Forensic Science discussion - 3 June 2020
Conversation with Dr David Alquezar, Manager Australian Centre for Wildlife Genomics and Next Gen Committee member Michael Frazis. The focus of the conversation was on AMRI’s work in understanding how viruses emerge in wildlife and can be transferred to humans.
Listen to the conversation here:
Kim McKay AO introduces Prof Kris Helgen - 17 June 2020
AM's Director & CEO Kim McKay AO in conversation with Prof Kris Helgen, newly appointed AM Chief Scientist & Director of AMRI on his passion for communicating the importance of biodiversity and conservation.
Meagan Warwick: This conversation with the Australian Museum CEO and Director Kim Mackay AO, and Professor Kris Helgen who recently joined the Australian Museum as Chief Scientist and Director of the Australian Museum Research Institute or AMRI, was recorded during a live event for patrons to the Australian Museum Foundation.
So firstly, the Australian Museum acknowledges the Gadigal people of the Eora nation, the traditional custodians of the land the museum is situated on and we pay our respects to elders past present and emerging.
My name is Meagan Warwick, the AMRI and External Partnerships Coordinator and I am the moderator for this session. At the end of this conversation there will be a ten-minute Q&A session followed by a short poll.
Kim McKay AO, the AM's first woman Director, has led the transformation of the Australian Museum into one of the world's pre-eminent natural history and cultural institutions. Since her appointment as Director and CEO in 2014, her initiatives have included free general admission for children; the Australian Museum Center for citizen science; the restoration of the Long Gallery - Australia's oldest Museum gallery; as well as building new award-winning accessible entrance - Crystal Hall. She is currently overseeing the AM's 57 million dollar renovation - Project Discover.
Next we have Professor Kristopher M Helgan. Professor Kris Helgan joined the Australian Museum Research Institute or AMRI as Director and Chief Scientist in June 2020. As Director and Chief Scientist, Professor Helgen is responsible for the AMRI team of more than 80 staff including research scientists, collection scientists, collection officers, and more than one hundred associates, fellows and students who research and explore today's major challenges. Kris was most recently Professor of Biological Sciences at the University of Adelaide. He's focused his research primarily on fieldwork with living animals and research in museum collections to document the richness of life, explore global change and contribute to important problems in biomedicine.
Donors to the Australian Museum Foundation support a number of key initiatives including research conducted by AMRI scientists. We hope that you enjoy this conversation which commenced when Kim and Kris asked about his passion for mammals and what mammals can teach us ....
Kris Helgan: I like to explain and this is really very true, I learned the technical language of mammalogy including the Latin names of all mammals
on our planet as a kid, almost like you would learn and absorb a second or third language. And so that is it. So as if I speak you know spoke English and Spanish when when I speak about mammalogy or hear the Latin name of an animal, there's no question that I know exactly what it is.
Kim McKay: So you speak mammal
Kris: I speak mammal
Kim: Which is which is extraordinary to think that you did that. When did you set out to do that or did it just come as natural?
Kris: It just emerged through my childhood in my my you know growing up as a teenager as just something that was such an overriding passion. I had to know that answer and how many were there. Can I figure it all of them out and that gave me this platform at a very early age that when I would you know be able to meet and introduce myself to professionals in the field, they instantly saw that I had that that grounding. I went later to Harvard as an undergraduate and one of the reasons I wanted to go there I read Ed Wilson's book Naturalist as a kid. And I read it and I said he talks about working at the Museum of natural Comparative law what could be better than a Museum of Comparative law. I went there and what I was able to do there is a scientist as a young, you know growing maturing scientist, was take that language of mammalogy, the technical terms about teeth and bones and scientific names and map that in my brain told the anatomies that I could see and that's what I've done ever since. So if you show me a skull of a mammal, I'll pretty much know it is right away and that also is part of my the way I work, I'll also pretty much know right away if it's something that is different, isn't on the charts.
Kim: Yeah well so when you went to Harvard as an undergraduate you met Tim Flannery there didn't you?
Kris: Yeah I did I did I actually this one of the great stories of my life. I was able to I had some funding to go from Harvard for a summer visit to Australia for a few weeks. I was 18 years old and when I came to Sydney the first thing I did was make a beeline for the Australian Museum so I went in under the old William Street staff entrance and I went up to the receptionist there, this is in the late 90s, and I said, I'm just a kid, is Tim Flannery here could I talk to him, and that she looks at me and she said was he expecting you? Look I just walked in off the street, I said well I don't think so and she said well let me check and she picks up the phone, makes a call and she says well Tim Flannery is coming.
He comes out, you know didn't know me from Adam, we say a few words he grabs me by the arm, pulls me behind the scenes takes me into the mammal collection, and within 90 seconds were pulling open drawers and he's showing me tree kangaroos that he gave the scientific names for and I have seen Tim and things like National Geographic magazine, read some of his articles growing up and this was this was an incredible moment, but there's this particular moment where he pulled out, we have in this museum is special drawer of extinct Australian animals and he showed it. It's an incredible thing, well that was the first time I ever saw it. He opened that drawer and in the back of that is that drawer there's the little beat-up tiny little kangaroo like animal, comes out of the central deserts, and I all I did was see that beat-up skin and I said - Tim is that Caloprymnus campestris? This is an obscure extinct betong known by very few specimens, and he looks at me, I'm an eighteen year old kid said he says, yeah that is Caloprymnus campestris. So we were speaking the same language and we have been thick as thieves ever since that moment.
Kim: Well done you could not have a better mentor in mammals than Tim Flannery.
Kris: Incredible, incredible
Kim: Now one of the things is I guess you probably that you learned from Tim is the opportunity to go on field expeditions, to find new mammals and you have led well our 100 would that be fair to say?
Kris: Oh expeditions serious big operations, many dozens, at least 30 big operations
Kim: Okay but you've named about a hundred species of mammals
Kris: About 100 mammals, that I've whether it's working in museum collections or leading field expeditions getting out into some of the most remote least known natural parts of our world. I've come up with uncovered about a hundred for science
Kim: So in fact in your job interview here you had us all engrossed in a story about one of those expeditions in South America, could you relay that?
Kris: So there's absolutely one of the great moments in my life as a scientist. So I was in my early 20s. I was work I exactly I was in Australia at the time was doing my PhD at the University of Adelaide with Tim, I met and fell in love with an Australian girl, from the Flinders Ranges and I just said you know Christmas time came up I'd have to bring her back with me. We flew back to Minneapolis and we were there between Thanksgiving and Christmas which is a long time to stay with the family so we said we're gonna we're gonna get out of the house for awhile, so we drove down to Chicago, it's also very cold but I like the cold, anyway we drove down to Chicago to visit the Field Museum and they gave me the keys to the place and go for it I was working through the night. Lauren was helping me and I pulled open this drawer, a heavy metal drawer, in this case and I stopped, it stopped me in my tracks.
It was one of these moments where I was looking at something that was so different from anything I've seen before and anything that it could be my brain didn't instantly rule out there were these fluffy red red panda like skins in this drawer and they were supposed to be Kinkajous or Olingos, they were mislabeled and I said wow wow, I've never seen this mammal before in a museum in a picture anywhere. I opened up the box it had a skull of this animal and I pulled it open. I said well the shape of the cusps on the molars was like no other mammal, the way the ear bones were arranged was like no other mammal. I said could this be you know a species of carnivore this is the group of dogs and bats, they're dogs and bears and cats and raccoons this is the group that's about as well studied as anything - could this be a carnivore that's overlooked that's landed in this drawer.
Well I as a detective I worked it through I studied the anatomy closely I looked in every other museum in the world that might have specimens I studied the fur I studied the bones, we studied the DNA and sure enough this thing was a completely different kind of raccoon like carnivore mammal and so you know who could have stopped it there I said we need to we would go named it and announced it but that's not my style, so my style is to get into the wild to get into remote areas and see what we can find, what does this animal do for a living if it was there and by the way these specimens were 60-70 years old overlooked that at the time museum, I looked on the map place where they had come from which was on the border of Colombia and Ecuador, yet on Google Earth look around the whole thing has been deforested, its agriculture it's it's cocoa plantations. I said we're gonna go to Ecuador just across the border but it's some good forest that we're gonna see if we can find this animal. A bit of a needle in a haystack we went down there, flew down, we took a bus, we took cars, we took four-wheel-drive, we got onto mules and then we walked finally all the way up into this pristine cloud forests, are we gonna find this thing? The very first night you found out this animal that turned out we ended up calling it the Olinguito, incredible to see. The pictures are gonna roll through at the end again you're gonna see this animal the Olinguito it is an adorable creature. When I went on to announce it to the world, we had a press conference at the Smithsonian we had something like a hundred outlets and it was on the front page of many if not most of the big papers It was on the front page of the Washington Post when I rode the subway into the museum that morning it was fantastic.
Kim: It's a thrill to an announce it but I think what I really like here at the Museum is when you learn about that moment of discovery and share it with your colleagues.
I mean you and I had an extraordinary experience today with one of the AMRI team who announced his amazing finds which were actually funded by the Australian Museum Foundation. I can't go into it now suffice it to say was Matt McCurry our palaeontologist and his discoveries are remarkable and will be world-changing in palaeontology.
Kris: It was an oh wow moment today. I heard whispers about this discovery, today we got to see it fleshed out just internally, it's not ready to go out to the wider world yet but everyone will hear about it before long but this is not just you know a fossil discovery that changes our thinking on this way or, that this is something that that is transformative and seriously sitting through that seminar today and being blown away it made me think okay, I have made the right decision to come here I am in the right place being the director of science here at this museum.
Kim: Well so let's talk about that because obviously as I said at the start this is an opportunity at this time where we've rebuilt the physical amenity of the museum, but it's an opportunity for us to reset some functions and we plan to do that in areas like climate change but what is your vision for what you want to do here?
Kris: well what I what I really started doing as a Smithsonian scientist when I sank my teeth into museums you know over the last 10 15 years what I started doing is I was really good already at this kind of work I'm talking about documenting mammals, going on field expeditions, that where we do basically an inventory the richness of life on Earth how many kinds of mammals are there. We're good we're good at that whether we're talking about moths or mollusks or mammals whatever it is that's what we do, but I started asking that is amazing and that is you know what we've always it has to always be a core strength but is there more, is there more this is such an incredible resource there is no other kind of instituation in the world where you can you know walk in a big city into a big museum go behind the scenes and basically see a huge slice across the entirety of life you know talking about you can see you know in any really big Natural History Museum like this one just this great accounting of you know a huge fraction of all life on Earth in the one place okay and it makes you wonder well what else can we do and and so I started thinking well you know one of the things that we can do that no one else can do is be this incredible time machine and I'm not just talking about the fact that we have fossils here and could study them although that's always been important in that that is one way in which for time machine it's also the fact that museums like this when their collections have been built over not just decades but centuries and so if we want to know you know what Sydney looked like what Hyde Park looked like in you know in the year 1820, 1840 or 1860, 1880 you name it it's really hard to reconstruct that but there is only one place you can actually go and you can go into a museum like this and find in the cabinets specimens that are labeled you know Sydney where there is parks and you can start to study them you can get DNA out of them you can you know take a little pick and clean out under the nails and pull out dirt and that dirt that's sitting under the paw of that specimen is a soil sample of the ground you know taken out of that, so what what I have started to do as a scientist is try to pioneer projects that let us do just that take a time capsule whether it's that soil sample at DNA that some duck expedition of material that came from a particular place and use that to paint a picture of what the world was like at certain points and that turns out to be almost the best tool we have in the modern era from understanding across the last 100-200 years how has our world changed we know climates are changing we know habitats are shifting and changing we know that this is a human influenced planet on every single piece of it, but actually getting down to the nitty-gritty as a scientist and say we know it's changed how has it changed, that's where we go, that's where we go.
Kim: which is incredibly important. We live in the age of the anthropocene now and we need to understand here more about it and communicate more about it so I know a passion of yours as it is mine is to try and make science very accessible and understandable to the public the science we do here. I was going to use the example if there's no more relevant even today's circumstances issue than the impact of COVID-19 and the pandemic that has swept the world and you
see an opportunity here for the museum to communicate more about zoonotic diseases.
Kris: I absolutely do, so I mean so yeah pandemic disease like by climate change like you know the loss of natural habitats this is one of the big issues of our time, one of these grand challenges that's both medical and social but also completely also environmental right so these big issues of our time and which is named again climate change, biodiversity loss, disease these all of these things are issues that sit at the interface between human society and economy the social world of humanity and the natural world and pandemics that's exactly what's happening is we have you know fraying habitats, declining biodiversity, expanding populations and that's where things come together that aspect of a time machine again how can we understand how the world is changing we can study disease in phenomenally interesting ways we can ask questions like which disease is which, which disease let's say which disease is associated with which flea or a tick or mite or post animal and which of those you know which mouse does each flea and tick and louse sit on those are things that seem simple but these become you know unbelievably complex puzzles to piece together
Kim: and of course it's not the first time this museum has been involved in identifying the flea link to a major disease at the time
Kris: exactly we've got we've got a history here like many big museums do so I've told you about the Second World War we had something called the US and Australia typhus commission you know allied service people were dying in great numbers both from disease as well as from from actual combat and warfare and what happened is initiatives were sent out in places like the north high north coast of New Guinea to try to figure out some disease like typhus you know which exact species of mite is carrying it how do you figure that out you have to sample and you know do this kind of biodiversity were in which which mouse does it live on.
One thing that isn't often realized, is that a huge huge backbone of funding for many of the largest museums through the last century especially has been through public health initiatives that are interested in these questions, where where does disease come from and you know where does it sit in nature. What if these viruses do for a living you know when they when they're not in people, this coronavirus we're looking at right now you know six six months ago this lived in an as yet unidentified species of bat but it lived in some species of bat, lives in China and six months later a virus that lived in a bat probably nowhere else and then the world had never seen before the human world, has completely transformed the entire world. You know it won't be, wasn't the first time, it won't be the last, but the British Museum Natural History in London it was work there on specimens of fleas that actually solve the age-old question of which flea is it that carries the Bubonic Plague, Black Death which flea is it. There there are thousands of species of fleas that answer that question and the Smithsonian where I used to work, apart from Ebola the other really scary viral disease in Africa the last half-century has been Lassa. Either and we still don't know wearing one of those it was work at the Smithsonian with our mammal collection and our that actually help to understand that Lassa fever when it's not jumping into people lives in one species and that species only. Once you figure that out that diseases is it as scary you know where it is what it does for a living, which animal its in, which habitat and you can take steps to control that, to mitigate the risk.
Kim: so what you're saying is the Australian Museum can literally leverage the asset of its collection to help solve some of these major health issues that have come to the fore.
Kris: That's exactly right it is that resource that collection just in those ways that I've described this as being a scientific disease detective that might be completely unexpected to people listening that we would have you know in the cabinets of you know different kinds of animals or different species of fleas or insects that we would actually have some of those answers buried that we can unlock here. So I'd like us do more of that how has the world been changing how species been declining distributions, changing parasites and pathogens shifting as natural habitats, change all of those are questions that are open to us because of the collections we have
Kim: and of course one of the things because of your 11 years I think of Smithsonian and now your predecessor Dr. Rebecca Johnson is Chief Scientist there, which is remarkable and I know you've worked with Rebecca over many years, there's that opportunity for greater collaboration even
Kris: no absolutely I don't know if it really kind of one of those funny things in life we've sort of swapped places. She used to visit me at my office there I here so no we worked together a lot, love Rebecca and of course it's just a natural fit to continue working between the museum and Smithsonian Australian Museum you see, we're gonna we're going to be doing lots of things together.
Kim: Well that's great. Now i know in those eleven years of the Smithsonian you had many career highlights. I know you had to work at some points with the President Barack Obama
Kris: Yeah imagine that it was an incredible aspect of being a young scientist there, so you know we take we'd have interactions with all comers, you're a part of the federal government working for the Smithsonian. So I was a federal government scientist so I you know if any sort of the national mammalogist in charge of this big you know incredible global collection including all of the core North American biodiversity collections. Anyways members of Congress would come, Supreme Court justice would come, I remember briefing Sandra Day O'Connor on questions about environmental decline in the Midwest and prairies, prairies being overtaken in that history. But the absolute highlight was meeting the Obama family and at one point before the family went on one of their several major tourist Africa Michelle Obama came over in particular and I talked to her for an hour about questions around nature and environment in Africa and once we hosted one of the Obama's daughter's birthday in the mammal hall.
Kim: oh that's pretty cool and I know you named a species of bat after Sir David Attenborough
Kris: Another absolute highlight you know it was Tim Flannery that first introduced me to Sir David, they're good friends and that has bolstered a relationship that's been very important to me. I go to the UK quite a bit to work in the Natural History Museum and I've even had the chance to sit down an invite for dinner at his home he's an incredible man.
Kim: He is and he came here of course course for our 90th anniversary and we gave him a special award and he we named a species of snail, well actually a semi slug after him but and it was a remarkable day because he talked about this museum and its significance, not just to Australia but to the region and to the world, that it was this institution that was set up to record everything in our continent and that is the way he expressed it was the day the penny really dropped for me about the historic significance and that richness of our collection that hopefully under your leadership in AMRI we can really connect more with the public on in the future I think.
Well Kris I'm thrilled to work with you I'm having fun so far. We're having some really great discussions as you can invention about the future of the museum and the opportunities in science here and it's great to have a different perspective on our leadership team as well so we're just really thrilled and delighted that you have joined the museum at this time, providing your experience and insights to it there's a long way to go ahead, we've got great opportunities in front of us right now and I just am thrilled at the prospect of working with you as I'm sure all of you are to get to meet Kris and he is on his stories. Just before we take questions from everyone who's joined us today there is one thing about you that I find particularly quirky. You said at the beginning that when you first stepped into a museum you were fascinated by the museum shop, not because of the toys and things that are never because of the technical books that you can find. Now you happen to own over 12,000 volumes of natural history books don't you.
Kris: I do it is it is a one of the central weaknesses of my personality, the bibliophilic drawer yes
Kim: It must be one of the largest private collections is it not?
Kris: It is by all means the largest mammalogic collection
Kim: and how does your wife feel about that now you've been done that, you needed to transport it up from Adelaide right, where you put it?
Kris: yeah well it is in stores at the moment as we figure out if we're looking for schools we're looking for where we're going to be living and only once all these other pieces come together can I call in the shipping containers and the trucks and say put them here we're gonna be
Kim: How many shipping containers does 12,000 volumes take?
Kris: I thought that we'd get away with two but it's three. I love books
Kim: I love books but I don't have three shipping containers full of them. But what I'm sure that shocks people more is that you've read them all too.
Okay all right so with that I know some of you may have questions out there and I'll throw back to Meagan and who is moderating this session. She may have some of those questions coming through on zoom chat
Meagan: Yes thank you so much Kim thank you both. Such a fascinating interview. We do have a couple of questions that have come through so I thought I'd jump in. So one of those questions is - how does Australia compare with other countries with regards to animal conservation
Kris: Great question. I mean one of you obviously one of the incredible parts about Australia in terms of its global standing is that it's deep history of isolation has given it a world of biota you know plants and animals that is just not like nothing else on the planet that's one of the draws for me, you know why did I leave the United States in the first place and come work in Australia and New Guinea and the University route - it is because of that global giving every continent has a fauna all to its own but none none of them are so different from the others as the Australian continent. Now you asked about conservation and that's a tough one because this country, which is a country that I deeply love has the worst track record of in many measures of environmental conservation of any country, any country in the world so you know developed or developing its extraordinary we've lost since European arrival more than 20 species of Australian mammals and that's global extinction you know, we don't think they live anywhere in the world and those were things that you could find in every state and territory in Australia when Europeans first arrived so it's been an incredible decline when you think about things that have become global extinct I'm thinking about mammals here as well as those that have declined so much that they're just in a certain protected area or offshore island or a zoo that takes you arguably to something like a sixth or maybe even approaching a fifth of all the mammals of Australia that is an extraordinary thing that's going to something like a fifth of a continental fauna has evaporated in 200 years, so it's not a good track record and the challenge is there to stem that decline, you know to to say Australia has this history and that is not something that's been stem that's not something that's stopped, but what's what's needed if we're going to be serious about it, is say we're one of the world's great and richest countries and we are the one that is most unique arguably of any in terms of the biology of the animals and plants we have, we're going to take it seriously, we're going to invest the money that it takes, we're going to develop the legislation that it takes, and that's still in front of us.
Kim: Well indeed there are a lot of suggestions at the moment that we skirt our planning and conservation laws, environmental groups I know have spoken up avidly over the last few days and very loudly about this issue and it's not the time that we should be doing that is it
Kris: No it's not. Anyways we we can do better I mean something like the United States where I come from has seen such environmental devastation over time we think about the loss to the prairies imagine the decline of the bison, of passenger pigeon same time in that same period of time in the last two three hundred years it's actually hard to find a mammal that's become completely extinct there's two or three that are arguable and so you know contrast that against 20% you know you you have some difference there and part of that has to do with legacies of conservation investment and legislation so there are other models to look.
Megan: So we just have time for maybe one quick question as well so this one is a bit more technical so what is the importance of microbiome re-wilding so if I pronounce it correctly, and what's the importance of repopulating animals in their natural habitat rather than making them adapt to a new environment and new food
Kris: Yeah I love the question it's creative. So the first part of that question is you know what's the important of microbiome in re-wilding so for for you everyone here listening along, the microbiome is the sum total of microbial organisms that we've lost. So you've all read that you know here we are walking around as mammals but the majority of cells that make up us as an individual are not human they're not mammal, there are actually things like bacteria especially bacteria, fungi other kinds of microbes, and so that's true of any organism on the planet and of course there's only been the technology which is mostly DNA technology for the last few years that's really you know allowed us to understand the full extent of that. So what does it mean Kim that you or me are mostly microbes, it means that so much of what we do biologically has very little to do with our own gear much of it doesn't it has to do with DNA of organisms in us, so whether you were a thylacine or a red kangaroo or anything else you have in that same way your own co-evolved set of microbes, thousands of different species, billions of different cells, that help you do what you do, digest your food, you know keep you keep you antibiotic clean over most of the surface of your body. Now we know so little about this you know it's important, but when we think about conservation species that's almost become extinct maybe we've saved it in a zoo or an offshore island, but we need to know more about is how has that microbial complement at will microbiome change you know how does it affect the health of the animal or or are they more in danger of extinction if we scrub them clean and they don't have those those you know microbes that they've had. You know we talk about sometimes bringing back something like the thylacine that all these comes back and back again are we going to be able to do that even if and we can't do that, but even if we could do that you would bring back the thylacine with a thousands of DNA and you would be missed missing almost almost the grand majority of cells that lived on a thylacine that allowed it to do what it did, you're missing that it's gone forever so microbiomes are fundamentally important we need to know more about them and we can do some of that work at the Museum.
I'll close by saying that we are really good at what we do, storing things in collections for I call it that we're in the forever business, museums put things in you know in archives and collections and you can always use them but we also need to think with each generation of us that come to the museum, one of the right samples be putting in that, so more and more we're gonna think more creatively and not just put a skin in a stall or a fluid specimen in museum we're going to think about how can we capture that whole essence of the other and that's gonna be important.
Kim: Kris well as you can see everyone we have a brilliant challenge in front of us with a brilliant new contributor to the team here and somebody to lead our scientists in the foreseeable future, I think 2020 is going to be a significant turning point for the museum. Just to give you a quick update on that on Project Discoverer we're nearing completion, we have about three more months or so of building work to take place and we will be open in the spring which is incredibly important. We've been sort of fortunate that we've been closed by choice during Covid-19 was a bit serendipitous but once we reopen I think the public are really going to love what they see here we're opening up so much of the museum to these these spaces and we've been very fortunate already a number of our donors have significantly supported some of those spaces for the creation of different areas for the future, so I'm really looking forward to welcoming all of you back in and just want to say again thank you so much for joining us this evening of meeting Professor Kris Helgan and you can see well we're closed to the public still and through our family our Museum family the work at the Museum continues day in and day out, so look forward to catching up with you soon. And thank you to all the team who staged this from our wonderful Development team and just a little reminder in there that we're coming up towards the end of the financial year, a good time to ask for a tax deductible of course we are fully tax-deductible with donations and the Australian Museum Foundation would really love to have your support, so again and thank you to the whole team in Development and technical team who've done so well and to Meagan and they're helping us this evening and we'll see all very soon.