Ecology and the language of diversity

6 April 2020

Ecology has been a life-long passion for Frank Zich, Collection Manager at the Australian Tropical Herbarium.

Frank Zich has always had an interest in ecology and biodiversity. Growing up surrounded by nature in Darwin, Frank watched lizard and ant wars and on one memorable occasion he even inserted a Red Lucky Seed (Adenanthera pavonina) up his nose. Unable to remove it himself, he neglected to tell his mother until it started to germinate (requiring a trip to hospital for removal)!

It’s no surprise that Frank became a botanist, beginning his career with the CSIRO at the Australian National Herbarium in Canberra. He’s since held several roles curating herbarium collections, managing plant records and supporting plant conservation research, including stints overseas at the Bogor and Bali Botanical Gardens in Indonesia.

Frank took up the role of Collection Manager at the Australian Tropical Herbarium (ATH) in Cairns in 2006, where his role is to manage and maintain the irreplaceable collections of 190,000 plant specimens, as well as keep the ATH database up to date and support plant research.

Curating a priceless collection

Frank spends most of his time curating plant specimens and improving the quality and accuracy of the specimen database. He’s also the current custodian of an incredibly useful product: an online tool that enables people to identify Australia’s tropical rainforest plants (well over 2700 species!) based on a long-term project that began in the 1960s. ‘These tools are used a lot by a diverse range of people, so I think it’s nice to know that what I do is used by people daily,’ says Frank.

Frank’s curatorial work is essential for a broad range of research areas, such as taxonomy, ecology, vegetation mapping and ethnobotany. Some of the fascinating work currently being carried out at the ATH bridges Western science and traditional knowledge. Ethnobotanist Gerry Turpin is supporting Indigenous communities to protect, manage and maintain their cultural knowledge on the use of plants. Other researchers at ATH are focusing on plant genomics, which involves mapping genes and their functions. Dr Matt Barret, Dr Daniel Montesinos Torres and PhD student Sasha Rozhkova are researching how introduced species become invasive and hope to develop innovative methods for keeping weeds in check.

Defining the language of our biosphere

Taxonomy is all about describing and classifying new species, and Frank is working on a few taxonomic projects of his own. This branch of science is as much about language as it is biology. ‘Plant species are the fundamental units of the biosphere, in a way that is similar to words being the fundamental units of language,’ explains Frank. ‘If we don’t define and accurately classify our ‘words’, then our biological ‘language’ is not as useful for studying, understanding and communicating about the biosphere.’

Frank Zich carrying out field work in Laura, north Queensland.

Frank has some great insights to share about plant sex diversity. Our brunch favourite, the avocado, actually has both male and female reproductive organs and is fertile at different times of day. Amorphophallus,  a species related to popular indoor house plants, is known as the ‘corpse flower’ because it attracts pollinators with the smell of rotting meat! While we understand the complex reproductive systems of some plants quite well, there’s still a lot to learn about indigenous species. ‘In the native Australian flora, everywhere we look we find more complexity and diversity, but for most plants we know very little about these and other aspects of their biology and ecology,’ says Frank.

Biodiversity research is also evolving at a fast pace. In the environmental sciences, DNA-based biodiversity assessments and monitoring are on the rise. ‘Research scientists are developing a new R&D model called ‘Environomics’ aimed at innovating and integrating the way research is done,’ says Frank. This technology platform fuses environmental science and genomics and will play an important role in biodiversity research in the years to come.  Through his work managing the verified collection specimens at the ATH, Frank is supporting efforts to build genomic reference data for Australian plants, which is essential for many of these novel approaches.

Scientists march for diversity

Earlier this year, Frank and CSIRO postdoctoral fellow in biomolecular interactions Dr Alex Caputo, marched with colleagues in the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Parade, marking the second year that CSIRO participated in Mardi Gras. CSIRO’s theme for 2020 was Biodiversity: The Rainbow Revolution and referenced the diversity across all parts of life, whether in people, plants, or even chemicals in nature. Frank described CSIRO’s participation in the parade as moving and inspiring. ‘I felt proud of CSIRO for participating as it made such a strong statement about its acceptance of LGBTQI+ identifying people in the organisation.’

Frank, who identifies as gay, reflects on how far CSIRO has come in openly celebrating diversity over the course of his career. ‘I reflected back on my experiences in the early 1990s with CSIRO, where my local team accepted me, but when it came to CSIRO as an organisation, I don’t recall that they had any statements at all back then about diversity and inclusion,’ says Frank.

CSIRO has worked hard to build a safe and welcoming culture through its diversity and inclusion strategy, recognising and valuing the diversity and contributions of all its employees. ‘It’s said often, but it is also true, that having a diversity of people in a workplace who all feel included and valued does lead to a work environment that is happier, more innovative and more productive,’ adds Frank.

CSIRO received its Athena SWAN Bronze accreditation with SAGE in 2018 for its commitment to gender equity and diversity. The Pride@CSIRO professional network and social community aims to promote and drive the inclusion of LGBTQI+ employees by raising awareness, supporting peers and challenging discrimination. As a member of Pride, Frank says that the organisation is doing a great job of leading cultural change in the workplace with the idea that we should all be able to bring our whole selves to work.

Frank says ‘I’ve seen many changes in CSIRO over the years. It has always been a good organisation to work for, but it’s even better now and will continue to improve as it works towards developing the culture of the organisation to be more open, inclusive and diverse while delivering on its research agenda.’