Dr Rachael King: Her Story

Dr. Rachael King is a Research Scientist at South Australian Museum, specialising in the taxonomy and evolutionary history of crustaceans from both marine and freshwater environments.

See Rachael’s story below, and download the accompanying display brochure here.

Rachael’s research is in taxonomy and systematics - identifying species and examining their evolutionary relationships, and the classification of organisms. Her focus is freshwater and marine invertebrates; which includes crustaceans, sea stars, sea urchins, corals, sponges, tiny little worms and numerous strange little critters. Her role includes defining and describing species, and investigating changes in biodiversity over time and location. Museum collections hold and continue to gather a wealth of samples to use for comparative research.

Always loving the ocean

When young, Rachael lived in the outer Melbourne suburbs, far from the ocean. However, she always treasured visits to the beach, swimming and investigating rockpools. She loved watching Jacques Cousteau documentaries on the television, seeing the crew with their homemade scuba gear jumping off boats and searching for things in the ocean. From an early age she knew that she really wanted to be a marine biologist.

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Family encouragement

Rachael thinks that her parents gave her a really good work ethic. They worked hard themselves, and told Rachael and her sisters that they should aim high for whatever they wanted, and they were encouraged to explore their interests. Rachael was the first person in her immediate family to graduate high school and to go to university. She was imaginative as a child and born asking questions, according to her family.

Finding her area of interest

She fell into the area of crustaceans after choosing her PhD by seeking a supervisor that would be a good mentor, as the primary priority. Once she had completed her PhD in crustaceans she was hooked and became one of the few workers in this group in Australia. Rachael loves being out in the field, whether in the desert looking for aquatic crustaceans, on big boats collecting samples at a thousand metres, or working in a submersible. However, it is in the lab that the discoveries are made. Her observation skills and the same scientific method in identifying species and describing them can be applied to different habitats.

Rachael’s work also involves field trips and these have taken her from the deep sea to the desert.
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Current research

Rachael’s recent work involves small amphipod crustaceans associated with Great Artesian Basin mound springs in the outback of South Australia. Some of these habitats have been dated to about 4-5 million years old. The work involves DNA analysis and creating evolutionary trees using her collected samples and those in the museum. She defines and describes species using molecular data and detailed scientific drawings that are used to analyse body forms. This work contributes important data and information towards building a wealth of knowledge about Australian biodiversity. She says “Species are the building blocks of our life, its important to know what is in our ecosystems, the role of the animals in their environment, where they live and why they live there, etc. so that we know what's happening in the environment and how we can manage and protect it.”

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This document is special to Rachael as it was her first published paper and describes a previously unknown species. She has since described over 40 different species.

Using scientific drawing

When reflecting on the science she does, Rachael enjoys that it has a creative element to it that exercises the artistic part of the brain through illustration and description. Using a camera lucida with the microscope to develop scientific drawings, she says you can examine the animal thoroughly and in great detail at many focal levels - details which are not always clear in static photographs.

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Rachael dissects and illustrates specimens as part of her work to help her develop a greater understanding of the animals she investigates. To do this she uses a camera lucida (drawing arm) attached to a microscope. This is a technique that uses mirrors to simultaneously see both the specimen and a drawing surface, allowing her to effectively trace an image of the object onto paper. Though she uses a very modern machine, the technique is very old.

What is a species?

There were about a thousand new species described last year in Australia and that's a key part of the work research scientists do at museums: describing species and examining biodiversity. This information is shared and other scientific disciplines can build from that information. Taxonomists like Rachael ask a “What species is that?” “How do we define this species?” “What is it related to?” “What role does that species have in the ecosystem?”

Advice for young women

Follow their dreams and try their hardest to get where they want to go.

Advice for parents of curious children

I think children should be encouraged to follow their interests. Even if the parents have no knowledge or insight into it, just encourage them to explore, ask questions and help them follow their interests.

You can also hear:

This series is made possible with support from the Hon. Dr Diana Laidlaw AM.

Production Partner: Randy Larcombe Film + Stills

Series Partner: The University of Adelaide

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