7 August 2018

Celebrating 25 years of Smith College Kew interns

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the Smith College Kew Internship Program which was first initiated by a visit to Kew by Smith College alumna Paula Deitz in 1993.

Researcher holding 96 well plate on ice

How did it start?

Many of Kew’s activities are long-running and this year we are celebrating one of our most successful and long-running internship programmes.

On 14 June 1993, Paula Deitz (Smith class of ’59, and then co-chair of the Friends of Smith College Botanic Garden) visited Kew and asked if I would be prepared to host a summer intern from Smith College – a distinguished liberal arts college for women in Northampton, Massachusetts – for ten weeks if they could raise the necessary funds. Because my career had benefited from my being an intern student in Denmark in the summer of 1980, I didn’t need much persuasion!

Celebrating 25 years

Moving forward to 30 June 2018, at an event organised by the Smith College Club of Great Britain, we celebrated the 25th anniversary of the establishment of the resulting Smith College Kew Internship Program. Funded by generous donations from alumnae of Smith College and their families, 45 interns from Smith College have now spent a summer at Kew, working on projects in the Jodrell Laboratory and, in the early years, in the Micropropagation Unit.

The interns have conducted several molecular biology projects using DNA sequencing to investigate relationships between species, DNA fingerprinting to produce population genetic data in support of conservation management, and genome size measurement for the investigation of genome evolution. This year’s interns, Emma Kelley and Lucinda DeBolt, are using next-generation sequencing techniques to investigate relationships between Dioscorea species (yams) and members of Aizoaceae (dewplants, living rocks and their relatives).

Where are they now?

Of course, not all 45 of the interns have gone on to careers in science, but some have. Among these, Diana Xochitl Munn, one of the first interns in 1994, worked at the Smithsonian Institution before being appointed Director of Public Programs, Harvard Museums of Science and Culture, Harvard University. She maintains a strong link with Smith College as a member of the Friends of the Botanic Garden Advisory Committee, and she says “The internship gave me the confidence to pursue my interests in botany, science and natural history”.

Elizabeth McCarthy, an intern in 2005, came back to London for her doctoral studies on Nicotiana with Mark Chase (Kew), Andrew Leitch (Queen Mary, University of London) and Sandy Knapp (Natural History Museum) after completing her undergraduate degree at Smith College. She returned to the USA for post-doctoral fellowships at the New York Botanical Garden and the University of California Riverside, and she has just been appointed as a faculty member at the State University of New York Cortland. Her internship led her to say “This is what I want to be doing for the rest of my life!”.

Other interns whose career paths are connected to their time at Kew include Ilana Moir (2002), Director of Conservation at Colorado West Land Trust, and Elinor Kuntz (2000), who subsequently gained a doctorate for her thesis on the evolutionary origins and population genetics of red rice at the University of Georgia, where she is still a visiting researcher.

Scientific outputs

Many of the projects have resulted in publications ranging from articles in scientific journals and conference proceedings to project reports to government agencies, and the interns are included among the authors of these. Sometimes, these publications take a while to come to fruition, but we get there in the end! Penny Stranc (1998) and Kate Borland (1999) both collected DNA sequence data for a study on tulips – a piece of work that was finally published in 2013. Penny and Kate were surprised and delighted to be asked if we could include them as co-authors.

The next 25 years

The Smith College Club of Great Britain are now fundraising to support the internships for the next 25 years. In 1993, I never dreamed that a programme was starting that would run for more than quarter of century! It wouldn’t have been possible without generous donations from the Pokross family in celebration of the 80th birthday of Muriel Kohn Pokross (class of ’34) that allowed the Program to start and all the donations from other alumnae and their families. Thank you to them all.


Christenhusz, M. J. M., Govaerts, R., David, J. C., Hall, T., Borland, K., Roberts, P. S., Tuomisto, A., Buerki, S., Chase, M. W. & Fay, M. F. (2013). Tiptoe through the tulips – cultural history, molecular phylogenetics and classification of Tulipa (Liliaceae). Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society 172: 280–328. Available online

Cox A. V., Abdelnour G. J., Bennett M. D. & Leitch I. J. (1998). Genome size and karyotype evolution in the slipper orchids (Cypripedioideae: Orchidaceae). American Journal of Botany 85: 681–687. Available online 

McCarthy, E. W., Chase, M. W., Knapp, S., Litt, A., Leitch, A. R. & Le Comber, S. C. (2016). Transgressive phenotypes and generalist pollination in the floral evolution of Nicotiana polyploids. Nature Plants 2: 16119. Available online