Last week I was invited to give a talk at my son’s class at South Wellington Intermediate School (SWIS) about what it is like to be a botanist at Te Papa. To help me prepare, the students wrote down questions they had about botany or being a botanist. Their questions got me thinking about how important it is that children not only learn about science but also about scientists. In other words, that they have the opportunity to interact with actual scientists who can answer their questions and maybe even inspire the next generation of botanists, mathematicians and chemists.
“What is it like being a scientist?”
The students’ questions showed they were very curious about the logistics of being a scientist: what days and how many hours I worked (usually Monday to Friday, normal working hours), whether I work independently or as part of a team (both), what the best part about my job is (definitely the field work!), and how much study was required (a long time: an additional 12 years after high school!). I use my training and skills to do many different things in my job at Te Papa. I hope I showed the kids that being a scientist is challenging yet fun and satisfying.
Several scientists do research at Te Papa, some of whom talk about their research and what it’s like to be a scientist in this short video:
“Why do native plants interest you?”
Great questions! New Zealand’s plants are special, many are found here and nowhere else, and each one is amazing in its own right (check it out: one of our rarest plants even made the evening news). However there are still many species that have not been described or even discovered yet. I enjoy researching native plants because I know my findings and discoveries increase our understanding of New Zealand’s biodiversity.
My research also impacts additional scientific research, broader biosecurity and climate change issues, and conservation planning. What I like about working at Te Papa is that I get to pursue this passion alongside so many interesting colleagues who study Pasifika, Art, Maori, History and Biology. It is a privilege to work in New Zealand’s national museum, surrounded by so many national treasures, some of which (the plant collections) are the focus of my research.
“What tools do you use?”
At my talk, I passed around to the students some of the tools I use: tweezers, silica gel, digital calipers, a plant press, herbarium specimens, a hand lens. I told them how I use a digital calipers and microscope to gather morphological data on the plants I study, showed them how to press a plant specimen in the plant press, and showed photos of the different laboratory equipment we use. Data gathered using these tools has allowed me to describe two new species and one new subspecies of plants so far. In fact, Te Papa scientists have been describing new species for 150 years!
Then it was time for the students to give botany a go. They used microscopes, magnifying glasses and rulers to look at native plant herbarium specimens.
And it was my turn to ask the questions! Does the plant have simple or compound leaves? Does the specimen have fruits or flowers? Can you identify the different parts of the flower?
The students measured and observed the plants, and used some newly-acquired botanical terminology to describe them. They also made some detailed botanical illustrations.
Tēnā koutou Whaea Vanessa, SWIS, and the budding botanists of Room 1 for inviting me.
After reading this blog, do you have questions about being a botanist or a scientist? Ask them below!