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Australia’s wildlife warrior Rebecca Johnson on cracking the koala code

Australia’s wildlife warrior Rebecca Johnson on cracking the koala code
06 Jul
1:20

The owner of the Owl House unlocks the door and ushers me into his New York-style wine bar on Sydney’s Crown Street. Opening hours are usually from 5pm but an exception has been made for my lunch date, Australian Museum research director Rebecca Johnson, who lives across the road.

A superstar in the science world, Johnson earlier in the week had announced a world-first genetic map of the koala completed by the team of 54 scientists that she led. She is the museum’s first female science chief and one of only two accredited wildlife forensic scientists in Australia – there are just 28 in the world – helping to solve animal cruelty crimes, prevent the smuggling of endangered species and put an end to the lucrative trade in rhinoceros horns.

More importantly for our lunch, she is also one of the Owl House’s most loyal customers.

With its dim lighting, red walls and well stocked bar, it feels like a late-night venue but the owner and our waiter for the day Amir Halpert assures me the food is restaurant quality, showing me pictures on his phone of some of the best dishes.

Rebecca Johnson led the team that completed the genetic map of the koala genome.
Rebecca Johnson led the team that completed the genetic map of the koala genome. Jessica Hromas

We are passing the time because Johnson is late. She has had to detour to the ABC on the way to lunch to do a quick interview on the koala genome project.

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As Halpert is pouring my second mineral water, Johnson rushes in and we perch up at the bar.

Warehouses of specimens

It was around six years ago the 44-year-old first came up with the idea to attempt a full-sequencing of the koala genome.

“Koalas are one of those things that attract a lot of attention. It’s an iconic species so why not have a go because not only is it really important and a lot of the outcomes will genuinely benefit koalas but it’s also a really great learning exercise for Australia.”

Johnson at work in 2005 with a sea eagle.
Johnson at work in 2005 with a sea eagle. Kate Geraghty

The project uncovered new information about how koalas are able to live on eucalyptus leaves, which are poisonous to most other mammals and why they are so susceptible to chlamydia, which has caused widespread infertility and blindness.

“We were really interested in conservation of koalas,” says Johnson. “And it’s important to highlight the work we do. A big thing like that doesn’t come along very often.

“Museums are known as being warehouses of many old, dead specimens so unfortunately we don’t have a reputation for doing contemporary science which is actually really wrong.”

Johnson doesn’t look like she hangs around old, dead specimens all day. She is full of energy, quick to laugh and dressed smartly in a fitted black jacket and skirt, with a tattoo of an insect on her inner right ankle, which I discover later is of a weaver ant, the subject of her PhD.

"It doesn't matter how wonderful the science is, if it's not understood by the people that are making the decisions then ...
“It doesn’t matter how wonderful the science is, if it’s not understood by the people that are making the decisions then it’s almost unnoticed,” Johnson says. Peter Braig

“People don’t quite understand the significance of museum science and it’s something I say to my team all the time. It doesn’t matter how wonderful the science is, if it’s not understood by the people that are making the decisions then it’s almost unnoticed.”

As a result, she spends a lot of time making sure the right people understand what the museum is doing, with one former NSW environment minister describing her as Australia’s very own Sheldon Cooper, the genius lead character from the hit TV show The Big Bang Theory.

Halpert has been busily arranging a plate of oxtail and smoked bone marrow croquettes and small bowl of marinated Sicilian olives in front of us. He offers wine and Johnson leaves it for him to choose so he pours out a Torbreck rose for her and a Little Black Stone pinot gris for me. They are like old friends. “He knows I love rose.”

Foundation of nerdism

Rebecca Johnson: "To be able to presumptively say something is rhino is enough to hold a seizure of horns."
Rebecca Johnson: “To be able to presumptively say something is rhino is enough to hold a seizure of horns.”

Johnson was born in South Australia. Her parents divorced when she was young and she moved with her mother, brother and sister to Sydney’s northern beaches.

“I was always a nerd,” she says. “When I was young, Mum says I would get up really early so to entertain me she would set me up with audio books. I learnt to read that way and that’s the foundation of my nerdism.”

Halpert is asking whether we would like to order or are we happy to leave it to him. We abdicate responsibility.

Despite an early interest in science, Johnson studied ancient history, French and advanced mathematics in high school.

"I was always a nerd," says Johnson.
“I was always a nerd,” says Johnson. Peter Braig

After completing her studies, Johnson was researching wasps in Boston when she was offered a job back in Sydney running the DNA lab at the Australian Museum in 2003.

“Running a lab is not a very glamorous job but I thought it was awesome,” she says. “When you’re a geneticist you can pretty much work on anything as long as there’s an interesting question or application.”

Just a month into the job, Johnson was contacted by the police about an animal cruelty case.

A man had driven through a Sydney park and mowed down about 20 cockatoos in front of the families who would go there especially to feed the birds. They reported the disturbing incident along with details of his number plate to the police but he denied any involvement. That’s when the police turned to Johnson and her team.

“They had this blood sample from the car but the forensic labs they usually dealt with said it wasn’t human and they couldn’t go any further with the analysis because their systems weren’t set up for it. Besides they were very busy on human cases and it’s also a very different skill set.”

Johnson says it was a risk for the museum to do a crime scene sample. However, the collaboration was a success. Faced with the evidence, the driver pleaded guilty and it resulted in a conviction. It also steered the Australian Museum and its young, ambitious scientist in a new direction.

“It was pretty much the birth of wildlife forensics in Australia,” she says. “We are a state government organisation and it’s very important to us to demonstrate what we do is important to the tax payer and that it’s good value.”

Illegal wildlife trade

"Running a lab is not a very glamorous job but I thought it was awesome," says Johnson.
“Running a lab is not a very glamorous job but I thought it was awesome,” says Johnson.

David Bowie’s Young Americans is playing in the background as Halpert brings our starters: capsicums stuffed with quinoa, oyster mushrooms and tomato and sake-cured salmon with pickled zucchini and wasabi.

In an upsetting development for Johnson, the Owl House is moving but as a consolation the new venue is not too far away and is conveniently located close to her favourite gelato shop.

As we divide up the starters and dish them out, Johnson says, “The illegal wildlife trade is massive. It’s worth billions of dollars a year. Unfortunately the more endangered a species the more money you can make out of it on the black market.”

It ranges from the illegal pet trade and ornaments like ivory and rhino horn to traditional medicines.

One of Johnson’s honours students came up with a rapid DNA test to identify rhino horn.

“To be able to presumptively say something is rhino is enough to hold a seizure of horns,” she says. “It could be 10, 20, 80 rhino horn pieces that are involved in these seizures.”

Like the move into wildlife forensics, the koala project was also a relatively risky venture.

“You don’t really announce something before you do it. But because science tends to be a little bit competitive and we didn’t want to go ahead and sequence it and then find out someone else had done it, we thought why don’t we announce it.

"If you're without titles in a room full of people, there will be this underlying, unconscious assumption that you're ...
“If you’re without titles in a room full of people, there will be this underlying, unconscious assumption that you’re not the senior person,” Johnson says. brendan esposito

“It was a big risk because five years later we might not have finished it or we might not have found something that was interesting enough to publish. But we were fortunate that we had some great results. We really squeezed a lot of information out of it.”

Some prospective customers are trying to enter the bar but Halpert waves them away. He clears our entrée plates only after all the food is gone and refills our wine glasses.

Johnson is talking about another interesting forensics case, in which her team was given a dirty, empty box and asked if they could tell the police whether a death adder – one of the most venomous land snakes in Australia – had been in there.

A policeman, whose house was attached to a regional station, had come home with his family to find a death adder on his driveway. Separately, the police found a box with some threatening messages written on it and suspected the snake had been deliberately planted on the property. But they needed to prove it had been in the box.

“We had to manage expectations because we were relying on the snake rubbing itself in the box so much that it left some DNA behind.”

Despite the degree of difficulty, Johnson’s team did manage to find some death adder DNA.

“That one was interesting because there was never a conclusion to that case but it was a great example of the power of science and the power of being creative.”

It’s this “snake in a box” case she has talked about on visits back to her old schools: Bilgola Primary and Barrenjoey High.

“It’s letting young people know science is about more than being a dusty old professor, who doesn’t get out much.”

Our main arrives, a plate of gnocchi with caramelised onion, mushroom and parmesan chips to share; it’s one of the Owl House’s signature dishes and Johnson’s favourites.

Changing slowly

When Johnson was appointed director of the museum’s research institute she was the first woman to hold the role in the organisation’s 188-year history. About 100 staff report to her and she is responsible for the museum’s roughly 20 million specimens. Her career stands out in what is still a male-dominated field.

“If you’re without titles in a room full of people, there will be this underlying, unconscious assumption that you’re not the senior person,” she says. “It’s changing very slowly but really it will only change if we actively do something about it.”

Johnson, who is single, is very close to her nieces and nephews. I ask whether she is a workaholic.

“Others would describe me as that. But I don’t really see it as work. I don’t even count the hours. My mother refers to the museum as my townhouse.”

Halpert is leaving to pick up his daughters from school and tells us to pull the door shut on our way out. I insist on paying the bill.

“Say hi to the girls,” says Johnson as he races out the door.

We finish our drinks as Johnson tells me she is heading to Brisbane the following morning to give a speech at a meeting of the Australian Mammal Society. On Monday, she will be in Canberra to appear before the parliamentary joint committee on law enforcement which is looking into the trade in elephant ivory and rhino horn.

We emerge from the Owl House blinking into the daylight. Johnson has only a short walk home, across the road.

The bill

The Owl House

97 Crown Street, Darlinghurst, Sydney

  • Oxtail and smoked bone marrow croquettes, $18
  • Marinated olives, $5
  • Stuffed capsicum, $18
  • Salmon, $20
  • Gnocchi, $28
  • Glass Torbreck rose, $12
  • Glass Little Black Stone pinot gris, $13

Total $115.71 (including service charge)

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