• Marist School, Atlanta, Georgia, USA
• BSc University of California, Davis, California, USA
• PhD Duke University, Durham, North Carolina, USA
At high school, I took all the advanced math and science classes I could, so I could leapfrog straight into university science with an advantage.
• Bachelor of Science – Botany and Biology: I went to a big University with every sort of class you could imagine, and I’m glad I did: I didn’t even know about botany as a discipline until I took my first course in it. I got a job being a botanist the following year!
• PhD – BIology and Genetics: Having a good grounding in math, chemistry and biology set me up to be able to understand labwork, an essential part of modern biology and a really interesting part of understanding how life works, down to the details of DNA.
• Field botanist
• Research Assistant, California Native Plant Society
• Field botanist, US Forest Service
• Lab Tech: California State Veterinary Diagnostic Lab
• Intern: Archbold BIological Station, Florida, Plant Ecology Lab
• Research Assistant: Archbold BIological Station, Florida, Plant Ecology Lab
• Postdoc: University of St Andrews
• Postdoc: Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh
Lichen Biodiversity Scientist, Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh
I am a lover of fungi and plants and being outdoors, pondering what everything is and why there is so much diversity in life. I have been lucky to find jobs that let me be doing just that.
I live in Edinburgh and have a tiny garden to grow vegetables; every spring I wait with bated breath to see if the seeds I plant germinate, and every year, I get ridiculously excited when they do. I feel perennially guilty that I haven’t identified all the lichens growing on the paving stones nearby… I am proud to be a muddy-boots naturalist, but wish I knew more bird calls than I do. I miss the USA terribly and its huge, wide-open spaces and wildnernesses, and one day want to take my UK family on a road trip to experience some of that — including a warm ocean to swim in!
I work on lichens – those gorgeous little ecosystems-you-can-hold-in-your-hand – at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh. I study and teach about how they change over time, how they get around, and how to protect them.
I am lucky that in my work I get to do research, teach and – hopefully! – inspire people, and do my small part to use my knowledge to help nature conservation. My research is focused on the diversity of lichens – fungi that live in cooperation with their own food source that they grow inside their bodies (algae, usually). Some of the quetions I have tried to answer include: Who are those algae inside lichens? How do the fungi inside lichens evolve and can we identify them just by their looks? How far do lichens travel when they reproduce? A typical research project involves going to a lichen-rich place – think mountains or rainforests in the UK (yes, we do have rainforests in the UK, and they are amazing!) – learning the lichens there and where the special ones grow, making some collections, and bringing these back to use microscopy, sequencing and other DNA-type tools for identifying them, either to species or even to gene-pool. I almost always get to work with really clever people to build on my own skills, so I learn a lot from them, which is great. One of my favourite projects was collecting and identifying lichens from old roofs – from before the Industrial Revolution, to see how lichen communities and climate has changed over time.
I'm currently solving this problem:
How can you tell how far fungi commonly disperse? Related to this is the question of what is a species, or even an individual, when genetically identical indivuduals occur miles apart? It all boils down to understanding the distribution of diversity. I’m currently solving the problems of capturing lichen diversity from sampling the environment, either from animals who have eaten lichens or from the fungi breezing about in the air, dispersing by spores or other tiny particles.
I'm currently working on these species doing this:
We have a couple of active projects, both in the Himalayas and in Scottish Rainforests. In both, we are looking at entire communities using barcoding.
Photos of my equipment:
Car-boot version of my lab… field notebook, pencil and handlens in my field bag, here joined by microscope, GPS, tubes and buffers for DNA sampling, and yes, liquid nitrogen!
How has your work progressed recently?
Covid had put a damper on field work internationally, but meetings can go on and Scottish fieldwork will get rolling again soon.
What have you got planned for your research over the next year?
Field sampling in Scotland and planning the Himalayan work to measure lichen diversity along a nitrogen pollution gradient is on my horizon...
How would you describe yourself in 3 words?
lichen loving botanist
What or who inspired you to follow your career?
My uncle Harry. He loved fishing and found a way to fish for his living and learn enough to work to protect fish and fisheries.
What was your favourite subject at school?
Science. Mrs Gabrielle gave us this fantastic test about using our senses that I failed, and it made me realize how much of the world I'd been missing.
What did you want to be after you left school?
Something about protecting the earth -- I wasn't sure quite what.
Were you ever in trouble at school?
Well, we did mess around with chemicals we probably shouldn't have, but our teacher thought that was a good sign of engagement.
If you weren't doing this job, what would you choose instead?
Probably something to help people more directly - human health probably.
Who is your favourite singer or band?
Depends on the day. Looper was up there for a while. I always like listening to John Hartford.
What's your favourite food?
Nacho chips, with guacamole, sour cream and homemade salsa.
What is the most fun thing you've done?
Type 1 fun (fun at the time): messing around in boats, snorkeling, or sledding with my kids ... hard to choose. Type 2 fun (fun on thinking back): winter mountaineering up a snowy gully or maybe the expedition where I caught a nasty tropical bug.
If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!
To be able to relax into now; to write that intro book on lichens; to be more patient with people.
Tell us a joke.
What are caterpillars afraid of? (wait for it.........................................................)Dogerpillars.