Secret Garden


If the job title "plant taxonomist" brings to mind crusty Victorian naturalists plundering the environment for curiosities, you need to update your ideas. Tropical botanists Toby Pennington and Colin Pendry, two of the 50 or so scientists at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (RBGE), are working at the cutting edge of conservation. The 1992 Rio Convention on Biological Diversity "brought to the fore the importance of being able to document biodiversity," says Mary Gibby, director of science at the RBGE. "If you don't know what biodiversity is, how can you conserve it?" asks Pendry.

In its 330 years, the RBGE has accumulated, preserved, and catalogued a vast collection of plant material. Casual visitors can stroll through the greenhouses and past the borders that hold the living part of the collection, but the really good stuff--a comprehensive collection of dried specimens stored in the herbarium--is saved for the scientists. To an untrained eye, the brown, crispy leaves and seedpods bear little resemblance to the lush plants they presumably once were. But appearances are misleading; the twigs are an important reference for all plant biologists.

Toby Pennington shows off a legume pod.

The collection is at the heart of all the research going on here, and it is primarily what differentiates research at a botanic garden from that at a university. The garden has not been bypassed by the molecular biology revolution, but though it pushed many scientists out of the herbarium and into the lab, the prodigals are returning. The results of the molecular biology experiments take them "back into the herbarium to look at the material again, reanalyse it, and look again at the morphological characters," says Gibby. Her view is that "the whole science of classification has become much more rigorous now" and has been stimulated. "Before ... there wasn't something you could test, and now there's something you can test and explore," she continues. Molecular biology has "given [classification] a shot of adrenaline. The whole subject of systematics has really changed enormously in the last 10 years as the result of the weight of prolific analysis together with the molecular data."

Scientists at the RBGE turn those data into taxonomic monographs (descriptions of all the plants in a particular genus) and floras (descriptions of all the plants found in a given geographic area). These enormous tomes sometimes run to several volumes and take years of painstaking research to produce. But the work is crucial, explains Pendry: "We're creating tools to allow other people to work with biodiversity." And the situation is urgent. According to Pendry, in 50 years' time, 50% of the world's biodiversity will be lost forever. "What's scary is how much needs to be done," says Pennington.

Learning the Trade

Educationalists have yet to catch up with the science of classification's renaissance. Taxonomy is disappearing from school curricula and few universities offer courses, leaving the RBGE to do the hard work of educating the next generation of taxonomists. "We are a repository of not only biodiversity in the form of the collections ... but the knowledge as well," explains Mary Gibby, director of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh. The RBGE's "huge job in education" covers nursery school groups that visit the garden right through to Ph.D. students, including an M.Sc. course in biodiversity and taxonomy of plants.

The M.Sc. is run jointly with the University of Edinburgh, because, as a nonacademic institution, the RBGE cannot award degrees. There are up to 12 places available in the course each year, but funding is a problem. It will become easier next year, however, with the Natural Environment Research Council funding five places each year for the next 5 years.

But the slow pace means that getting money to write monographs is a tougher job than most. "If you want to do more, you can't just write to the Research Council," regrets Pennington. The RBGE's core funding comes from the Rural Affairs department of the Scottish Executive. There's a slight annual increase, but it doesn't keep up with inflation, "which means that we have to be going out looking for opportunities to bring in funding," explains Gibby. Pendry agrees that a lot of time is spent "chasing different forms of money." And soft money tends to fund more applied projects, rather than core classification work, "which can be done only here," he warns.

When money is tight, institutions have fewer open positions for interested scientists. "Permanent jobs do come up," says Pendry, but it's very much a case of one person out, one person in. In fact, there's not always even a straight swap. Partly because institutions' core funding is shrinking in real terms, the number of permanent posts is gradually diminishing, which has a knock-on effect on career progression. Gibby, for example, would like to hire a mycologist. The previous fungus expert retired a few years ago, and his replacement is important because "the collections aren't any good if nobody can work on them." But first she needs to come up with the cash.

Meanwhile, Pendry is surviving on 2- or 3-year postdoctoral contracts. In the field of taxonomy and systematics, this creates tensions beyond the usual problems of job insecurity. "Chopping and changing all the time" means that the detailed expertise you build up on one project is lost when you move on, he explains. Having worked on projects in Borneo, Thailand, and Latin America in the last few years, he knows that "it's the most obscure, arcane knowledge, and you lose it all when you change." Building up that knowledge and becoming the world expert on a particular plant family is the ideal career path, but it is sadly one that is very difficult to follow.

Doctoral Dynamics

Antonia Eastwood, shown here in one of the RBGE research glasshouses, is one of a dozen Ph.D. students based at the garden. She's on a Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council Cooperative Awards in Science and Engineering studentship with the Natural History Museum and so does some of her lab work in London. She carries out her fieldwork in an altogether more exotic location, however, because she is looking at the conservation genetics of two groups of endangered plants from St. Helena, a group of islands between South America and Africa. Carrying out that fieldwork is "logistically very difficult," Eastwood explains, because she has to take all her equipment and materials with her. One of the advantages of working at the RBGE is that she is surrounded by people well used to organising such trips, who are willing to lend her equipment and help with the planning. She is also able to benefit from the plant-growing skills of the horticultural department by bringing seeds of her endangered plants back to Britain to grow in the glasshouse. Some of her species are "just beginning to flower" in chilly Edinburgh, and she'll be able to do some "more controlled experiments" than were possible on some of the world's most remote islands.

Pennington credits his "luck" in landing his rare, permanent "dream job" to being in at the start of the molecular transformation. He was offered his post before he had even finished writing his Ph.D., in 1994. Having been involved, peripherally, in setting up the molecular biology labs at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, during his postgrad studies, he had the skills that RBGE were looking to acquire. He was fortunate to get them "ever so slightly before a lot of other people," he confesses.

These days Pennington tries to "spend a lot more time in the field" rather than being shut away in the lab, because he believes it's "better for generating project ideas." However, molecular biology skills continue to be in demand. Gibby mentions one postdoc position for which she hired a biochemist because "I needed someone with molecular expertise who could complement the skills that I had." Another person, brought in to work on a project on unicellular algae, had "never looked at diatoms before he came here," explains Gibby, but "he was very good at diving ... he had to be able to dive to collect the specimens." It just goes to show that you never can tell what aspect of your CV you should be working on!

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