Discovery in the Tropics: Meet the new Editor-in-Chief of Australian Systematic Botany

June 9th, 2020

In 2020 Professor Darren Crayn became the new Editor-in-Chief of Australian Systematic Botany. We recently spoke to him about his research and his hopes for the future of the journal as he begins his new role.

A photo of Professor Darren Crayn standing in front of trees with the cover of Australian Systematic Botany superimposed next to him

Professor Darren Crayn is the Director of the Australian Tropical Herbarium based at James Cook University, where he and his group study plant systematics and the evolution of plants in tropical Australia. He has been an Associate Editor of Australian Systematic Botany (ASB) since 2009 and recently took over the reins as the Editor-in-Chief. We spoke to him about his research and his hopes for the future of the journal.


Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your research area?

Essentially, I’m a failed engineering student who decided to spend a life studying biodiversity instead.  The catharsis that changed the course of my professional life happened at the end of my first year at uni, when I realised that my ‘underwhelming’ performance (= failures!) in my engineering subjects spoke to a simple truth I hadn’t previously acknowledged: I didn’t want to be an engineer. So, I took a punt on something that had fascinated my childhood self – nature – and tracked a new path.

My undergraduate and postgraduate training was completed under Chris Quinn at the University of New South Wales, after which I was lucky to land a postdoc position split between the Smithsonian Tropical Institute in Panama, and Oxford University, UK.

My research career, established through those postgrad and postdoc opportunities, and later developed at the National Herbarium of New South Wales and the Australian Tropical Herbarium, has focused on:

  • Discovering, naming and classifying new plant species and determining the evolutionary relationships among them (especially families Ericaceae, Elaeocarpaceae and Bromeliaceae),
  • Mapping the distribution of ecosystems, species and genetic variation within species across the landscape,
  • Developing DNA-based tools and ‘matrix keys’ for species identification and rapid biodiversity inventory, and
  • Uncovering the deep-time origins and ancient migration pathways of plants that are found in tropical Australia today (with special interest in the Sunda-Sahul floristic exchange).


Can you tell us a bit about your experience on journal editorial boards?

Prior to joining the ASB editorial board as an Associate Editor (AE) in 2009, I’d been on just one other journal – Telopea. So, I came to ASB with very limited experience. Over the last 10 years I have learnt a great deal from past Editor-in-Chief Dan Murphy and the other more experienced AEs.

Without a doubt my most intense experience as an AE was conceiving and editing a series of special issues titled ‘Plant Systematics and Biogeography in the Australasian Tropics’. Twenty-six papers were published across three issues: 31(5-6), 32(2-3) and 32(4).  I was fortunate to have been able to link together a small army of authors who collectively owned a large body of completed or nearly completed research. I was astounded by the enthusiasm with which these authors rallied to the call for papers, and three excellent special issues resulted.



What do you hope to achieve in your role?

The journal has built an impressive legacy and reputation, and my role is to continue its rich tradition while improving reach and relevance. One of my aims is to explore better, more convenient ways for researchers both to publish and to access journal content. The scientific publishing environment is rapidly changing. Publishers must adapt to stay relevant for their readership and increasing accessibility to content is key not only to thriving as a journal but to improving how science is done. CSIRO Publishing, through an agreement with the Australian Academy of Science, has committed to open science and I intend to help find effective ways to realise that commitment for Australian Systematic Botany.


Why do you think botany research is important?

As the energy base of almost all ecological systems, plants enable life on Earth. Understanding how plants work, how they make a living, and how they interact with other life is of fundamental importance to achieving sustainability of environments, economies and societies.

Of all the disciplines of botanical science, systematics – documenting plant diversity and the evolutionary processes that have produced it – provides both the library (classification) and the language (nomenclature) and is therefore perhaps the most critical enabler of all life science.


What inspires you in your work?

Two things. Firstly, discovery – it’s what drives all scientists. For me, there is no greater intellectual thrill than knowing my research has helped peel back the dark fog of ignorance and brought some previously unknown species to scientific light. Describing species is of course not the endgame for life science broadly writ, but the necessary first step toward understanding ecosystems and humans’ place in them.

Secondly, my colleagues. Most of my day-to-day work is leadership and management, which has its own rich rewards. I am inspired when my colleagues succeed: a PhD student graduates, a technician solves a methodological conundrum, or a senior researcher wins a grant. Contrary to the popular myth of science being a mostly solitary pursuit of bespectacled obsessives in dusty labs, scholarship is social, and healthy professional relationships facilitate great science outcomes.



Cover of Australian Systematic Botany, featuring images of small purple flowers

Australian Systematic Botany journal

Australian Systematic Botany is published by CSIRO Publishing six times per year. You can submit your paper via ScholarOne (external link).

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