- Name: Rick Shine
- Number of lab members or colleagues (excluding PI): 6
- Location: Macquarie University, Sydney
- Graduation Date: Ph.D. 1975
- H index: 122. I’ve published well over a thousand peer-reviewed papers. In 2016 I won the two biggest science prizes in Australia – New South Wales Scientist of the Year, and Prime minister’s Prize for Science.
- Grants: around $20 million or so.
- Success of your lab’s members: Many of my former students and postdocs have academic positions of their own, and several have won prestigious fellowships and awards.
Hello! Who are you and what are you working on?
I’m a research biologist, with a primary interest in ecology, evolution and conservation of reptiles and amphibians. I’ve been passionate about these animals since I was a small child, so I’ve been very fortunate to spend my career working on the animals I love and asking the questions that most interest me. I’m Australian born and bred, and have spent almost all of my career here, apart from a postdoc at the University of Utah and the inevitable overseas trips for conferences and research. I’ve conducted field studies on snakes in just about every continent.
The biggest shift in my research career came after I had already conducted a couple of decades of research on snakes in tropical Australia. A large and highly toxic species of toad from South America – the cane toad – was introduced to Australia in 1935 to control insect pests, and rapidly began spreading. In the process, millions of native wildlife were killed when they tried to eat a toad – creatures like snakes, lizards, crocodiles and carnivorous marsupials. So I put my snake research on the back burner in order to work out what the toads were doing, and how we could buffer their impact. That shift resulted in a big increase in funding (Australians hate toads, but don’t care so much about snakes) and in the size of my group. The Australian Research Council gave me generous fellowship funding, and we were able to answer most of the questions that stimulated the work.
I retired from the University of Sydney a couple of years ago, but have now taken up a part-time research position at another institution – Macquarie University. I still enjoy the research, and now I can escape most of the administrative nonsense.
What’s your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
As I said above, I’ve always been fascinated by reptiles and amphibians. The key to success in the cane toad project was assembling a great group, and setting out to really UNDERSTAND the invasive species, not just find new ways to kill it (which had been the focus of most other work). By getting a clear view of the toad’s biology, we soon discovered vulnerabilities that we could exploit for control. And by studying the impact of toads, we devised a simple method to render the native wildlife far less vulnerable – we simply teach them not to eat cane toads, by exposing them to small (only moderately toxic) toads just before the invasion front of large (and deadly) toads arrives at a site. We are now rolling out that program over a huge area in tropical Australia.
So I see the key as doing good basic science, and really understanding the problem before you try to solve it. Ask the organisms what’s going on, rather than reading the textbooks.