Who are you?
My name is Bethany and I am in my final year of my PhD at Royal Holloway, University of London. I’m a computational plant scientist, using computer simulations to investigate the impact of environmental changes on plant populations.
I have a bachelor’s degree in Biological Sciences from the University of Leicester and a master’s degree in Computational Methods in Ecology and Evolution from Imperial College London. My special interest for both was plant science.
For my bachelor’s degree thesis, I studied the ecological and community impact of the invasive plant species Prosopis juliflora in Bogoria, Kenya. As well as my thesis, I also used my research to write a conservation strategy for the Lake Bogoria National Reserve, guiding the local conservationists and community on strategies for dealing with the encroachment of this plant on native scrub and farmland.
As I had no solid background in mathematical modelling or computer coding, my master’s year was a crash course in both. I taught myself A-level maths alongside my university classes, while getting to grips with many coding languages: Python, Matlab, R and Mathematica to name a few.
How did you get into botany?
I don’t recall a time in my life when I haven’t loved plants; Helping my mum with the garden, growing a miniature alpine garden around my Nan’s pond, deadheading her daffodils every year, running around garden centres, horticultural gardens and woods. One of my earliest memories is going blackberry picking with my grandparents. My Grandad and I ate so many we felt too sick to try the blackberry pie my Nan had made for us when we got home.
When it came to choosing a degree course for university, biological sciences was the obvious choice. However, I couldn’t decide between medical sciences, zoology and botany, so I thought it would be best to do the general course and choose later in the year. By the end of my first year, the decision was clear.
In the summer of my first year, I was one of four students chosen to attend the Gatsby Plant Science Summer School. It was a week long course, covering different research areas of plant science. We were able to try our hand at each and network with professionals across the board. By the end of the week, I knew it was right for me. My university didn’t have a specific botany degree, so I spent the next two years attending every plant related course I could.
Botany is this beautiful intersection between art, etymology (language) and science; three areas that I truly love. Through botany, I have been able to learn Latin and Greek, develop my drawing and art skills, and design interesting, and often useful, scientific studies.
Discovering the identity of a new plant is a game of ‘who done it’ for me. Anticipation builds as I rule out, one-by-one, each family, then genus, until finally I have its name. What’s in a name? Everything. Botanic names can tell you so much about the species: what colour is it, where does it come from, who discovered it, what’s its defining feature? As well as this, the common and local names are often drenched in rich history.
The next step is carefully examining and drawing, in detail, every defining feature of the plant: how many petals, the leaf shape, how it’s arranged. Some plants are puzzles that take a microscope to unpick. The first time I drew a grass flower took such patience and delicacy, because of how tiny and unassuming they are.
Finally, I can start to investigate my scientific questions: how does it work, what’s its place in the ecosystem, how does it interact with its surroundings? With each answer springs a further 10 questions, many yet to be discovered.
It’s all of this, and so much more, that drives my passion for botany and it’s that passion that inspired me to start this blog, to make botany more accessible and inspire others to fall in love with our wonderful, green cousins.
For a full list of my scientific citations, visit my ORCID iD page.