Hello and welcome to my blog! My name is Caroline and I am a PhD student at the University of Sheffield. My research project focuses on Striga - a genus of parasitic plants that devastates harvests by infecting food crops. I am exploring the defence reactions that can make host plants more resistant against Striga. Due to my ongoing battles with anorexia, I haven't made as much progress as I would have liked but I am determined to finish the course.

This blog charts the ups and downs of life in the lab, plus my dreams to become a science communicator and forays into public engagement and science policy....all while trying to keep my mental and physical health intact. Along the way, I'll also be sharing new plant science stories, and profiles of some of the researchers who inspire me on this journey. So whether you have a fascination for plants, are curious about what science research involves, or just wonder what exactly I do all day, read on - I hope you find it entertaining!

Friday 5 August 2016

A very modern plant hunter - presenting Dr Sandy Knapp

As a plant taxonomist, Sandy Knapp’s career straddles both the historic and modern realms of plant science. Just like the pioneering plant hunters of old, she has travelled to some of the most remote places on earth to seek new specimens. To date, she has described over 75 new species mostly from the Solanum (nightshade) family, which includes tomatoes, eggplants and potatoes. However her role at the Natural History Museum also involves championing the cause of plant conservation against the very modern threats posed by man. I first met Sandy at the 2010 Gatsby Plants Summer school, and she was one of the most influential people to convince me to go into plant science myself. As such, I couldn’t resist asking for an interview about her journey so far.

 What inspired you to become a botanist?
I first got interested in botany whey I took a field botany class by mistake – we went out to the desert on field trips every weekend to collect and identify plants, and I was totally hooked!
 What has been your career journey, starting from University and leading to your current role at the Natural History Museum?

I attended university at the liberal arts institution Pomona College in Claremont, California USA and received my BA in 1978. I then began my studies in plant ecology at the University of California at Irvine before transferring to Cornell University (Ithaca NY USA) in 1980 to work with the late Dr Michael D Whalen for my doctorate on taxonomy of Solanum section Geminata (Solanaceae) – a group of Neotropical forest trees and shrubs in the nightshade family
When I finished university (at the liberal arts institution Pomona College in California), I went to do a MSc at a nearby institution, but it didn’t suit me, so I transferred to Cornell University in Ithaca New York. The late Dr Michael Whalen convinced me to go on a tropical field course run by the Organization for Tropical Studies (OTS) in Costa Rica – and just like when I discovered botany, the tropics really grabbed me. I choose as a PhD thesis topic the taxonomy of a tropical group of forest trees and shrubs in the Solanum family; maybe not the most sensible choice, as their taxonomy was a total mess but like botany and the tropics, Solanum has me in its thrall!
Mid-way through my PhD I was offered a job collecting plants for the Missouri Botanical Garden (St. Louis Missouri) in Panama, so I took a year off and worked. It was totally brilliant – they even gave me a truck. I had a trailer to live in and a quota of 500 collections a month. I spent loads of time in the Darien, a relatively unexplored part of the country, and I learned LOTS about tropical plants. I also learned to speak Spanish – handy. Once back doing my PhD I got a grant from the National Science Foundation to go back in the field, this time to South America, my then-husband and I spent almost a year collecting Solanums from Ecuador to Venezuela, it was great!
Sandy botanising in Panama (Photo credit: Kerry Dressler)

After getting my PhD, my then-husband got a post-doc in London at University College London to work on butterfly hybrid zones in Peru. I contacted various botanical institutes to see if they wanted plants I could collect there – and Missouri employed me as a collector again, this time in the foothills of the Andes in eastern Peru. While working there I applied for a NATO Post-Doctoral Fellowship to work at the Natural History Museum, and once we returned to the UK I worked with the late Chris Humphries on categorising Solanum species.
I then began a family and moved with my husband to Mississippi, where he got a permanent job. We were there for 3 years; I had two more children, and worked in the herbarium as a research associate. I saw a job was advertised at the Natural History Museum to lead the Flora Mesoamericana project: an inventory of the approximately 18,000 species of plants of southern Mexico and the isthmus of Central America. I jumped at it, applied and was offered the job! I have been here ever since.
What is a "typical" day like for you?
I’m sorry but there is no such thing! Some days I get to look at plant specimens and compare them under the microscope and really think about species limits in the group I am tackling at the moment, while other days are spent working with colleagues on a wide variety of Museum related projects. Last Friday, for example, I was involved in filming all day for a travelling exhibition, being interviewed about Richard Owen and Hans Sloane (the collector who bequeathed what became the founding collection of the British Museum).
  What are the best and worst aspects of your job?
The variety is one of the best aspects of my job – I am always learning something new, and no day is ever the same. But I suppose in my heart I long for days to spend just working with plants – but I wouldn’t trade what I have!
Collecting specimens at high altitudes in Peru (Photo credit: Tiina Särkinen)

 What has been your most bizarre plant-related experience?
Hmmm, bizarre……  I guess one of the strangest was when we found a new passionflower by following the butterfly that feeds on it. A friend went off into the woods (as you do) and came back with the flower of a plant we had been seeing for almost a year but with no flowers or fruit. We named it after the butterfly that fed on it – Passiflora eueidipabulum.
Why is it important that we learn about and care for plants?
Plants are the fabric of the terrestrial ecosystems – without them there would be no structure or complexity for the rest of life on Earth. Besides, they are fascinating and do some pretty wild and wonderful things!
What would you say to someone who believes that "Plants are Boring!"
Not so – you just need to slow down a bit and look at their pace…..  or maybe just look at the world in a different way.
 And finally...if you were a plant, which would you be?
I would be Solanum anomalostemon, a species a colleague and I described from Peru that only grows in one river valley: the valley of the Rio Apurimac which has spectacular scenery. But even better than that, the plant itself is a bit peculiar and is a bit of a mystery…..the intrigue!
For more information about Sandy's career, view her page on the Natural History Museum website

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