Alumni profile

Prof Rebecca Johnson

PhD in Molecular Evolutionary Genetics, 1999

Director of Australian Museum Research Institute

Discover how Professor Rebecca Johnson's risk-taking mindset helped her achieve the full sequencing of the koala genome.

La Trobe alumna Professor Rebecca Johnson has an unshakeable passion for applied science. She’s researched social insects as a PhD student, examined wildlife specimens from crime scenes as a lab manager and has championed the vital science happening in Australia’s oldest museum for almost 15 years.

Now, as Chief Scientist at the Australian Museum and Director of its Research Institute, Professor Johnson has led a team of 54 scientists across seven countries to fully sequence the koala genome, including 26,000 koala genes. She talks to us about the importance of choosing the right mentors, taking career risks and how to achieve collaboration on a world-first wildlife genome project.

I’m definitely a risk-taker and I like to think that was something strongly encouraged at La Trobe. It’s one of the younger universities in Australia – only 50 years old last year. When you’re a young institution, you’re encouraged to innovate, be agile and take risks. Though as a senior executive, the risks I take now are measured risks, based on recent research and market need.

I chose to study my PhD at La Trobe because of the advisor I’d be able to work with, Professor Ross Crozier, who was in the Department of Genetics at the time. He was an eminent Australian geneticist who’d published cutting-edge science in leading journals. He was also well-respected internationally as a leader in social insect genetics. And I thought social insects sounded like something that could be awesome!

Someone so eminent attracted other amazing people, which gave me an incredible network to draw on. Not only did I meet fellow students who are still my friends to this day, I also met well-recognised scientists from all over the world, who’d come as visiting researchers or scholars. Only looking back years later do I realise I was spending time with people who were eminent globally. I just took it for granted that I’d get to play volleyball with leading professors from Switzerland, or explain AFL to someone who was president of an international scientific society! Also in my department were leading Australian geneticists like Professor Ary Hoffman and La Trobe’s own Distinguished Professor Jenny Graves. You saw what was possible because of the quality of science that was coming out of those groups. It was an incredible environment and the lab was like a big family.

The path from my PhD started off traditionally. I worked briefly as a post-doc in Australia and then moved overseas. At Tufts University in Boston, I studied whether an invasive paper wasp had been due to a single or multiple introductions, and how significant it was as an introduced pest. I also answered questions around the genetic basis of different behaviours of honeybees.

I was there only for a year when I was offered a position at the Australian Museum as lab manager of the Museum’s DNA Laboratory for evolutionary biology. I was delighted, not only to work in science, but in my home town and in a place like the Australian Museum. I kept the laboratory maintained and ensured we stayed up-to-date with new technology.

Not long after I started, we had a few ‘forensic enquiries’ asking for help identifying wildlife in criminal cases. Forensics means that you’re ensuring the science is fit for the legal system – people asking, ‘We’ve got this from a crime scene, can you tell us what it is?’ We had similar queries from airports and around biosecurity incursions, too, identifying things that had been seized at the border. One airport had a very significant wildlife strike on a passenger plane and they wanted to know what it was.

For a geneticist, a museum is the perfect place to answer these questions. All of these enquiries require practical applications of genetics and we have millions of animal specimens that can act as a reference to help identify the unknown. In fact, one of our experts was asked to identify worm fragments found on some wing flaps in the search for missing Malaysian Airlines flight MH370. That’s an extraordinary application of our science.

Under my leadership, the laboratory I first managed is now the Australian Centre for Wildlife Genomics. It’s one of the only accredited wildlife forensics facilities in Australia, and one of only six in the world. I saw an opportunity to turn it into a wildlife forensics lab, and believed it was a very effective way for us to demonstrate why the Museum’s science is so relevant and why its specimen collections are so important. I was fortunate to have the support of the Museum to do something that was a bit out there. First, there was the risk that it wouldn’t work. And second, there was the risk of criticism from peers – that it’s oversimplifying science, or making science transactional. That balance is something I always make really clear to my students even now. You don’t just walk into the lab and start solving wildlife crimes, you have to learn to be a great scientist first.

The biggest scientific risk I’ve taken in my career was to sequence the full koala genome. It was a super risky project, but again, one that I saw as a great way to put the Museum on the map for science. I thought, ‘Let’s go big, let’s do the whole genome! Why not do it with this iconic species, which has a lot of conservation requirements and attention, and captures everyone’s imagination?’ Nothing like that had been instigated, sequenced and led from Australia before, but there was a good chance that it was going to be done by researchers overseas. And I was determined that we were going to do it first.

The risk of being scooped in science is always high, so we made it very public that we were doing it. That way, other scientists could either attempt it, knowing who their competition was, or try to join us. In hindsight, that was absolutely the right thing to do. We started with a small group of Australian scientists – people from the Museum who were interested in population genetics, a group doing the sequencing, and other collaborators who were interested in koala disease – and, as we started thinking more about the questions we wanted to ask of this genome, we gathered more collaborators. (Not hard to do when you’re asking them to work with koalas!) Our result was one of the best quality mammal genomes ever sequenced. It’s comparable to human quality, one measure of accuracy pegs it at 95.1 per cent.

A genome is the ultimate collaboration. You bring together a team of people with lots of different expertise. We ended up with a big group – 54 scientists – because everyone had their own role to play in looking at the biology and what makes koalas special, or not special! Take the koala’s ability to survive on toxic eucalyptus leaves. You bring in people interested in detoxification, and taste receptor specialists, to tell you whether koala taste receptors are unusual or not. Without that combination of skills, the whole project can’t happen. No one magical person possesses all of them.

Evolutionary genetics frames everything in life for me. When you think about things from an evolutionary perspective, it makes the timeframe much bigger than the ‘now’ and it helps put everything in context. As human beings, we’ve radically and quickly changed the world, but some parts of our perception haven’t really kept up with that. For example, it’s very tempting to manage koalas the way we know them in 2018, or even in the way we know them since Europeans have arrived in Australia, which is only very recently. Yet we know that Aboriginal people lived with koalas for tens of thousands of years and they seemed to have quite a stable population. So, to manage a species based on how we see them today, or how we saw them even 200 years ago, is a really short-sighted way of thinking about our world. Working at a museum I get to think about that greater temporal depth a lot, and look at questions through deeper time.

There’s a perception that you need to be an overnight success, but the journey’s the fun bit! You don’t want to just go straight from the classroom to the boardroom. Know that you don’t have to start at the top, and that getting to the boardroom is when you have the chance to try lots of different things. Choose great mentors and supervisors along the way, work hard and never stop asking questions. And finally, be creative. Look for a niche, for something that’s going to be your stamp on the world.


Last updated: 10th May 2019