Doing science

Why do some people take up science as a career? Year 12 students Helen Epstein and Isobel Golovin find out in this interview with the Museum's Dr Jodi Rowley.

Isobel, Helen and Jodi

Isobel, Helen and Jodi
Photographer: Brendan Atkins © Australian Museum

ISOBEL: What inspired you to go into science?
JODI: I grew up in Sydney and my parents are very ‘city’ people. We didn’t go camping or anything like that. I had a horse though and I used to ride it out in Terrey Hills through the forest.
Up until the end of year 12 I wasn’t entirely sure what I wanted to do. I loved biology, but I also loved art, so it was a toss-up between the two. Then when I got a pretty good mark for biology I decided that maybe I should go on with it, so I applied for a bit of both at UNSW doing environmental science. I went out on field trips, and there I saw frogs – and I couldn’t believe they were real, with their eyeballs and toe pads. And it went on from there.

HELEN: What was your first job to do with science?
JODI: I did a lot of volunteer work initially and that’s probably the best way to get experience. You can learn only so much at university. But through volunteer experience, you can quickly see what you’re interested in – or not! There’s a few things I went on and thought ‘Oh my god, run, I hate this very much . . .’ But with frogs, I started volunteering with the Australian Museum when I was 18, went and did other things then came back here.

ISOBEL: What is typical day like for you here?
JODI: There’s really no such thing as an average day at the Museum for me, which is kind of cool! I spend time just staring at my computer, sitting on my chair, like a lot of jobs. If I’m describing new species, that can be interesting: comparing them, trying to provide that they’re new.
But I also spend about two months of the year in Vietnam, climbing up mountains into the forest with a bunch of Vietnamese students, things like that. It’s been a while since I’ve been in the field, so I’m starting to feel I’m stagnating. But as soon as I get there [in the field], it’s like ‘Oh this is so hard! I just want to go back and sit in my office again!’

HELEN: Who has inspired you in your career?
JODI: I guess it’s a lot of the people who do what I do and make me feel like it’s possible. I get inspired daily by the animals too.

ISOBEL: What’s the coolest thing you’ve ever found, the coolest species of frog?
JODI: Every frog that you come across that you think might be new is awesome! Maybe the local people know it exists but science and the world in general doesn’t. Often even the local people haven’t see them because when they’re up there they’re looking for different things and don’t pay attention to small frogs. Recently there was the vampire flying frog, and I was pretty sure it was new but it wasn’t until I got it back to the Museum and looked at the tadpoles under the microscope that I saw they had these fangs sticking out of their mouths. So that was one of the rare Eureka moments you have sitting in here as opposed to in the field. Most of it’s out in the field.

HELEN: What’s your favourite frog?
JODI: I spend a lot of time working on small brown frogs that are not particularly interesting to anyone else in the whole world but which I really like, so I guess they’re my favourite group of frogs, but the vampire flying frog has a pretty cool name and is a pretty cool frog as well, the fact that it can glide from tree to tree, and it can breed in these little waterholes in the trees, it doesn’t need to breed in streams or ponds, so I like the unique adaptations of that frog. But I find a new favourite whenever I go out in the field.

ISOBEL: Do you have any pet frogs at home?
JODI: No, it’s only legal to keep Australian frogs in Australia and they’re a bit boring during the day. For the most part I think that frogs belong in the wild, so I get my frog fixes whenever I’m in the field. I can go out and look at thein ditches and streams around Sydney as well. We’ve got some pretty decent frogs.

ISOBEL: is there a problem with endangered frogs in Australia?
JODI: Yeah, around the world. About one-third of all amphibians are declining, threatened with extinction. There are a lot of people working on frogs here, but in SE Asia where I work we don’t even know how many species there are or how they’re doing. In Australia, and in the Americas, the chytrid fungus has affected a lot of frogs, but other parts of the world seem to be a bit different.
Asia’s biggest threat to the amphibians and to biodiversity in general is habitat loss. Disease seems to be there but doesn’t seem to be causing decline, so we don’t really know what’s going on with that.
Another problem that we have in Asia that we don’t have in Australia is that frogs are caught a lot for food, traditional medicine and also for the pet trade. So people go over there and see really beautiful salamanders and pay up to a thousand dollars for one in a tank. Some people take them out illegally. And the local people will try and find as many as possible if they can make some good money off it.

HELEN: Do you find that local people respond positively to your presence? Do they understand about the frogs?
JODI: Oh they think we’re crazy! The people at the bottom of the mountain say ‘why would you go up the mountain to catch frogs when you can catch them right there in the rice paddies?’
The people who live higher up in the mountains tend to be really interesting, ethnic minorities who speak their own languages, cultures and beliefs. They usually know about the frogs in the area because they catch them for food – chicken and things like that are really expensive, and frogs, well they taste a bit like chicken anyway . . . so they get a lot of their protein by going out and catching these big dopey frogs sitting in the streams. They’re way better at catching frogs than I am . . .

ISOBEL: Do you have any advice for people our age who might be considering going into science?
JODI: The biggest thing is to volunteer or go and see what people are doing. Get out there! There’s things like Streamwatch, and you can get on the right path sooner by getting out there, trying things out, go to some talks –that is one of the most important things, because it’s often who you know, as well as what you know.

Helen and Isobel are Year 12 students at SCEGGS Darlinghurst. They interviewed Jodi at the Australian Museum on 21 March 2011.

An edited version of this interview first appeared in Explore magazine 33(2), winter 2011. 

Brendan Atkins , Publications Coordinator
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