Five years worth of undergraduates publish crocodile doc

12 July 2012

(L-R) Cali Willet, Professor Jaime Gongora, Jessica Fletcher and Danielle Johinke. Cali, Jessica and Danielle are three of the 74 students who worked on the study.
(L-R) Cali Willet, Professor Jaime Gongora, Jessica Fletcher and Danielle Johinke. Cali, Jessica and Danielle are three of the 74 students who worked on the study.

How many undergraduate students does it take publish original research in an academic journal?

Exactly 74 in the case of Faculty of Veterinary Science students from the University of Sydney whose study on saltwater crocodile genetics is published in the Australian Journal of Zoology today.

In a rare feat, the students, all undergraduates in their fourth year of a Bachelor of Animal and Veterinary Bioscience, are authors of a study based on five years of research undertaken in a Wildlife and Evolutionary Genetics class.

Their work looks at the relationships and genetic structure of wild saltwater crocodiles from the Northern Territory by studying the maternal line.

Five separate class groups worked on the research from 2007 to 2011, contributing a total of 1875 hours of research.

They analysed genetic material from Northern Territory crocodiles, including nine different river basins in the region, provided by research affiliate Dr Sally Isberg.

"The result of the students' accumulated research is a better understanding of the saltwater crocodiles' DNA profiles and how they are distributed in different river basin populations," said Dr Jaime Gongora, from the Faculty of Veterinary Science, who, with other academic staff, taught all of the students involved.

"It will help us understand the genetic diversity of populations on crocodile ranches in the Northern Territory.

"It will also help in identifying crocodiles of unknown origin. In what is known as DNA forensics this data could help identify a specimen from a museum or whether a crocodile had been illegally smuggled into the country."

The results of the study have already been presented at an International Congress of Genetics in Germany, a specialist workshop in Bolivia and an international workshop in Australia, which means all of the students involved have conference publications in their name.

"The experience gave me a taste of how research happens; that everyone has different perspectives and roles which become part of the collaborative effort to produce a result. I was surprised that such a diverse group succeeded in coming together to achieve an outcome," said Jessica Fletcher, who took part in the research and has gone on to study a PhD in the faculty.

"Research is not for everyone but for me this experience confirmed that I enjoy the process of starting with an idea and building on it," Jessica said.

"This first experience of doing research gave me a strong sense of purpose knowing it could be published," said Cali Willet, another participant also now pursuing a PhD in the faculty.

Dr Gongora agrees that the students have learnt some valuable lessons about conducting research.

"The students not only learnt to apply scientific rigour in designing their experiment, analysing the statistics and coping with the technical limitations but a larger lesson that research is often time-consuming, painstaking and a team effort.

"The satisfying result can be that you can make an original contribution to knowledge in your field."

Professor Rosanne Taylor, Dean of the Faculty of Veterinary Science said, "I congratulate the students on their achievement which confirms the Faculty of Veterinary Science's belief in the importance of students creating knowledge, as well as acquiring it, as part of their university experience.

"This research-led learning and teaching benefits students, staff and the veterinary science community."

Follow University of Sydney Media on Twitter

Media enquiries: Verity Leatherdale, 02 9351 4312, 0403 067 342,