A globe-trotting botanist

Collecting palms in Madagascar (Photo:Mijoro Rakotoarinivo)

Collecting palms in Madagascar
(Photo:Mijoro Rakotoarinivo)

I’m Dr Lauren Gardiner and I’m a botanist who has been working at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew in London for the last 8 years. I’m just starting a new post at Kew which will mean that I will be focusing on conservation and development work in Madagascar over the next 3-5 years.

Becoming a botanist

When I was younger, I was set on becoming an astronaut after visiting Cape Canaveral in Florida on holiday. NASA sent me the application forms and I investigated how to become a US citizen as the only other way to make it into space at that time was to become a Russian citizen and I didn’t fancy my chances learning Russian. Three UK Space Schools later and having met three astronauts, it was determined that I was two inches too short for the smallest space suit size and my propensity towards vertigo was going to make it rather difficult to reach the necessary proficiency in parachuting.

My fantastic biology teacher at secondary school, Ros Johnson, who had initially worked as a biologist before becoming a teacher, got me engrossed in popular science books about tropical diseases and evolution by authors such as Jared Diamond and Steve Jones. Mrs Johnson encouraged me to aim as high as possible and so I applied for the Natural Sciences Tripos degree at Cambridge University.

Fast forward to the end of my undergraduate studies at Christ’s College, Cambridge, and with the excellent guidance of Beverley Glover and John Parker of the Plant Sciences Department and Cambridge University Botanic Garden, having initially wanted to work in diseases and medical science, I ended up specialising in plant sciences. I spent a year completing an MSc in Plant Diversity, Taxonomy and Evolution at Reading University with the inspiring Julie Hawkins as my main supervisor.

My dissertation was co-supervised at Kew and focused on the morphological relationships between some of the orchid species in the Asian genus Vanda. Vanda includes some of the most horticulturally important orchids like the species that produce the blue tessellated hybrids seen in designer hotels and restaurants. My work was expanded and extended in my subsequent PhD studying the DNA relationships (phylogenetics) of the whole genus based at the University of East Anglia, and again co-supervised at Kew.

While writing up my PhD thesis, I started working permanently at Kew, firstly in the Horticulture department, growing endangered tropical orchid species for conservation and research projects and for public display in vitro in the Conservation Biotechnology lab. After 18 months I became science assistant to the Head of Science Policy and Coordination, Eimear Nic Lughadha, and thrust into the world of biodiversity policy, government and funding agency interactions, and a world of administration – experience which has given me a much better understanding of the relevance and impact of my research since.

Palm Specimen in Kew Herbarium (Photo: RBG Kew)

Palm Specimen in Kew Herbarium
(Photo: RBG Kew)

Studying palms

Five years ago I got the post I was really waiting for, as an assistant botanist in the Palm team in the Kew Herbarium and three years later was promoted to botanist. Since, I have carried out my own research into palm diversity, specialising in Madagascar and New Guinea with expeditions and projects based in both, as well as curating the 30,000+ dried palm specimens at Kew.

A herbarium is a reference collection of dried pressed plant specimens, usually mounted onto large sheets of paper, and organised systematically by plant species, genus, family, and by geographic origin. The herbarium at Kew is over 160 years old and is one of the largest such collections in the world, including some 7-8 million dried specimens along with 70,000 specimens preserved in alcohol. Approximately 30,000 new specimens are added to the collection every year as Kew botanists collect species (including discovering new species) on expeditions and herbaria around the world gift and exchange material from their expeditions.

It usually takes time to determine for sure that a plant is discovered in the wild has not been described before. Botanists compare specimens in herbaria to identify them or to be sure that they are looking at genuinely new species. When publishing a new species a single specimen of the new species called the ‘type’ must be chosen and stored at a named herbarium. These type specimens are a standard forever anchoring the names to specific plants and allowing comparison by botanists unravelling the evolutionary relationships and distributions of species around the world. Kew has approximately 350,000 of them.

Palms make large specimens! (Photo: Lauren Gardiner)

Palms make large specimens!
(Photo: Lauren Gardiner)

Palms are often rather large and don’t fit onto sheets of paper and into cupboards very well! We use a combination of pole cutters, climbers, and sometimes fell a whole palm tree to make good specimens, but as a result palms tend to be poorly collected and therefore poorly documented.

The Kew palm collection is particularly special because it spans the entire diversity of the palm family globally and contains nearly 2,000 types. Nearly 50% of the specimens are now databased and all of the type specimens are imaged and freely available online for study on the Kew website. We have also been compiling original literature, nomenclatural information, distribution maps, images, and much more data for all palm species (nearly 2,600 currently recognised) on our online portal Palmweb.

Seeing species in the wild around the globe

During my career so far I have been lucky enough to travel to a wide range of places including Papua, Madagascar, Ecuador, Peru, Singapore, Java, Bali, Costa Rica, Florida, California, South Africa, Sikkim, Laos, Russia, Denmark, Spain, Italy, France for fieldwork and to speak at conferences. I have developed a real passion for travelling, meeting people, and seeing species in the wild around the world.

In my own time I have continued my orchid research and travels, and was elected to join the Royal Horticultural Society’s Orchid Committee. I’m also a council member of the Systematics Association, and a member of the IUCN Palm Specialist Group and the Orchid Specialist Group – all of which have helped me to network and travel more widely.

Madagascar – a mega-diverse island

Kew has just been through a major restructure and I am really excited that in my new post I will be refocusing my research more into the conservation of biodiversity and working with people living where this diversity is found. I’m now working in the new Conservation Science department, an inspiring team of conservationists and botanists, and concentrating on the mega-diverse island of Madagascar.

Kew has over 30 years’ expertise in documenting the plants of Madagascar and new species are regularly discovered as we explore new areas. Madagascar is the only place outside of the UK where Kew maintains a permanent base – we now employ 12 Malagasy Kew-trained botanists and manage a 250 km2 protected area in the central highlands of the island. 98% of palm species and 85% of the orchid species are endemic, ie. only found in Madagascar and nowhere else.

Lauren in Itremo, Madagascar (Photo: Mijoro Rakotoarinivo)

Lauren in Itremo, Madagascar
(Photo: Mijoro Rakotoarinivo)

Threatened plants in Madagascar are reaching a crisis point, for example 83% of palms and 90% of orchid species are thought to be threatened with extinction. Although 10% of Madagascan vegetation is in officially protected areas, the pace of environmental change is rendering taxa threatened or even extinct before they can be discovered.

I’m looking forward to working to help local communities to proactively conserve species and habitats, and to speed up the rate at which we assess, document, and prioritise taxa for conservation action whilst emphasising the importance of locally-focused sustainable development.

Strong female role models

Strong female role models like Ros, Beverley, Julie, and Eimear, as well as other inspirational women in botany (and more widely in science) such as Sandy Knapp, Head of the Plants Division at the Natural History Museum, London, and Paula Rudall, Head of Comparative Plant and Fungal Biology at Kew, have enormously helped to develop my career and inspired me to reach for opportunities I wouldn’t otherwise have gone for.

Currently working with a number of similarly inspiring female peers at similar, and more advanced stages, in their careers, I look forward to many more exciting projects and travels in the future with a fantastic support network between us, inspiring and encouraging each other.

Lauren Gardiner (@ibuanggrek)