8 March 2023

Women in the wild: Six Kew projects you didn't know about

This International Women's Day, find out what Kew women are up to – from the forests of Madagascar to your back garden

By Ellie Wilson

Young woman with a braid standing in the wilderness

Kew's scientists and horticulturalists don't just make the glasshouses look lovely.

They're in South Africa, Madagascar and all over the UK, saving plants on the brink, adding vital seeds to the Millennium Seed Bank and leading troops of volunteers on our community allotments, come rain or shine.

These six projects and the women who make them happen are just a few of the exciting missions going on behind the scenes at Kew.

Fighting South Africa’s succulent poachers

Victoria Wilman, Sibahle Gumede, Ntsakisi Masia, Fergy Nkadimeng, Naomi Mdayi, Thembeka Malwane, Georgina Wilkinson – Millennium Seed Bank partnership with South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI)

Collecting seeds in South Africa is not for the faint-hearted. This all-woman team holds their nerve against police demanding bribes, strenuous mountain climbs, fieldwork far away from anywhere, and tense encounters, all in the name of conservation.

'We always get comments like, "You’re all female! Who's looking after you?''' says Sibahle. She recounts the time her team decided to keep an eye on a shifty-looking man by calling him over to help them dig up a bulb, only to hand him their biggest digging tool!

Sibahle laughs as she explains: 'Worst move ever. Because now, this guy is holding our only weapon!'

Spread out across the country, the whole team only meets in person once a year (during Covid-19, they didn’t see each other for 2 years)The rest of the time, they’re ready to hit the road with a couple of days’ notice to track down an elusive seed.

Naomi Mdayi races against poachers in the northern and western cape regions to find popular Conophytum succulents. They’re tiny, critically endangered and hard to find.

'These plants are found in one place and nowhere else, very high in the mountains. They are tiny plants and if you are not careful, you might miss the plant or mistake it for a rock. We use specialised tweezers to collect their seed pods', says Naomi.

'Sometimes it's strenuous to get there, but we try by all means because the aim is to save these plants from going extinct in the wild.'

There’s no room for competition when the stakes are this high. The team works together, visiting each other’s provinces depending on the season to collect as many seeds as possible.

'This is an amazing team and I think it’s because we’re all women. They’re so passionate and they work so hard, they're in the field all the time. I couldn't ask for a better team’, says programme lead Victoria Wilman.

Find out more about Kew's partnership with SANBI

A young Indian woman smiling in a group of other women, looking past the camera, wearing a blue t-shirt and a camera strap. Lush trees in the background.
Kiran Dhanjal-Adams helping to categorise plants in Brazil, 2022 © Lydia Shellien-Walker

Saving the planet with AI

Dr Kiran Dhanjal-Adams

When so many species need help at the same time, it can be hard for conservationists to prioritise one area over another.

Kiran, an ecological modeller who has previously studied bird migration and meerkat communication, is using machine learning to help scientists decide which approach protects nature best.

Kiran is part of the CAPTAIN (Conservation Area Prioritisation Through Artificial INtelligence) project, which simulates what might happen to a species if different areas of its habitat are protected.

These simulations can include thousands of animal and plant species and compare millions of areas. Scientists can experiment to find the best ways to arrange protected areas so that they don't get in the way of people's livelihoods but still protect wildlife.

Along with Kew senior PR manager Tara Munday, Kiran is co-chair of the Gender@Kew network, where Kew staff can talk about issues like the gender pay gap, mentoring and equal representation across genders.

Her first science heroine was Jurassic Park paleobotanist Dr Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern), and she keenly remembers being the only woman and person of colour on her masters and PhD courses.

'I was in my 30s the first time I saw someone who looked like me presenting at a conference. I almost cried', she says.

The CAPTAIN project will help scientists working in Kew's Tropical Important Plant Areas (TIPAs) around the world.

Find out more about CAPTAIN

The heart of Wakehurst

Maud Verstappen, Wakehurst Horticulture Volunteer Lead

'I came to Wakehurst because the gardens stole my heart', says Maud Verstappen.

Originally from the Netherlands, Maud studied and volunteered at Wakehurst before the role Horticulture Volunteer Lead was created just for her.

Her three teams of amateur gardeners donate their time to weed, mulch, plant and clear dead leaves to keep Wakehurst looking its best.

'I love the volunteers because they give their time to you, they're really kind people and they make a difference – and the beautiful thing is that most people who come don't know each other, and they become friends here at Wakehurst.'

The key to a volunteer’s heart? Variety, an approachable attitude and a big biscuit tin.

Maud is a keen photographer whose work regularly appears on the Wakehurst Instagram page. When the volunteer programme was on pause during Covid, her photos of sunrises over the gardens kept everyone going. She now motivates her teams with photo diaries showing the before, during and after of a project.

'When you have a big job and lots of volunteers, at the end of the day the difference is phenomenal. I sometimes get a bit emotional because it's so good, what we're all doing. They work really hard to create something beautiful and the pride for them is enormous.'

Find out more about volunteering at Kew Gardens and Wakehurst

Pondweed deep, mountain high

Stephanie Miles and Jenny Peach, UK Threatened Flora Project

Scientists trek all over the world to stock the Millennium Seed Bank (MSB) with rare and endangered plants, but Stephanie Miles and Jenny Peach can be found dangling off Sussex cliffs and braving the wild weather of northern Scotland in search of seeds from rare plants native to the UK.

'I’m lucky to be working with a lot of impressive women at the MSB. I have worked with Steph for a number of years now and she is always inspiring me with her knowledge, skills and adventurous attitude: whether snorkelling for pondweeds in the Outer Hebrides or searching for plants at the top of the Seven Sisters, backed up by the Sussex coastguard,' Jenny remembers.

She and Stephanie are collecting seeds from 50 threatened plants across the UK to bring some genetic diversity to the seed bank. If the seeds are used to bring back extinct plants in the future, diverse genes with a range of adaptations will give the population the best chance of survival.

Jenny adds: 'Biodiversity loss is sometimes thought of as an issue in other countries, tropical rainforests or coral reefs, but the UK is thought to be one of the most nature depleted countries in the world. Projects like ours are building a resource for the future, not just of seeds but of knowledge too.'

Learn more about the UK Threatened Flora Project

Madagascar's first female moss expert

Dr Lova Marline, Kew Madagascar Conservation Centre

Of all the Malagasy scientists on the island, only Dr Lova Marline is studying Madagascar’s bryophytes: tiny plants like mosses and liverworts that usually don’t rely on roots and vein-like structures to absorb water and nutrients.

'Bryophytes are very small, so they’re often neglected. They're the least documented part of Madagascar's biodiversity', she explains.

Madagascar is a biodiversity hotspot: many of its plants and animals are found nowhere else.

Lova is part of Kew Madagascar Conservation Centre (KMCC), Kew’s third research site, which is dedicated to studying and protecting Madagascar’s ecosystems.

'After my masters, I was keen to do something new. It was between mangroves or bryophytes, and I don't know how to swim so there was no way I was venturing near the mangroves', Lova says.

She's since become passionate about the tiny plants and their tropical mountain homes. Lova was the first ever scientist to make a checklist of the bryophytes of Madagascar and she’s now exploring their diversity and distribution, using them as a model to understand how climate change affects biodiversity.

In between, she teaches teams of students from Kew’s MSc programmes on field trips, where they learn to identify plants and collect samples. Fieldwork can involve days of driving to reach campsites, steep climbs with heavy packs and the risk of tropical diseases. Luckily, Lova is a keen hiker who climbs mountains for fun in her spare time.

As a Malagasy woman in science, Lova says the inclusive environment at KMCC is refreshing.

'This is one of the few botanical institutions I have been to that has more women in the team than men', Lova says.

'The botany department at the university here is becoming more and more dominated by men, but at KMCC we all do the same thing and there's never a difference between men getting the difficult fieldwork sites or women the easier ones. It's all very equal.'

Find out more about KMCC

A young woman stands in front of a flowering bush, using a large net to capture insects from the flowers
Janine Griffiths-Lee researching pollinators at Wakehurst © RBG Kew

The best urban trees for bees

Dr Janine Griffiths-Lee, Nature Unlocked and Mount Anvil and Partners

The wonderful thing about Wakehurst, Kew's wild botanic garden in Sussex, is that its landscape full of trees from around the globe can act as a living laboratory.

Scientists are using this tapestry of habitats for a major new research programme, Nature Unlocked, which looks for nature-based solutions to climate change and biodiversity loss.

With pollinators like bees, wasps and hoverflies in decline, it's vital to plant more of the trees and flowers they need, especially in urban areas. Without pollinators, many plants can't reproduce and grow fruit, including a lot of the plants we depend on for food.

But what should we plant to make the most of the limited green space in our cities? That's the focus of Janine's research, part of Nature Unlocked, which uses Wakehurst's huge variety of plants to look at which trees benefit pollinators the most.

'I’m really interested in setting up some citizen science projects and getting visitors involved in the research. I think it would be amazing for children to come to the gardens and know that they are contributing to vital pollinator research', says Janine.

Janine and research assistant Katie Berry are also collaborating with a property developer, Mount Anvil and Partners, conducting future-proofing studies at Wakehurst and across London, to create guidance for the development of urban spaces that will safeguard habitats for all pollinators.

Find out more about Nature Unlocked

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