Conservation and inspiration

Natasha de Vere works at the National Botanic Garden of Wales, a new garden that’s already achieving world firsts for science. She talks about her current job and her career in bioloogy and conservation so far.

”The great thing about putting together a research programme from scratch was that we had so many possibilities.”

Tell us a bit about your job

I’m the Head of Conservation and Research at the National Botanic Garden of Wales. It’s a new garden, with a mission to inspire and educate our visitors, conduct research in plant sciences and help to conserve some of the rarest plants and habitats on earth. When I joined the Garden, there was no scientific research going on there, so I had to put together a plan for a research programme, and a framework for it to develop in the future.

We decided to look at both what we can do for plants and what plants can do for us. We chose two research themes: conserving biodiversity, and plants for health. Our research has an emphasis on understanding biodiversity, and, in a time of climate change, we believe we can see Wales as a vast nationwide laboratory for understanding ecosystem processes. One of our major projects at the moment is something that no other nation has achieved – we’ve just DNA barcoded the whole of the native plant species in Wales, and we’re now moving on to barcode all of the plant species through the UK. Another of our projects involves working with some of the most threatened plant species of Wales; we aim to find out why they are endangered so that we can conserve them effectively.

”Honey has long been known to have anti-bacterial properties and is already used in wound dressings. However, honey varies in its effectiveness and this partly depends on the plants the bees visited to make it.”

Why’s your research important?

The importance of our DNA barcoding work is that you can identify any plant species in Wales from the tiniest fragment of leaf, seed or pollen grain. This is an incredibly powerful technique, which uses a small section of DNA to act as a unique identifier for that species. This has many uses ranging from quality control for herbal medicines to understanding the habitat requirements of endangered animals by finding out what plants they eat at different times of the year from faecal samples. We may also be able to help the crisis facing our pollinators by tracking their movements by DNA barcoding the pollen carried on their bodies.

Our research on the threatened plants of Wales is also important as we have a responsibility to our national flora. We provide the scientific underpinning needed for effective conservation. In particular we look at the plants DNA in order to find out how well it is doing in the wild, this is called conservation genetics.

What are the ways that plants can help human health?

We’ve got an exciting research project with Cardiff University, looking at the antibacterial properties of honey; we’re hoping to find honey varieties that will tackle MRSA. Honey has long been known to have anti-bacterial properties and is already used in wound dressings. However, honey varies in its effectiveness and this partly depends on the plants the bees visited to make it. We’ll screen wildflower honey, from throughout the UK, for activity against MRSA and other common hospital-acquired infections. We’ll then use DNA barcoding to find out exactly what plants the bees visited to make the honey. We hope to use this to pinpoint what plants in honey are most effective against infections in humans and also in bees. This is just one of the medical uses for plants that we’re looking into.

How do you go about DNA barcoding a plant?

We take a tiny fragment of the plant – either a fresh plant or a specimen from the collection of dried specimens in a herbarium, and extract the DNA. We then amplify the barcode DNA from two genes, which are agreed internationally so that everyone throughout the world uses a standard approach. Once the barcodes are amplified we sequence them to find out the exact DNA code for that specimen for the two barcode regions. The completed barcodes are uploaded on to the Barcode of Life Database along with the voucher information and a scan of the herbarium specimen. All the information is freely available so that researchers throughout the world can use the data.  For each species, we need to have multiple specimens barcoded, to allow us to spot any errors and to pick up if there is any variation within species in the barcode sequences. We barcode three samples for each species.

What else goes on in your research lab?

The great thing about putting together a research programme from scratch was that we had so many possibilities. My job’s not just about doing the science – we also run a research-based learning programme for young scientists, all the way from A-level to post-graduate. They come into our lab and we get them doing genuine research from their first day – we’ve had A-level biology students working on our DNA barcoding project, for example.

We also have a series of collaborations with artists, and I’ve now worked with sculptors, photographers and botanical artists on a wide range of different projects about the links between biology and art – one of the photographic exhibitions we collaborated on has recently toured to Nanshan Botanic Garden in China.

It’s incredibly busy, and you can imagine that I do have to work long hours in my job. But walking through the beautiful garden in the evening, it’s all worth it.

”This was a chance to spend a year learning about one subject that interested me in a lot of detail.”

What career route did you take to get into this job?

I always wanted to have a job involving plants and biology. Annual trips to Kew Gardens, and school trips to Chorleywood Field Studies Centre were a real inspiration to me.

After school, I studied Biology at University, and then went on to do a one-year Masters degree at the Royal Botanic Gardens Edinburgh. This was a chance to spend a year learning about one subject that interested me in a lot of detail. I was focusing on taxonomy, the science of identifying and naming species. As part of this I carried out a research project on a genus of plants called Vitex, looking specifically at the plants in Madagascar.

After my MSc I studied for a Post Graduate Certificate in Education (PGCE) and then took a job as a a secondary school teacher in a big comprehensive school. My main interest was working with post 16 students so after a couple of years I got a new job as Further and Higher Education Officer at Paignton Zoo. After a year I decided I would like to do some more research in plant conservation so I had a bit of a career change. I moved to a new job in Paignton Zoo’s conservation and research department (part of the Whitley Wildlife Conservation Trust) and became the Conservation Officer. This was an incredibly varied job ranging from supervising conservation research projects in the Zoo’s three UK nature reserves and overseas (mostly in Africa) to lecturing at Seale Hayne agricultural college and the University of Plymouth on their degree course in Wildlife Conservation. I also completed my PhD part-time on the conservation genetics of a rare British thistle – Cirsium dissectum. After six years at Paignton Zoo I spotted the job of  Conservation Botanist at the National Botanic Garden of Wales. After a few months in post I was promoted to the Head of Conservation and Research.

Summary

A-levels: A-levels in Biology, Chemistry and English Literature;
Study after school / college:  BA (hons) Biology at Oxford University; MSc in taxonomy at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Edinburgh; PGCE course in biology teaching at Exeter University; PhD in conservation genetics at Plymouth University.

Find out more

You can find out more about the plant science careers at Paignton Zoo Environmental Park

Find out more about the Science and Conservation programme and the opportunities for careers in biology at the National Botanic Garden of Wales.

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