species, most of which live in threatened habitats not explored by us. My postdoctoral research focuses on making sense of this biodiversity on coral reefs.

I am also obsessed with photography; it’s a huge part of who I am, and I try to incorporate my photography in as many ways as I can, ranging from my own personal research to my efforts in science communication. I love creating content to engage a huge range of people, whether I’m translating complex scientific data or sharing what I’ve seen on my recent trips in the field. I didn’t come from a strict academic background (and I certainly haven’t had a linear career path). I spent many years as a journalist and editor covering stories in the ornamental fish industry, so a part of me still enjoys connecting people from academia and the public sector in my current line of work. I think connecting people to science is really important – so many people have an interest in science but don’t necessarily have access to it, so hopefully my work inspires others to pursue that in other non-traditional ways.

It sounds as though you will be able to bring a lot of your interests into this role. What have these past few months been like?

I started my Chadwick Biodiversity Research Fellowship in Ichthyology in August, and I am loving the role so far. I’ve jumped straight into research! I submitted by PhD thesis not long ago but had actually finished writing it up earlier this year – which I’m excited to say, has now been accepted and is available online.

The extra time between finishing and submitting made transitioning from a PhD to a job a little easier. It’s also given me time to think about research projects, but I didn’t know how I was going to progress them, and what direction my research would take. Now that I’ve started this role, it’s great to finally be out of research purgatory! I have a new environment to fully focus on it which has been really exciting.

I was able to do some of my taxonomic research during my time at university, which was very well supported, but it’s fantastic to be working full time in the collections, with all the facilities and staff available, including other avid taxonomists – it’s just fantastic. Our fish collection is so exciting to work in. It’s the fourth largest in the world for coral reef species, and the largest in the southern hemisphere.

I’ve recently just got back from a six week expedition sampling for deep sea biodiversity in the remote Indian Ocean Territories of the Cocos-Keeling and Christmas Islands. The CSIRO research vessel (RV) Investigator voyage explored the mysterious creatures of the deep, and mapped sea mounts of an area that had not been scientifically surveyed before. It’s been an amazing opportunity to get involved in field research so early on in my new position here, representing the Australian Museum in such a collaborative workspace with other regional institutions. It really is quite the privilege to be working alongside other experts in the field, and outside your field, all working together to achieve a common goal. Not to mention the incredible array of organisms we get to see – many of which live in remote areas few humans have ever been.

Yi-Kai Tea onboard the CSIRO RV Investigator voyage.
Yi-Kai Tea fascinated by specimens onboard the CSIRO RV Investigator voyage. Image: Nelson Kuna
© Nelson Kuna

So you’ve already finished up Indian Ocean Territories (IOT) voyage, processed incoming specimens and have publications in the works…you’ve certainly hit the ground running! What excites you the most about the fellowship going forward?

I’m intent on continuing my research on wrasses; I published on the evolutionary history of fairy wrasses last year (how they came to be, drivers of their evolution, what they’ve faced for millions of years), but the work is far from finished. I want to revise the genus, which in itself is an onerous task, and made more difficult in that the primary types for many species are scattered in museums all over the world – it’s a lot of work.

I also want to expand my research interests and develop new skills by working on taxonomic groups outside of wrasses. The great thing about museums is that you can find a new species from the depths of Japan or Hawaii, and you don’t even need to leave the CBD! So much of our undiscovered biodiversity already resides in museums, quietly sitting on the shelves awaiting its day in the sun.

I am also really excited about being involved in the various Australian Museum outreach programs, engaging with the public and kids, teaching, and hopefully naming species with people! I like the prospect of being able to work across disciplines, and to learn how museums operate. There aren’t many places in the world where you can do dedicated taxonomic work, with support and funding, so the Chadwick Fellowship at the AM is a unique opportunity for early career researchers interested in taxonomy.

The fairy wrasses are among the most diverse of the Labridae, with their 65 species accounting for nearly 10% of the family. Photo credit: Yi-Kai Tea.
The fairy wrasses are among the most diverse of the Labridae, with their 65 species accounting for nearly 10% of the family. Image: Yi-Kai Tea
© Yi-Kai Tea

Exciting times ahead! We touched on this before, but I wanted to ask, of all of the animals available to study, why study fishes?

My dad was always interested in fishes, and I’ve always had a fish tank in my house for as long as I can remember – so I’ve always had a love for fishes and was exposed to them early in life. As a teenager growing up, no one taught me how to access the literature, and sometimes I would send e-mails to fish scientists directly asking them all about fishes. The amazing thing is that they would answer me! These were curators from major museums and other big scientific names and they would always get back to me. It’s hard to imagine that I get to call some of these legendary scientists my friends, colleagues, and mentors now. The enthusiasm for fishes that these people have is clear, and deep down they are just fellow fish geeks like me. It’s been a very welcoming environment, where people are keen to teach and pass on knowledge. I try to embody this in my research and make my enthusiasm and passion accessible for people at home, who maybe have an interest in fishes but don’t quite know how to tap into that.

In terms of my academic pathway, I started out working as a writer for an aquarium fish magazine, but through this managed to networked with a range of scientists and found my way into fish taxonomy quite organically. I’ve always had an interest, but I didn’t always know I would pursue it academically. A big game changer in science engagement and research has definitely been social media. I can jump on places like Flickr, Facebook, iNaturalist, and Twitter to see where certain species occur in the wild and who has seen them – the information is so readily available, and you can cast such a wide net and engage with so many inquisitive minds. It’s hard to imagine not having those resources available now. Our museums are quickly entering a digital age as well – we can go online, type in a name, and see if they have it. We have so much information at our fingertips to make informed decisions on what we need and where to look. It’s a great time to be a fish scientist!

Dr Yi-Kai Tea, Chadwick Biodiversity Research Fellow, Australian Museum.

Meagan Warwick, AMRI Project and Communications Officer, Australian Museum.

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