Women in STEM: Flora Donald

Flora Donald is a PhD candidate who splits her time between the Department of Plant Sciences and the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology. Here, she tells us about growing up in a family of gardeners, her research on conserving the native UK juniper, and her love of the Scottish Highlands.

I grew up in the Scottish Highlands, where the environment informs everything that we do. It’s in our songs and our poetry, and sometimes it’s a daily battle just to get to work because of the elements. I didn’t appreciate that was special until I left for university, and realised that, actually, it’s quite unusual to grow up in that environment and be so connected to your landscape.

I’ve always been interested in plants because my parents are both professional gardeners. My Mum runs a daffodil nursery and my Dad worked for the National Trust for Scotland managing gardens, but I think growing up where I did and the natural environment was my real inspiration. I went to Aberdeen University and did a Bachelor of Science degree in Plant Sciences.

I knew I wanted to do something with plants, but I wasn’t exactly sure what. My degree allowed me to learn about a whole range of subtopics from ecology to microbiology to physiology and everything in between. I graduated with first-class honours, then I went to the Royal Botanical Garden in Edinburgh and did a Master’s degree in taxonomy. I love going out into the wilds to identify and make an inventory of all the species I can see but all my knowledge was self-taught or passed on from other enthusiasts. The Master’s degree gave me a formal understanding of the theory behind species concepts and the skills to identify plants anywhere in the world. I’ve always particularly liked rhododendrons and was lucky enough to work on them for my summer project. It allowed me to work in the herbarium, run DNA analyses and visit living collections across Scotland. It was hard work but so rewarding.

My PhD is modelling the impacts of a plant pathogen, Phytophthora austrocedri, on native UK juniper. I split my time between Cambridge and the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology in Wallingford. Juniper is a great species to work on because it grows in beautiful places across the UK and people really care about it. I collected all my own field data. I taught myself the skills to process the data and write statistical models to understand factors contributing to disease persistence and spread. It’s a challenging PhD because my background is purely ecological rather than mathematical, so there are a lot of things I need to learn, but it also means I approach the work with a different perspective.

Juniper is now a red-listed species in the UK. We only have three conifers native to the UK: Scots pine, yew and juniper. This means juniper has evolved lots of relationships with other species, some of which depend on it solely for their habitat or their food source. Juniper is a keystone species for biodiversity, so if you protect it you’re also protecting all these other species and interactions too. However, juniper populations are declining nationally both in terms of extent and quality – and that’s before the pathogen that can kill populations very quickly was introduced – so juniper is a priority species for conservation action.

I’m helping conservationists and public bodies decide where action should be targeted. These organisations have a limited budget, so want to limit infection between different populations and target restorative action to populations at lower risk from being wiped out by the pathogen. I’m researching why some populations are dying very quickly when others are not showing such severe symptoms even though the pathogen is present. Can environmental difference such as a soil type or rainfall explain that or is it related to characteristics of the juniper populations themselves such as age or density? I want my research to be used directly to improve the health of juniper populations and make sure we retain this important species in our landscape.

I have five supervisors, three women and two men. I’m funded primarily by the Scottish Forestry Trust with additional contributions from the Forestry Commission, Forest Research, the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh and my former employer Scottish Natural Heritage. My project is a collaboration between Cambridge University, the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, and Forest Research so I get to meet so many passionate people with really different specialisms and experience: brilliant for generating fascinating ideas.

The best day I’ve had so far was out at one of my study sites in the Lake District. The site has really challenging terrain with lots of steep scree slopes that I had to run up and down every couple of months in rain, gales and blizzards. But the last time I visited it was under a blue sky, the bird song in the woodland was deafening and I took a deliberate detour to get to the highest point and look across the whole juniper population. It was a really special and reinvigorated my determination to generate research that can help save juniper.

We spend a lot of time thinking ‘I’m not 100% confident about that so I won’t go for it’ when we should just try it. Be curious. Don’t limit yourself by thinking that’s not for me or ‘I don’t think I’d be very good at it’. “Yes” gets easier with practice – just go for it! I don’t know what the future holds for me but I want to continue working in ecosystem conservation, ideally back in Scotland among the landscapes I love.

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