Team Effort Brightens Future of Science

28 February 2013

The South Australian Museum is a place where the natural world is documented; it is also a hub of new ideas where young and more experienced minds combine their knowledge.

Together, the best and brightest scientists and students challenge known concepts to forge new paths in science. They are solving key problems in the world by using the expertise of researchers in our Science Centre, who are training future leaders in fields such as Biology, Mineralogy and Palaeontology.

Every year, Museum scientists supervise PhD students from the University of Adelaide and Flinders University. They also have an agreement with the University of Ancona in Italy to welcome exchange students to work on their projects Adelaide. From studying life in Antarctica and mapping biodiversity in South Australia's outback to dissecting deceased dolphins – local and international students are guided by our experts through their challenging studies.

Scientists help them design experiments, develop hypotheses, write papers for publication, access and handle genetic data, organise field trips and challenge themselves with questions that will extend their research. Students then go on to inspire other young researchers and can often end up in similar roles to their original mentors.

Biology student Sarah Catalano is close to finishing her PhD with the University of Adelaide and has worked with our scientists Professors Ian Whittington and Steve Donnellan, studying the parasites of cephalopods (squid, octopus and cuttlefish). She recently won a 'three-minute thesis' competition at the University of Adelaide and has already travelled to Japan for her research.

"My supervisors at the Museum got me really motivated, inspired and enthusiastic to study something like parasites," she said. "Only a handful of researchers study the parasites of cephalopods, so there was a huge scope for me to work with – there were lots of questions, lots of unknowns. It just sounded really good, you get to go out and go fishing for these cephalopod species, come back, do the lab work, get your hands dirty, see what you find and maybe describe new parasite species. I love the ocean so it just seemed right up my alley."

Ms Catalano's research has been valuable in identifying different species of giant cuttlefish in Southern Australian waters and using parasites as 'biological tags'.

"Parasites can be indicators of pollution. In aquaculture it's very useful to study their life cycle so you know how to control infections by breaking parts of that life cycle.

"The Museum scientists helped me with everything – microscope work, where to send papers, taxonomy, working with genetic data, dissections. They have the experience and the knowledge to pass that on, which was great," she said.

The collaborative relationship for students extends further than the Museum. As they gain further expertise, they have the opportunity to share their research with other young people and motivate them to undertake a career in science. During their projects, the students also travel and give oral presentations on their work, improving their confidence and articulation skills for describing their special fields.

University of Adelaide PhD student Kanishka Ukuwela had studied a degree in Zoology in Sri Lanka, before he wrote to Museum Senior Researcher in Paleontology, Professor Mike Lee, "because of his exciting and highly reputable research program on reptile evolution conducted with his students in the University of Adelaide."

"Mike agreed to co-supervise me for my PhD with Dr Kate Sanders (a sea snake expert at the University of Adelaide)", said Mr Ukuwela. "My research project is on the Systematics and Evolution of the Indo-Pacific Sea Snakes. The Herpetology Section at the South Australian Museum has a large, well-curated reference collection of sea snakes. A large collection is crucial for comparative purposes. Furthermore, most of the sea snake voucher specimens and tissue samples from my study are also accessed here in the Museum.

"This is essential since studies based on systematics require the maintenance of a reference collection in a recognised museum. The staff are also really friendly and helpful. So in my view it would be impossible to conduct the kind of research I do without the help of an institution like the South Australian Museum."

Mr Ukuwela's research has received substantial media coverage, including this article in Discover. 

PhD students travel across the globe with our scientists in their field studies. Alejandro Tomas Velasco Castrillon and Paul Czechowski both underwent special training to prepare them for field work in Antarctica with Senior Researcher of Terrestrial Invertebrates Dr Mark Stevens. They looked at the diversity and evolutionary history of Eastern Antarctic small invertebrate fauna. This includes tiny nematodes, rotifers and tardigrades. The information helps us better understand the region's biodiversity, define species' boundaries and the extent of endemism, and link species distribution with the geo-chemistry of soil.

The benefits of scientist-student collaboration work both ways. Our scientists love to lead young researchers because it keeps them on their toes, and helps the students apply the knowledge they acquire in the Museum to ask new questions and solve new problems.

Head of Biological Sciences Professor Ian Whittington said "time constraints due to other core responsibilities means we may be unable to devote the time required to all our research programs. By engaging an eager graduate with appropriate background in an area, we take on a person who does have the time and energy to totally immerse themselves in a specific project and develop new required skills."

"While there are broad aims and objectives to meet when a project is first discussed and developed, a good PhD student will contribute their own ideas, opinions and enthusiasm to progress the research, with advice and mentoring from project supervisors. Often, this can result in a project taking unexpected turns and innovative outcomes. This process provides excellent training for a PhD student in a range of skills to develop new expertise to become research scientists themselves."

There are many more exciting PhD projects underway – too many to mention, in fact!

Both scientists and students are clear: collaborating is the key to expanding research and producing better outcomes. Students widen their horizons by accessing the South Australian Museum's valuable collection of specimens and tissues and the hard-earned expertise of our scientists.

Together they are shaping the future of science and producing useful data and techniques for industries. Most of all, they are enjoying what science is all about: the discovery of our world.