Plenary Speakers

Jonah Duckles


Building, Growing and Sustaining Global Collaborative Communities

Agile, interconnected and diverse communities of practice can serve as a hedge on an uncertain world. We currently live in an era of populist politics and diminishing government funding, challenging our collective optimism for the future. However, the communities we build and contribute to can be prepared and strengthened to address the challenges ahead. How we choose to operate in this world of less funding is tied to the collective impacts we all believe we can achieve by working together. How we choose to work together and structure our communities matters.

Jonah Duckles is Director of Membership and Technology at The Carpentries. He works to accelerate data-driven inquiry by catalyzing digital skills and building organizational capacity. As a part of the leadership team, he has helped to grow Software and Data Carpentry into a financially sustainable non-profit with a robust organizational membership in 10 countries. In his career he has helped to address challenging research problems in long-term technology strategy, GIS & remote sensing data analysis, modelling global agricultural production systems and digital research skills development.

Lee Belbin and Elycia Wallis

Lee Belbin 450Elycia Wallis 450

The change Imperative: Accelerating the pace of Biodiversity Discovery and Documentation

Taxonomic work is slow and time consuming. Alarm bells have rung for years about the need to go faster, the need to attract and train new taxonomic workers, and the need to convince other branches of science that taxonomic work is vital. Morphological taxonomy is either being overrun or augmented – depending on your perspective – by genomics, artificial intelligence, new imaging methods and species-related data from other branches of science.

Ecology is one such branch of science, where defining, documenting and managing information about species traits has emerged as one of the most significant problems in the discipline. Traits have been recorded for aeons, but the resulting data has largely been insulated within cliques. How do we integrate these data and make them available in a form that will help to address significant issues about our environment? The ‘speed bumps’ on the route to a useful solution may be more social than technical.

Cross-disciplinary collaboration is required to address the big questions in biodiversity research today, and it will need to extend beyond taxonomy and ecology to other disciplines, such as pharmacology and material science. As Harry Truman said, “It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit”.

We are challenged to understand and answer the key questions about the world on which we all depend.  What are the challenges and the opportunities to accelerate biodiversity discovery and documentation?

Lee Belbin is a geoscience graduate and IT postgraduate who has evolved from exploration geology to teaching geology, research in analytical ecology to management, standards and policy development. For the past 15 years, he has provided management of, and scientific advice to international and national biodiversity-related projects.

Dr Elycia Wallis has recently joined the Atlas of Living Australia as Collections Community Engagement Manager. Prior to this, Dr Wallis worked at Museums Victoria for over twenty years in roles encompassing research collections management, administering museum database systems, and development of websites, apps and in-gallery multimedia. Dr Wallis is also the project leader for the Australian Biodiversity Heritage Library project.

Dr Bryan Lessard 


Promoting public engagement of natural history collections through science communication

Natural history collections are essential for understanding the world’s biodiversity and drive research in taxonomy, systematics, ecology and biosecurity. One of the biggest challenges faced is the decline of new taxonomists and public interest in collections-based research, which is alarming considering that an estimated 70% of the world’s species are yet to be formally described. Science communication combines public relations with the dissemination of scientific knowledge and offers many benefits to promoting natural history collections to a wide audience. For example, social media has revolutionised the way collections and their staff communicate with the public in real time, and can attract more visitors to collection exhibits and new students interested in natural history. Although not everyone is born a natural science communicator, institutions can encourage and provide training for their staff to become engaging spokespeople skilled in social media and public speaking, including television, radio and/or print media. By embracing science communication, natural history collections can influence their target audiences in a positive and meaningful way, raise the profile of their institution, encourage respect for biodiversity, promote their events and research outputs, seek philanthropic donations, connect with other researchers or industry leaders, and most importantly, inspire the next generation of natural historian.

Dr Bryan Lessard (a.k.a. Bry the Fly Guy) is an entomologist at CSIRO’s Australian National Insect Collection researching the taxonomy and evolution of medically important flies. He has discovered more than 150 species new to science and officially named more than 40 species from Australia and New Zealand, most famously Plinthina beyonceae, the horse fly with a golden abdomen named after Beyoncé. This particular species went viral and started a global conversation on why taxonomy and collection based research is vital. Since then, Dr Lessard has developed a passion for promoting natural history collections to a wide audience and has a strong rapport with Australian media to promote entomology to a younger generation. He has appeared on Gardening Australia, The Project, given a TEDx talk, hosted a fortnightly segment on ABC Evenings with Chris Bath called “Bry the Fly Guy’s Top 5 Weird Cases of Australian Biodiversity” and leads the annual Australian Geographic Citizen Scientist Expedition to Lord Howe Island.

Anthony Wright


Collections in an Uncertain World: The Impact of Earthquakes on Canterbury Museum 

Since 2010, the Canterbury region on the eastern coast of New Zealand’s South Island has experienced more than 14,000 earthquakes. This presentation begins by considering the immediate impact of these seismic events on Canterbury Museum; how were its buildings, its collection, its team and its community affected? Within the first weeks and months, what processes were put in place to manage the collections and to what extent was the Museum’s team able to undertake work to ensure the institution remained relevant during a national disaster? With a distance of almost eight years since the first major earthquake, this presentation reflects on some of the lessons learnt about the realities of planning for, and responding to, disaster and the impact of a continuing series of earthquakes on the concept of ‘business as usual’.

Anthony Wright has been Director of Canterbury Museum since 1996. He trained as a botanist, becoming Curator of Botany at Auckland Museum in 1980. After 10 years in this role he progressed through wider collections management and assistant director roles culminating in periods as redevelopment director and acting museum director.

At Canterbury Museum, Anthony has overseen an over 80% increase in visitor numbers to a record 785,000 last year. The Canterbury earthquakes of 2010-11 saw the Museum closed for six months, and an extensive recovery and remediation programme is underway. The Museum opened a second down town site in 2013, Quake City, to tell the earthquake stories.

Alongside his Canterbury Museum role, Anthony is Chair of Christchurch’s Public Art Advisory Group, Deputy Chair of the Antarctic Heritage Trust, President of the NZ Botanical Society and a trustee of several science, arts and cultural trusts. He has served four terms as Chair of Museums Aotearoa, New Zealand’s peak professional body for museums.

Dr Priscilla Wehi


If Only They Could Speak

As a child, I loved exhibits at the museum. As an adult conservation biologist, entering the back rooms of the museum to view the collections is even more remarkable. I have begun to realise the scope of what might be held in museum collections, and to consider what these specimens, artefacts, taonga might tell us. Using examples from my work on insects, birds and kahukurii (dogskin cloaks), and analyses from morphometrics to isotopes, I will show how sampling from museum collections can add layers of richness and complexity to research, with the added dimensions of space, time, and connection to communities. Finally, I’ll discuss some of the ethics and understandings that guide my work with museum collections, and what it means to be part of collaborative partnerships of discovery with museum curators and communities.

Priscilla (Cilla) Wehi is a conservation biologist and Rutherford Discovery Fellow at Manaaki Whenua Landcare Research in Dunedin. Her research has focused on the links between biodiversity and culture and the ecology and conservation of iconic native species such as tree weta. Her research has benefited immensely from the natural history and taonga (anthropological) collections in museums, and the interactions with curators and staff. This research includes isotope analysis of kea diet, morphological analysis of weta specimens, and work on the story of Māori dogs, whose hair and skins are woven into traditional cloaks. Cilla completed a BSc (Hons) in zoology at the University of Canterbury, a MSc in animal ecology at Lincoln University, and a PhD in ecology and Māori at the University of Waikato. Cilla grew up in Dunedin and is of Scottish descent, but she also affiliates to Tainui, Ngāpuhi and Tūhoe through her extended family. She is an Associate Investigator with Te Pūnaha Matatini, the Centre of Research Excellence for Complex systems, a member of the Predator-Free 2050 Bioethics Panel, and the Kindness in Science Collective. She is passionate about inclusivity and diversity in science and is part of the  Homeward Bound programme that aims to raise the profile and leadership of women in STEM.

Valediction Dr John LaSalle


It is with much regret that we inform you that Dr John La Salle, Director of the Atlas of Living Australia and one of our keynote speakers, has unexpectedly passed away.

John was passionate about unlocking biological collections in the 21st Century and was looking forward to sharing his passion with the SPNHC-TDWG.18 delegates. Our thoughts, sympathies and best wishes are with John’s family.