The science of intergenerational change

Melbourne Museum bryozoan expert Phil Bock drills a piece of coral.
Image: Raelene Morey.


Sunday 15 November 2009
When Phil Bock eventually leaves his honorary associate post at Melbourne Museum he doesn't know who is going to take his place.
You see, at 70-years-of-age he is one of only a handful of bryozoan experts in Australia – and the others are also on the verge of retirement.
Phil began studying bryozoa, or lace corals, more than 30 years ago, after the scanning electron microscope gave scientists the technology to study specimens with new levels of detail and complexity.
"I had collected bags and bags of samples that needed to be looked at and it was obvious no one else was going to look at them," Phil said.
He said younger scientists were less likely to study bryozoans because the literature was difficult to access and more popular specimens such as molluscs were exciting and easier to study.
To help ensure his vast expertise is not lost, Phil has developed a website that catalogues byrozoa. Mostly text-based, the website features underwater photos of specimens that date back to the 1970s and drawings that date back to the early 1800s.
"Five years before most people knew about the Internet I jumped on it," Phil said.
"I saw something about making your own website so I did it. I gradually put all the things on it that I thought would be useful to people.
"I thought, 'this is going to be great for exchanging information like a digital library, for experts and non-experts.'
"But there's still a lot I need to add."
Polychaete expert Pat Hutchings, a Senior Principal Research Scientist at the Australian Museum in Sydney, is also imparting her knowledge to fellow biologist Maria Capa.
Pat, who began her PhD in 1967 and hasn't stopped working since on polychaetes, said it was critical Maria stayed on at the museum.
"We wrote in our CReef's grant application about Maria being a young career scientist and the importance of passing on knowledge to the next generation," Pat said.
"If you look at the number of senior people who work with polychaetes around the world, a lot of them don't have students, or postdocs like Maria."
Maria, originally from Spain and now completing her second postdoctoral research study, said Pat gave her the freedom and encouragement to conduct her own research.
"She spends a lot of time with her students," Maria said.
"She's a good example. She was living in a man's world when she started her career and has had to fight for a lot of what she has achieved."
Pat and Maria were last year awarded an ABRS/CReefs grant to study polychaetes as part of a larger team drawn from the Australian Museum, Museum Victoria and the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory. This grant will allow them to continue their work for another two years.