Dr Erin Hahn

Erin is a conservation geneticist researching species response to environmental change through the lens of genomes and epigenomes preserved in museum specimens fixed in formalin.

Erin is a conservation geneticist working with the National Research Collections Australia and the Environomics FSP Museum Epigenomics project. She is working to enable whole genome sequencing and characterisation of gene expression from formalin-preserved museum tissues. Her research will deliver new data streams with which to study how species have historically responded to our changing environment.

Why choose a career in science?

As a kid, I had a strong passion for wildlife but, lacking role models, I didn’t know what scientists actually did nor how they could support environmental conservation. Consequently, I dove into studying science and mathematics because I enjoyed it rather than because I thought a career might result from it.

I remember the exact moment when it all fell into place. I was in second year at university, loosely studying biology at the University of New Mexico and regularly hiking the glorious Sandia Mountains. Sitting on my bed in my share house with the news playing on the TV in the background, I heard it reported that Steve Irwin, the Crocodile Hunter, had tragically died. Steve had been a sort of wildlife hero of mine but the grief I felt caught me off guard. After some thought, I found the reason I admired him so greatly was the way he took what he was really good at (his ability to infect people with enthusiasm) to deliver impact to the issues he cared deeply about (wildlife conservation). That afternoon I decided to pursue a career in research. I went to my computer and searched for what I cared about “Conservation” in combination with what I was good at “Genetics”. Finding that it was a whole field of study, I set my sites on becoming a conservation geneticist.

What path have you followed to now?

I did my doctoral studies at the University of Arizona. There I performed a population genetic study of endangered pronghorn (Antilocapra americana) populations to support the reintroduction of the Sonoran subspecies to its native range. As part of my work, I reconstructed historical subspecies boundaries from museum specimens and conducted the first population epigenetic study of an endangered vertebrate.

While at UofA, I received a National Science Foundation fellowship to study genomics and bioinformatics and produced my two most prized accomplishments – my two daughters. I defended my PhD in 2016 and briefly took up a postdoctoral fellowship at the Australian National University studying evolutionary genomics of sea sponges before returning to my true calling and joining the Environomics FSP’s Museum Epigenomics project.

Now as an FSP postdoc, working at CSIRO is allowing me to pursue my passion of contributing to impactful environmental management while combining my skills in bioinformatics, wet lab methods development and project leadership.

What is exciting about your project?

The specimens housed in the National Research Collections Australia at CSIRO are an unparalleled resource of historical data biodiversity data. While genome analysis has hastened characterisation of Australia’s unique biodiversity, entire wings of the collections have thus far remained inaccessible to genomic work.

DNA from specimens preserved in formalin is canonically believed to be far too degraded to allow sequencing.

My work is smashing this assumption by showing that not only is whole genome sequencing of formalin-preserved specimens possible but there may also be traces of gene expression information locked within the fixed tissues. In combination, these preserved genomes and epigenomes can tell us about how species have coped over a period of rapid environmental change. Armed with this knowledge, we will be better prepared to protect and manage Australia’s unique biodiversity.

What other interests do you have?

I was recently selected as a Superstar of STEM. Through this program I am learning advanced communication and media skills to be a stronger STEM advocate and role model for young scientists. Outside of work, I enjoy trying to convince my daughters to go hiking (they love the outdoors but despise how short their legs are). When they’re not interested, I head to the gym to pick up heavy things and put them back down again.