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.
|John teaching at Aberystwyth University|
Image courtesy of J. Warren
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
|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
|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
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.
|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!