Welcome to Interview with a Botanist, where I’ll be introducing you to botanists from a range of fields and the amazing work and research they do. Today, we’re meeting Dr Waheed Arshad, a Botanical Data Specialist from Candide Gardening. Waheed completed his PhD in Plant Science at Royal Holloway, University of London, in collaboration with Kew Gardens and funded by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC).
How long have you been interested in Plant Science, and what first got you into it?
“I’ve been interested in plants for as long as I can remember! Though I grew up in the middle of a large city, I regularly gardened in the homes of my extended family. I pressed plants during my school days (all of which I still have today!) and attended talks from my local Wildlife Trust. I was not plant blind, but I knew very little about them. It wasn’t until some inspirational teaching during my undergraduate degree at Durham University, that I really learned about the remarkable world of plants.
I was also selected to attend the Gatsby Plants Summer School in 2011, which further cemented my desire to venture into plant science research. I wasn’t too much of a fan of those infamous lectures on photosynthesis and the Calvin-Benson cycle, but rather evolution, biodiversity, and interactions with the environment was what really did it for me! Who knew willow bark would form the basis of the discovery of aspirin? Or that transpirational pull is responsible for drawing water through our planet’s tallest trees? Or even that bananas are botanical berries?“
What did you study for your PhD?
“I studied a fascinating botanical phenomenon known as ‘diaspore heteromorphism’ – a plant’s ability to produce two or more different types of fruits or seeds! This is a unique adaptation in challenging habitats, such as those atop mountains. It’s nature’s way of ensuring survival in some of the most harsh conditions. Most plant species produce a single type that’s adapted to a single environment – but many plants (e.g. in the daisy, cabbage, grass, and amaranth families in particular) produce multiple morphs.
These may have different shapes and sizes that influence dispersal and germination, making these seeds and fruits the bet-hedging specialists of the botanical world! It’s great to have worked with Beth in the early stages of her project on the same species, so it’s only fitting to be doing this interview today.”
When you were studying for your PhD, what was your favourite part of the course and why?
“I feel honoured to have been part of one of the UK’s most prestigious PhD programmes, the London NERC Doctoral Training Partnership. This linked eight of the world’s leading research institutions around the capital. Being part of this course opened up so many opportunities around the world, many of which I could only have dreamt about.
My favourite moments were most definitely during our 10-day field-trip to California in March of 2016. From Los Angeles, La Brea Tar Pits, and Joshua Tree National Park, to Death Valley, Sequoia National Park, and Monterey Bay, we experienced some of California’s most spectacular sites of biological and geological interest.
As my particular PhD project was also well connected across Europe, my research allowed me to explore many parts of Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and Italy too. For those reasons, the travelling and research trips have to be the highlight.“
How did you find moving from academia into industry?
“Though a PhD gives you many transferable skills, I’ve always tried to diversify my experiences in as many ways as possible. I became well-networked in my discipline, used technologies that had cross-applicability, and regularly simplified my science via blog posts and on social media. This gave me a good sense of how to adapt to the world outside of academia. The move was therefore quite an exciting prospect for me.
Though I initially considered a career in academia, I had frustrations with the system that weren’t compatible with my personal life, future prospects, and interests beyond my study species! I wanted to propel my career forward in a new yet fulfilling way. A year on from finishing my PhD, it feels as though I couldn’t have made a better decision.“
What was it like being involved in the Chelsea Flower Show?
“At Chelsea, I’ve been helping to showcase the message behind RHS gardens for over five years – from Kate Gould and Alan Titchmarsh’s “Britain in Bloom Garden” in 2014, to Mark Keightley’s “Feel Good Garden” in 2019. I just love sharing my passion for all things green and growing! I also have an insatiable obsession for learning about plants. The RHS Chelsea Flower Show has always been a fantastic place for beginners to experts alike.
From the avant-garde show and artisan gardens, to the breath-taking horticultural haven of the Great Pavilion, there’s always so much to be inspired by. I’ve had diverse roles over the years – from engaging with children exploring the microscopic world within a garden, to sharing botanical and horticultural advice to show visitors. Though this year’s event was cancelled, I’m definitely looking forward to returning next year for something rather exciting…“
Tell me more about Candide!
“Having moved beyond academia, I’m now working for Candide Gardening, a technology company in Bristol. It’s a social network, an encyclopaedia, a marketplace, and a virtual garden tour guide all in one place. I’m helping develop a comprehensive resource on plants, pests, and diseases – and use these for automated species identification and augmented reality applications.
It’s certainly a very fast-paced industry, but being able to combine my passion of plants with some amazing tech is a match made in botanical heaven! Download the free app (Candide Gardening, and Candide Labels) and give @CandideUK / @CandideTech a follow on Twitter to keep up-to-date with our ever-exciting developments. The future is bright… The future is Candide!“
I was particularly excited to interview Waheed for my blog because, as he mentioned, he welcomed me to collaborate on a paper on Aethionema arabicum, which was my very first publication. Waheed’s enthusiasm for Botany is really catching and I think that’s evident from his exciting and thought-provoking answers. Thank you, Waheed, for sharing your passion for Botany with us. It was a real joy to put this blog post together.
If you’d like to find out what life is like for a current PhD student, have a look at my interview with Sara Middleton or for a Master’s student perspective on Plant Science, check out my interview with Melanie Baughman. Follow Fronds with Benefits here, on Twitter, Instagram or Facebook, so you never miss an upload.
Joshua Tree National Park: Dietmar Rabich
Aethionema arabicum: Plantarium
Seedlings: J Garget