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Seaweek 2011: Spotlight on Marine Science

Marine Scientist Profile:

Who am I?
My name is Dr Rachel Przeslawski, and I’m a marine benthic ecologist. This means I study the relationship between life on the seafloor and the environment.

I work for and my work / research involves:
I work at Geoscience Australia in the Marine and Coastal Environment Group. Our research program is currently looking at methods for mapping Australia’s marine biodiversity. Its principal aim is predicting the make up of biological communities in Australia’s oceans using geological and oceanographic data. This is because it is often easier to measure environmental factors like water temperature, depth, or substrate type rather than the biodiversity itself. Our work is specifically exploring how ecological processes are linked to environmental variables and spatial patterns of biodiversity, and looking at how spatial patterns in the environmental variables might reflect patterns in biodiversity.

As it is impossible to catalogue all the life on the seafloor, this substitute information can help us predict biodiversity patterns in areas where we have little biological data. My job involves going to sea on research vessels and collecting biological specimens along with matching physical data. Back at our laboratory I sort the animals broadly into categories and then, with the assistance of museum experts throughout Australia, I identify the specimens to species level. Once I know what animals occur where, I can analyse the links between the physical environment and the various measures of biodiversity.

How does my work relate to marine conservation?
We know very little about the spatial patterns of Australia’s marine biodiversity, particularly in the deep sea (greater than 200 metres). This lack of information makes it difficult to develop environmental management strategies in these areas. It is therefore useful to predict what kinds of animals exist in these environments when biological data are limited. This national-scale research provides information necessary for supporting the sustainable management of Australia’s marine resources by reducing the uncertainty in understanding the distribution and character of marine biodiversity.

Things I like about my job:
I love the variety in my job. I alternate between working at sea, in the laboratory, and in the office. I study a huge range of interesting animals, from small crustaceans that burrow through grains of sand to delicate sponges made mostly out of glass. I also get to work with many different people with varied backgrounds and expertise. My work benefits a large group of stakeholders, including government, industry, museums and universities.

What inspired you to consider a career in marine science?
I grew up in Michigan, USA, a state surrounded by large freshwater lakes, where I had always had an interest in animals. During this time, my experience with marine life was limited to whatever my mother had in her saltwater aquarium at the time. In 1999 I travelled to Wollongong on a student exchange and was amazed by the comparatively rich and colourful ocean fauna that Australia possesses.

I studied several subjects which involved field work in the intertidal zone and became fascinated with the adaptations of the animals that live in such a harsh environment. It wasn’t too surprising then when I decided to stay in Australia and pursue a career studying marine life here.

Do you have a favourite marine creature (if so why)?
One of the main perks of my job is that I always get to come into contact with, and learn about new and amazing animals! If I had to choose one group, I would say that molluscs are my favourite. Molluscs belong to one of the largest phyla (second only to arthropods) and include an incredible array of animals. Molluscs range from the tiniest snail to the giant squid, from drab land slugs to flamboyant nudibranchs (commonly known as sea slugs), from simple clams to cuttlefish that communicate with flashes of colours. They can be found all over the world; on land, sea and freshwater, from tropical coral reefs to the deep sea.



Rachel in the laboratory

Rachel diving



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