Thursday 14 November 2019

BSBI Training Grants Helping Botanists in 2019: Part Four

Getting into the detail: Rumex achenes
Image: M. Cathcart-James
In August, we brought you Emily's account of how a BSBI Training Grant made it possible for her to attend a course in Advanced Botanical Identification. Now Meg tells us how she was able, thanks to another BSBI Training Grant, to undertake a course in Common British & Irish Plant Families. Over to Meg to tell us more about herself and the course, and you'll be able to find out more at the BSBI Annual Exhibition Meeting on 23rd November where Meg will be exhibiting a poster:

"Who am I?
My name is Meg Cathcart-James and I’m a doctoral researcher at the University of Reading. I am in the Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Division of the School of Biological Sciences, where I graduated from in 2017 with a BSc (Hons) in Ecology and Wildlife Conservation (I did warn them they wouldn’t be rid of me…).

I am Wiltshire born and bred, with a deep affection for ancient stones and the countryside instilled in me from my early years. My path to becoming an ecologist has been a convoluted one though; before my Bachelor’s I lived in Australia for 3 years doing what 20-something year olds in Australia do, and also worked as a hotel manager in the UK. I realised the corporate 9-5 was not for me and ditched my suits for wellies and a hand lens in search of another life. I found it in Reading of all places!

Meg's poster on burial grounds
as green spaces
Image: M. Cathcart-James
After a module in my first year of undergraduate studies on plants, I was hooked. A whole new (mostly) green world was opened up to me, and I’ve never looked back.

What do I do?
Does anybody NOT stumble and stutter when asked this question? Oftentimes I don’t know what it is I’m doing!

I am doing my PhD part-time in order to work, as I’m self-funding. I have a range of part-time roles within the University, all student-centric as I love to spend time with students and support their learning.

My PhD is an exploration of burial grounds as urban green spaces. There is very little ecological research on them, and my studies form one of the largest-scale projects on burial grounds conducted in the UK.

I’m asking questions such as, how can biodiversity in burial grounds be quantified? What influences that biodiversity? How should burial grounds in towns and cities be managed to benefit people and wildlife? Does the soil and vegetation in these spaces, due to their longevity, help to mitigate urban pollution? Are the flora and fauna of burial grounds truly as abundant and diverse as people assume they are?

My work so far is showing that there are profound differences in the nature of urban burial grounds, and I hope to understand better how and why this is.

Why did I apply for a BSBI Training Grant?
Much to my sorrow, and that of botanists across the land, teaching about plants in schools and universities is sparse to say the least. I have attended every undergraduate module and free conference or course I could find, followed wonderful Twitter accounts, read wonderful books and joined wonderful organisations.

"Please Dr Spencer, could you
help me with this pesky cabbage?"
Image: M. Cathcart-James
My plant knowledge has come on leaps and bounds, but I need to continue on an upward trajectory if I’m to conduct accurate, comprehensive research into the plant species of urban burial grounds. My passion for plant knowledge has become an absolute necessity for my research. At the start of this year, I began looking at paid plant ID courses.

As a self-funded PhD researcher, I knew I would need help to attend courses. The BSBI, which I’ve been a member of since I started my undergraduate degree, was my first port of call and ultimately the only place I needed to request funding assistance, through their Training Grants programme.

My chosen courses? The Common British and Irish Plant Families course series run by the Field Studies Council (FSC) at their centre in London’s Regent’s Park. As a whole, this series of training courses covered many of the most encountered and most tricky of British plant families. They are unique in their accessibility being affordable, a realistic time commitment of one Saturday a month for 4 months and well administered by the wonderful FSC.

What were the courses like?
I had no expectations of the courses, only an excited and open mind as a middling botanical beginner; unlike other courses or even university modules I've attended, I wasn't instilled with that dread-filled sense of there being far too much to learn and that I will be a novice for all of time. Rather, the level at which the courses were pitched and the focused scope of each of them, coupled with the inimitable Mark Spencer's teaching skills left me sat on the train home feeling enthused, optimistic and that I was a far better botanist than when I arrived in Regent's Park that same morning.

A bumble I met while examining
 this well-known member
of the Asteraceae (daisy family) -
note the phased flower opening
Image: M. Cathcart-James
Each course looked at 3 or 4 common wild plant families; from cabbage to carrot, pea to daisy, dock to rush and more.

After a classroom session looking generally at plant/flower anatomy and then going into more detail on the families’ key characteristics, most of the day was spent out in the surprisingly lovely Regent’s Park (I say surprisingly, I am much afeared of London as a country mouse and didn’t know it would be so beautiful!).

ID skills and key use were practiced, and hugely informative walks to examine plants in the field made for a botany-filled day where we were able to speak to (read: ask a ridiculous amount of questions of) a botanical expert to get as much out of the course as possible. I have to thank Dr Mark Spencer here; his enthusiasm and obviously very extensive botanical knowledge made for a series of plant-filled days you knew you were going to get a huge amount out of. Thank you very much Mark.

What did I get from the courses?
I now have a fantastically useful set of notes, annotated handouts from Mark and a better working knowledge of my own botanical guidebook. I can now identify the majority of my pesky allotment weeds, the forbs in my lawn, and of most importance to my career; many of the plants I continuously come across in my PhD burial ground sites. I will be doing detailed botanical surveys in my sites over the coming year, and this knowledge is crucial.

I now have my own notes and a
greater familiarity with my "Streeter"
after the classroom sessions
Image: M. Cathcart-James 
The courses have gone beyond just being 'a start' in being able to ID the plants in my sites; they have provided a very solid working knowledge that I am now building on all the time. The other people on the courses, and Mark, were interested to hear about my research which is always lovely and being around like-minded plant lovers has been a balm to a person surrounded by animal-obsessed ecologists/zoologists!

Should you absolutely join the BSBI this very minute to become part of an inclusive and passionate botanical community that welcomes and supports everyone no matter your level of expertise?

Many thanks to Meg for telling us her story. Do I agree with her that you should absolutely join the BSBI this very minute?
... oh yes!

Am I going to tell you how to get your hands on a BSBI Training Grant?
I am: make a resolution to go to our Grants page on 1st January, download and fill in your application form. Grants get snapped up very quickly so select your training course in advance and be all ready to apply on the first day of 2020. Good luck!

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