Bronwyn Innes is a research scientist at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) Marine and Atmospheric Research with the Wealth from Oceans Flagship program, where she is DNA barcoding species of fish.
Where were you educated?
I completed my science degree at the University of Tasmania in Hobart in 1992 majoring in microbiology and biochemistry and did an honours project in 1993 in Antarctic microbiology. I occasionally consider doing further study but for now I'm happy with my current position.
How did you become interested in the ocean?
My original intention was to find work in a medical field, however, my first job was as a laboratory assistant at the CSIRO marine laboratories in Hobart. I started there in 1994 and have been there ever since! My first project looked at population genetics of tunas. Since I have been at CSIRO, I have worked on a number of population genetics studies of wild and cultured species. Outside of work, learning to scuba dive gave me an appreciation of the sheer diversity of life below the water's surface. The waters around Tasmania can be quite cool but there is a lot to see if you open your eyes.
What do you study and why is it important?
Currently I am "barcoding" Australian fish species (mostly commercial species) to add to a global database of fish barcodes (cytochrome oxidase I sequences). This database will be used to help taxonomists and non-taxonomists, including those from the fish retail and fisheries management sectors, to identify fish species. While it may be easy to accurately identify a whole fish, if you only have part of that fish, say a fillet or a fin, or an unknown life stage of that fish, it can be very difficult, sometimes impossible, to identify it solely using physical characteristics. I am also using the barcoding technique to develop a method of identifying shark species from dried fins.
What do you enjoy about your work?
I like lab work and don't mind getting my hands dirty. Spending day after day in front of the computer is not for me. I also like the practicality of my work. It's satisfying to see how the barcoding data we have collected have been able to assist in solving or highlighting problems in fisheries management. I also work with a great group of people, which I think makes a huge difference.
What are some of the challenges you face?
While the laboratory protocols I use are reasonably straight forward, there are times when samples don't work as might be expected and it is impossible to get a good DNA sequence from them. Working out ways to troubleshoot these situations can be challenging but also satisfying once a solution is found. Having enough time to get the work done can also be challenging, especially when unexpected things happen such as urgent requests to sequence particular samples with short notice or when essential items of equipment break down.
What have you discovered so far and what do you hope to learn?
In my current project, I have learned that a lot is unknown in marine taxonomy. I'm learning new species' names on a daily basis. I'm also learning that when scientists collaborate a great deal can be achieved in a short period of time. These days, distance between laboratories is definitely not a barrier to getting huge amounts of data very quickly. Barcoding data can be used to help minimize uncertain identification of fish species. Barcoding has the potential, for example, to ensure that a customer in a restaurant who has ordered an expensive fish, is not served a cheaper substitute fish. Barcoding identification also can help authorities determine whether a protected species has been illegally caught (even if the distinguishing features of that species has been removed) and can add another piece to the puzzle for taxonomists defining a new species.
How do you spend your spare time when not studying the ocean?
I enjoy taking my dog for walks along the beach, going scuba diving and fishing with my husband. I do volunteer work for a local adult migrant English service. I love to read as well, however, that usually only happens when I'm on holidays.