Where are they now? Alumna in focus

Where are they now? Alumna in focus

Illuminate newsletter index page, Decmber 2019
December 2019

Johanna Simkin
Johanna Simkin's work incorporates her scientific
background with a love of the arts.

Johanna Simkin (2013–2014) talks about incorporating science knowledge into exhibitions relating to human biology and medicine at Museums Victoria.

Where are you now?

I am Senior Curator, Human Biology and Medicine, Museums Victoria.

Briefly describe your research work at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute.

I was a postdoctoral fellow looking at gene regulation and gut health.

What are you most passionate about?

I’ve always had an interest in both gut health and development. My PhD looked at embryonic gut nervous system development – a topic I still find fascinating! I looked at a group of cells that, when you are a tiny embryo, migrate from your hindbrain all the way down into our heart and gut, and then turn into nerve cells. These cells like to hold hands as the migrate, and I showed exposure to a growth factor early on can help them do this.

How did you make the transition from research to your current work at the museum?

With a scientific background and a love of the arts, the transition was a pretty easy one. I get to incorporate my science knowledge into new exhibitions relating to human biology and medicine. 

How has your career background informed your current work?

My passion for biology still drives my work every day. The best part about working in a museum is the big thinking – considering how new science fits in the word and what it means to our museum visitors.

I recently curated an exhibition called Gut Feelings, all about how our guts and minds are linked, and the role of the microbiome. An exciting new understanding of how the human body works; it was certainly inspired by my gut research background.

What have been your highlights at Museums Victoria?

Museum Victoria is an organisation full of the most diversely talented group of people – marine biologists, conservators, designers, media, you name it! It’s a pleasure to go to work with people who genuinely LOVE what they do, and most meetings are bursting with ideas and laughter. It’s a great, creative environment full of excellent humans.

I’ve had the opportunity to pitch and curate a couple of science-meets-arts exhibitions very close to my heart: Gut Feelings (2019–2020) and Biomedical Breakthroughs (2016–2017). My favourite projects probe health, wellbeing and medical content in a fun, relatable and empowering way.

It was great to work with WEHI animator Dr Drew Berry in Biomedical Breakthroughs, and in Gut Feelings I’m co-ordinating a world first living installation: we’re inviting 1,000 intrepid museum visitors to donate a saliva-microbiome sample to plot a map of Victoria’s microbes, growing with new data from month to month.

What advice would you give to researchers looking to branch out into a different field?

Do it! Please become a politician and spread some more medical/health/communication understanding through the system.

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