My career has been built around fieldwork - collecting samples, studying the environment and understanding the context in which they have been preserved, and what that can tell us about the events at the time. In 1989 I was one of the early pioneers of the field of ancient DNA but my main interest has always been research that spans multiple disciplines and focuses on unconventional and big picture questions in science. I have a fairly unusual, broad background that ranges across genetics, evolution, palaeontology, climate change, astrobiology, environmental science and molecular dating, amongst other areas. This allows me to both build and work with large, multi-disciplinary, international teams of experts - especially like-minded individuals interested in tackling major issues (rather than more incremental science). A recent example is in the area of geomagnetism, and the potential impacts on climate change and evolution (listen to the Adams Event podcasts at the link above). The role for geomagnetism in biology and climate is an area that is almost completely new from the evolutionary perspective, and the potential is enormous.
My specific area of expertise is ancient DNA and my PhD work was performed with Svante Paabo and Allan C. Wilson, who pioneered the ancient DNA field, at UC Berkeley in 1989. My PhD involved some of the first experiments that confirmed that DNA could survive in sub-fossil bone and teeth, rather than just preserved soft tissues (mummified skin, hair etc), which was the general assumption at the time. This work opened the way to the genetic analysis of all the vast museum collections of bones (that weren't truly fossilised that is) - which is where I spent much of the next 25 years.
In addition to analysing animal and plant fossils, I have also developed a number of methods to analyse traces of genetic material preserved in modern and ancient environmental samples - such as sediments, ice and permafrost, water (fresh and marine), and cave calcite formations. The amounts of surviving genetic material are generally miniscule, and in the case of Antarctic ice (pictured) around 5-6 litres of ice were filtered in the field, in order to collect enough DNA to generate reliable signals. The environmental DNA research has included ancient humans, animals, plants, invertebrates, and microbes (fungi, bacteria and viruses).
In 2014 I was successful in obtaining ARC funding to initiate the Aborginal Heritage Project (AHP), a major collaboration with Indigenous families and communities across Australia and the South Australian Museum to reconstruct the genetic history of Australia prior to the arrival of Europeans. The AHP is based on the genetic analysis of historic hair samples held at the South Australian Museum, collected in a series of anthropological expeditions across Australia between the 1920s and 1970s by the Board for Anthropology at the University of Adelaide. Genetic analysis of the historic hair samples is only permitted with consent from the original donors or their descendants and the project is built upon close participation of Aboriginal families in the analysis and interpretation of the resulting genetic data. The resulting genetic map (see link below) of Indigenous Australia aims to reconstruct Aboriginal history where written or oral records may fail, assist people from the Stolen Generation with reunification of families and location of Country, and facilitate repatriation of Indigenous cultural items and remains held in museums in Australia and overseas. The project has won several awards including the Australian Museum Eureka Prize (2017), and the South Australian Science Excellence Award (2018).