Sunday 17 February 2019

Botanical University Challenge: another starter for ten

John teaching at Aberystwyth University
Image courtesy of J. Warren
The second Botanical University Challenge (BUC) is taking place at the University of Reading on 20th February and I caught up with its founder, John Warren, to find out more. News & Views readers will recognise John’s name as one of the authors of this article in Times Higher Education about the decline in the teaching of field biology skills.

LM: So John, I gather BUC was originally your idea! Before you tell us the story behind it, could you just remind us what exactly it is?

JW: A nice easy starter for ten question. It’s a botanical quiz competition for university and college students, based on the long-established BBC TV University Challenge format. Except all the questions are botanical in nature.

LM: So now take us right back to the beginning – how did you come up with the BUC idea and why?

The Edge Hill team from BUC 2016
featuring ace botanist Josh Styles!
JW: The idea originated when I was Director of Education in the Biology Department of Aberystwyth University. I was lucky enough to be able to abuse my authority and enjoy the privilege of tutoring all the plant scientists. Every week the botanists met in a pub, where we could talk plants. My first experience of doing this radically changed by thinking and eventually led to BUC...

My new first year botanists were sat together in the pub for the first time. I took a back seat and let them get to know each other. One said, they had never before felt comfortable telling anyone else that they were a botanist and interested in plants. It was like being at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting (I imagine). Sadly, all of them had been ridiculed at school for being interested in plants, even by their teachers.

Lush vegetation on PNG
Image: J. Warren
BUC was then established not just to promote botanical knowledge but also to allow young botanists the opportunity to meet other like-minded individuals. 

LM: So the first BUC took place at RBG Kew in 2016; News & Views readers may remember seeing this report asking for questions to be submitted for a second BUC but that never took place. This was around the time you headed over to Papua New Guinea so I’m wondering if these two things were related? Want to tell us more?

JW: The two things were unconnected. Except working and living in PNG was another great botanical opportunity that came along, so I was quick to grab it. I have visited rainforests in Amazonia, West Africa, the Borneo and the Caribbean, but nothing had prepared me for the botanical diversity of East New Britain Province in PNG. The diversity of orchids and ferns in particular is simply staggering. It’s a small island south of the Wallace line that has never been connected to the rest of PNG or Australia. 

Botanical diversity on PNG
Image: J. Warren
LM: So then you moved back from PNG to UK in August 2018 and now we have another BUC to look forward to! Who is taking part this time?

JW: From the start my old friend Jonathan Mitchley at Reading University has been involved in organising BUC, that’s why he is hosting it this year. He has pulled together a strong local team, including BSBI member GeorgeGarnett. We also have teams from Edge Hill University, Southampton, RBG Kew, Liverpool and Manchester Metropolitan, with all of them in with a shout of lifting the trophy.

LM: So apart from BUC, what are your plans now you’re back in the UK? You’ve just become Chair of BSBI’s Training &Education Committee so I guess you’ll be picking up on some of the ideas you set out in the THE article?

John (centre) chairing the recent T&E meeting,
flanked by botanical trainer Mark Duffell (left)
and T&E Secretary Alex Prendergast (right)
Image: L. Marsh
JW: I am in the fortunate position that I don’t need to look for paid employment, so I can spend more time growing plants. More importantly I am keen on inspiring future generations of botanists. That’s why I was delighted to take on the task of chairing the BSBI’s Training & Education Committee (T&E). I have always felt immensely lucky for the education I received at Newcastle with Prof John Richards [LM: Prof Richards is another eminent BSBI member!]. Unfortunately, opportunities for young botanists are not as easily accessed as they once were, and I feel that we as a society need to be doing more to support young botanists. 
LM: So how can BSBI help support the next generation of botanists?

JW: That’s a good question, and something the T&E are actively working on. We want to be developing training resources across all levels of the skills pyramid. However, we do think there is an urgent need to focus on entry level skills for the very young, and smart phone generation. We are thinking about plant-based activity packs for Watch Group leaders and for those in the Scouting Movement.

LM: Food for thought there! Now you’re back in UK and flying the flag for botanical training, I hope you’ll be a regular contributor to these pages John. Good luck for Wednesday and do report back on the second BUC!

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