The Crocodile Hunter leads Dr Erin Hahn to the world of conservation genetics

Postdoctoral fellow Dr Erin Hahn works with formalin preserved specimens in CSIRO's Australian National Wildlife Collection, such as the blue spotted tree monitor. Picture: Elesa Kurtz

Postdoctoral fellow Dr Erin Hahn works with formalin preserved specimens in CSIRO's Australian National Wildlife Collection, such as the blue spotted tree monitor. Picture: Elesa Kurtz

The day Steve Irwin died, Dr Erin Hahn knew exactly what she needed to dedicate her working life to.

As an undergrad biology student at the University of New Mexico, she had a vague idea that she wanted to study genetics and contribute to conservation. But it wasn't until September 4, 2006 that it all fell into place.

"I used to spend nights staying up late and watching The Crocodile Hunter and just was absolutely enamored with him and his enthusiasm for science," she said.

"And when I saw the news report that he had died, it absolutely devastated me."

As one of the Canberra-based women selected for the Superstars of STEM program, Dr Hahn is hoping to pass on her own enthusiasm for science to the right audiences.

Growing up in the United States in rural New Jersey and then New Mexico, she spent much of her free time mucking about outdoors with farm animals.

"In my spare time after school, I used to mark the old lizards with nail polish and then see if I could like recapture them. I didn't know at the time that I was doing was mark recapture experiments, apparently I was, when I was 10."

She fell in love with the world of genetics and Punnett squares in university and she followed her interest to study a PhD at the University of Arizona, specialising in conservation genetics in a subspecies of pronghorn that had dwindled to only 20 animals.

While completing her PhD, she gave birth to two children and moved with her then-husband to Australia. After a stint at the Australian National University, she began working with the CSIRO Australian National Wildlife Collection where she is now a postdoctoral fellow.

Vaults filled with preserved species, from bats to birds, snakes to fish, hold the clues as to how changes in the environment have affected different species.

Dr Hahn's work is about finding out the best ways to extract DNA from these specimens collected over the years by CSIRO itself or other museums and avid collectors.

"As we were setting out on this journey to extract information from formalin preserved specimens, we met a lot of researchers who thought 'you're insane. You can't get DNA out of these things. Don't even bother trying'.

"And we were like, 'well, we'll give it a go'."

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The work will be a huge help for other researchers to know which specimens will yield the best result and how best to extract the DNA without damaging the animal.

"An additional service that we're trying to provide is helping selecting which specimens are going to be the most bang for the buck. The sequencing can be expensive and data analysis takes a really, really long time and so we want to make sure that we're giving the best information possible."

The end goal is to be able to use these specimens as a baseline to understand what's happening in animal populations today and to make fast and accurate conservation decisions.

"There are lots of things happening in the environment right now, where there's bushfires and droughts, floods, and this is having an effect of accelerating the rate of biodiversity loss.

"We kind of have to be all hands on deck right now. And the more methods that we have to study what's happening in the environment, if we can look at evidence from the past, and then that enables us to make better decisions about how to manage our future."

Dr Hahn wants to ensure women are visible in her field so the best minds are at work on the complex problems we face.

"When I was a kid, I never thought that there was any barrier to me becoming a scientist because I had people directly in front of me showing that women can interact with science," she said.

"That is absolutely not the case for everyone and at a time like now when we're faced with environmental catastrophes and we're having pandemics, certainly we need creative solutions to our world's problems and that means we need more diversity."

  • Superstars of STEM is a series highlighting Canberra women kicking goals in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
This story How the Crocodile Hunter led Dr Hahn to conservation genetics first appeared on The Canberra Times.