Letting faeces provide the facts

Tahlia Perry SA Science Awards

Known in the scientific world as scat or faeces, poo can give a lot of very important information about an animal. This explains why Dr Tahlia Perry called on people nationwide to send her some.

Tahlia recently finished her PhD under Professor Frank Grutzner, where she studied the iconic echidna for conservation outcomes.

She did this by creating a citizen science project called EchidnaCSI. Over 12,000 people across Australia sent in echidna sightings and scats for her to be able to learn more about echidna biology. 

The DNA in the scat provides a wealth of facts including what food echidnas are consuming, how their gut microbiomes differ across the country and in captivity (which is important for their health) and even how echidnas are related to each other.

As we head towards this year’s International Women’s Day, we’re going to get to know a bit more about Tahlia and her career.

All her studies so far have been through the University of Adelaide. She started with a Bachelor of Science, majoring in genetics and zoology with the aim to research mammals using molecular tools. Molecular tools include things like DNA and RNA sequencing, hormone analyses, and even looking at single genes. These techniques all provide a wealth of information about an organism without even having to physically see or track them.

She then did her Honours degree in ancient DNA, studying an extinct species of peccary (closely related to pigs). The most fascinating thing about that work was being able to look back in time using DNA to learn about a species that has been extinct for more than 10,000 years. But she also realised very quickly that she wanted to work to help conserve species from extinction instead of studying animals that were already gone.

What does she love most about working in STEM?

I love the combination of having freedom to follow my interests and passions in combination with making real-world impacts to help conserve some of the most amazing species we have here in Australia. I also enjoy science communication and outreach. It’s invigorating seeing how others are equally as passionate and excited about my research.

Does she have any advice for those at the start of their research career?

Trust your instincts and your work methods. I wish I knew to trust myself regarding the approach that worked best for me. It’s okay if that differs from how others work and prioritise. I realised far too late that my erratic work style is in fact very compatible with being a researcher. It’s a strength rather than a weakness.  

Is there a personal or professional training opportunity she would be keen to undertake?

Anything that could get me into a room with Sir David Attenborough would be a dream come true.

What is something she is particularly proud to have achieved in her career or life?

Submitting my PhD thesis is still a very significant highlight, for both career and life. I don’t think anyone can underestimate how much of an incredible feeling it is after so many years of hard work.

How does she unwind in her spare time?

I’m a typical extrovert so I love spending as much time with friends and family as possible. I am a big coffee and wine enthusiast. I enjoy seeing live theatre shows, and I love a good trashy reality TV show.

May your passion never dim, Tahlia. And that opportunity with Sir David Attenborough come knocking.

Tagged in Women in STEM, Research, School of Biological Sciences, Environment Institute, Genetics, Environmental Science