This International Women's Day, the first female leader of the Australian Museum Research Institute (AMRI), Dr Rebecca Johnson, joins the first female CEO and Executive Director of the Australian Museum, Kim McKay, for an intimate discussion about their common journeys from Sydney's northern beaches to Australia's first museum.
Kim McKay: Hello, I'm Kim McKay, the director and CEO of the Australian Museum, and for the next 15 minutes or so I'll be taking you behind the scenes for an insider's look at our extraordinary collections and research activities. Now, I have with me today Dr Rebecca Johnson who leads the Australian Museum Research Institute, and she is the first woman in the history of the Australian Museum to lead the Research Institute. She also leads our education and learning programs here. And it's wonderful to have you here today Rebecca, welcome.
Rebecca Johnson: Thank you so much Kim, I'm delighted to be here.
Kim McKay: I'm sure as people walk past our building in Sydney they look up and see 'Australian Museum Research Institute' and wonder what goes on behind there. So tell us a bit about it.
Rebecca Johnson: Yes, look, it's such a common thing, Kim, that people don't know that we do science, and they don't know that we've been doing science. We are the second oldest scientific institution in this country.
Kim McKay: And I believe, and correct me if I'm wrong, abou the fifth oldest natural history museum in the world to do science.
Rebecca Johnson: I think that's about right, yeah, and so we have an incredibly long, proud and rich history of doing science in all of its various forms since our establishment in 1827. So it's something to be so incredibly proud of, and I'm more than happy to talk about it at any opportunity because I think it's something that people just need to know about.
Kim McKay: You've actually been working at AMRI I'm going to call it, the Australian Museum Research Institute, at AMRI for quite a long time, haven't you. How long?
Rebecca Johnson: Yes, I have, I've been at the Australian Museum for over 12 years now. So I started in 2003.
Kim McKay: Where from? How did you get here?
Rebecca Johnson: What's my journey? I came from Boston where…
Kim McKay: That is not a Boston accent, I don't believe you.
Rebecca Johnson: Okay, I could potentially do it but that's probably not a wise thing. I was doing a post doc there, so I was a junior researcher doing a project on invasive wasps.
Kim McKay: Where were you doing that?
Rebecca Johnson: I was doing that at Tufts University, so just up the road from Harvard actually in Somerville. So I was there and I was offered this position at the Australian Museum to run the DNA laboratory. So it was a fairly junior position and I thought, wow, what an incredible opportunity and I'm from Sydney, so I was able to…I decided to finish up my research in Boston and come home to Sydney.
Kim McKay: Well, let's wind back, can we, because you said you were from Sydney. Where did you go to school Rebecca?
Rebecca Johnson: I went to school at the local high school, Barrenjoey High School on the northern beaches.
Kim McKay: Oh, a northern beaches girl, like myself, good on you.
Rebecca Johnson: That's true, yes. So I did my early studies there.
Kim McKay: Were you a nerd at school? Science nerd I mean, in a good way.
Rebecca Johnson: Yes, I was a nerd, definitely, and I really liked dancing. So if I run into people who haven't seen me since school, they might ask me if I became a dancer. So, definitely not.
Kim McKay: Well, I guess you're learning in a large institution like ours and in the whole world of science to dance around politically now.
Rebecca Johnson: Yes, I'm quite agile I think.
Kim McKay: So who was it or what was it that really fired your interest in science?
Rebecca Johnson: Lots of things. But I think the earliest moment that I can remember when I really wanted to become a scientist was that when I was about 11 years old I read a children's book called Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes, and so it was a fictitious children's book about a little girl who had been around when the bomb was dropped in Hiroshima.
And this book was about…she was diagnosed with leukaemia which was obviously something that was very common for people that were there before and after actually, and it ended up…I was an 11-year-old child, loving the story, and Sadako was folding cranes because the idea was that she would have had a wish granted if she was able to fold 1,000 paper cranes. And she didn't get to 1,000 paper cranes before she died…
Kim McKay: That's a pretty sad story.
Rebecca Johnson: It was a really sad…I still can't read it without having a few tears, and definitely when you are 11 when you're used to the Disney ending, it was a real shock. And I remember so distinctly telling my parents that I wanted to find a cure for cancer because I was so sad about this book. So I guess I look back on that moment and think…obviously I did not go into medical research, but the essence of what I wanted to do back then was to do something to make a difference, to harness science to make a difference that would change things. And I really feel like I get that chance every day.
Kim McKay: So you did science through the Higher School Certificate?
Rebecca Johnson: Yes, I did science, and then I…
Kim McKay: What discipline? All disciplines?
Rebecca Johnson: Actually I only did chemistry…
Kim McKay: Wow, not even biology.
Rebecca Johnson: So I had a lot of biology learning to do when I got to university. So I went to the University of Sydney and did my undergraduate and my honours there. And then I got the amazing opportunity to go down to La Trobe University in Melbourne to work with an eminent social insect geneticist. I must also acknowledge my honours supervisors who were at Sydney University who were incredible fruitfly geneticists.
Kim McKay: Which is of course where DNA study really stems from, doesn't it, the study of the fruitfly.
Rebecca Johnson: Yes, and actually they were working on Queensland fruitflies which were a little bit different.
Kim McKay: What, they had different accents?
Rebecca Johnson: They are actually a completely different group. But I was really interested in those because they are a pest and they cause a lot of damage to crops and agriculture and there's a lot of work trying to find them and identify them from larvae.
Kim McKay: Were they an introduced species into Australia?
Rebecca Johnson: No, they're native, they are just really damaging if they get around into agriculture effectively.
Kim McKay: So the study of DNA was relatively new then when you were at La Trobe?
Rebecca Johnson: Yes, it was relatively new. It had been around, it was long, it was labourious, it was expensive, so I felt incredibly privileged to be working with someone who was a very, very highly respected Australian geneticist and his name was Ross Crozier. So I spent my PhD there, and there I worked on weaving ants, so looking at the origin of these behaviours in ants and at the molecular level.
Kim McKay: There's been a lot of discussion in recent years about the glass ceiling for women in business. Does that exist for women in science?
Rebecca Johnson: Look, you cannot deny that the sheer numbers or the sheer proportions of females in the senior echelons are nowhere near…do not reflect the proportions of females in the junior levels of science.
Kim McKay: Why is that?
Rebecca Johnson: I think probably you could probably call it the glass ceiling in that people just end up dropping off for various reasons.
Kim McKay: To have families or to pursue something else.
Rebecca Johnson: Probably through all sorts of lifestyle choices. And as a consequence, academia is very tough, and the way that people are judged is it's very tough to do both.
Kim McKay: So you and I were both part of the Women in Science Seminar at the University of New South Wales last year, and one of the issues that came up there was that the actual scientific method, the way academia is structured does not lend itself to women progressing because of the number of papers that you have to produce and citations as you climb up the ladder.
And then when women leave to have their families, as well they should, trying to get back in is very difficult and they can't make it up the ladder.
Rebecca Johnson: Yes, those are very, very accurate assessments of the very cutthroat world that academia can be. There are other things that are perhaps even not quite as obvious, and those are things like a woman might be on a short-term contract or on a fixed-term contract, and it's very easy to end that when someone goes on maternity leave because the money kind of runs out, so to speak. And so those things are things that are almost unconscious, that someone's contract comes to an end, they finish their job, they go off and look after children. And so I'd really like to see some kind of continuity where people are encouraged…where contracts are less tied to young women who are having families because it's easy to drop off and not even recognise that that is happening.
Kim McKay: We're very proud here at the Australian Museum that we have a woman leader of the Research Institute and we are also very pleased at the number of women scientists in your whole group, there are some outstanding women who really have made an extraordinary difference in their fields and their research work. But I'm going to ask you now a couple of things. What's the most fun thing you've ever done at the Australian Museum or that you have in the collection?
Rebecca Johnson: That's a really difficult question because one of my philosophies is to have fun all the time, within reason of course. So I try and make fun out of everything. What's my most fun thing in the collection or my most favourite thing in the collection? That's again, really, really tough because we have an incredible collection here at the Australian Museum. I think it would have to be the pig-footed bandicoot though.
Kim McKay: The pig-footed bandicoot is a favourite because it was discovered by Gerard Krefft, a former curator of the Australian Museum, one of my predecessors. He was the seventh curator-director of the Australian Museum, I'm the 17th, and we hold Krefft in high esteem here.
Rebecca Johnson: We certainly do, and these pig-footed bandicoots, Krefft went out and collected a whole bunch of them on a field trip, and he had them in captivity and he was studying their behaviour, and he actually decided…halfway through the field trip he ran out of food and he started to eat them. So there are only about 20 of these specimens known in the world…
Kim McKay: Well, there were no McDonald's in those days.
Rebecca Johnson: We have some of them and they're not exactly show specimens but they are incredibly precious scientifically and also historically.
Kim McKay: But we also know that Krefft of course, apart from eating the pig-footed bandicoot, he also discovered the lungfish by consuming it at a dinner party as well. So he was quite known for this. He was a wonderful person. I say to everyone go and look him up, he was an extraordinary Australian. In fact he is even featured in our Trailblazers exhibition, Australia's 100 Greatest Explorers…50 Greatest Explorers, I'd love to have 100 of them, 50 Greatest Explorers, on here at the museum at the moment, because of all the extraordinary work he did.
Rebecca Johnson: There's such a wonderful history of expeditions and exploration and trailblazing in museum scientists and it's a treat to have people like Krefft and Tim Flannery recognised.
Kim McKay: Yes, another wonderful scientist here from the Australian Museum, Professor Tim Flannery, former Australian of the Year. But Rebecca Johnson, you're a trailblazer in your own right, forging a wonderful path for women in science. But I've got to ask you, what are your future plans?
Rebecca Johnson: Oh so much to do here at AMRI. I am so passionate about the work that we do. We have some extraordinary scientists, as you have already alluded to. Our three most senior scientists, two of them are women, and so we are very, very fortunate here to have that kind of leadership, that kind of expertise.
And my future plans are sharing that with as many people who are prepared to listen as possible, and that's actually not that difficult because the work that we do is so important, it can be translated in so many different worlds, and that's what I would like to see.
Kim McKay: Well, it's such an eye-opener to understand little bit more about the science at the Australian Museum Research Institute, and to know that it has such practical application in the community, whether it's around conservation of species, as you've been involved in with the koala, or the impacts of climate change on the habitat of our native flora and fauna. I mean, my goodness, what would Australia be without its iconic animals. And thank you for the work you do to help protect and preserve them. Thanks Rebecca Johnson.
Rebecca Johnson: My pleasure.
Kim McKay: Now, we'll be doing these podcasts weekly so that you get an insight behind the scenes into the Australian Museum. Of course it's Australia's first museum and as such has this extraordinary collection, both a natural science collection and a wonderful cultural collection, and each week we will be talking to some of the personalities at the Australian Museum about the work they do. So join me next time on this Australian Museum podcast to speak with Dr Chris Reid.