My experience as a placement student at Kew
Why did I decide to complete a placement year?
A placement year!? A WHOLE year of my life! These were some of the things that I pondered long and hard about when deciding whether I wanted to apply for a placement year or not. I decided that I wanted to get some experience of working in a scientific institution before graduating from my degree, keen to develop skills that I had learned during the first two years of studying Ecology at Brighton and put them to good use! In addition, I relished the prospect of learning new skills and techniques which would ultimately help me during my final year.
What support was out there for me?
The University’s science and engineering placements department were more than helpful during the application process. The placements team and the Ecology lecturers proof read CV drafts, cover letters and offered me mock interviews as I prepared for my placement interviews – a big thank you!
Originally, I applied for a placement year with another organisation, secured myself an interview and unfortunately was unsuccessful. I learned that rejection is everywhere, especially in ecology. The key was not to get caught up in rejections but to see the positive side using interview feedback! Deciding not to be defeated, I applied for a one-year sandwich placement at the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew in London. The application process was straight-forward, they were keen to know about my motivations for completing a placement year and my previous ecological experience (voluntary work is really important)! I applied for two projects from a list of 11 and was offered a Skype interview for both projects.
I was offered a ‘Science Intern’ position within Kew’s Science department working on their Tropical Important Plant Areas (TIPAs) project in Bolivia.
What did I work on and what were the results?
The project is currently ongoing and will identify TIPAs within the globally unique Chiquitania ecoregion, an area covering a large proportion of eastern lowland Bolivia and extending into Brazil. This ecoregion is comprised of tropical dry forest, cerrado grassland and pantanal wetland habitats. Criteria used in the identification of TIPAs include botanical richness and globally rare and/or threatened habitats and species. Using Kew’s taxonomic expertise, Chiquitania endemic and near-endemic plant species were used as a focus. The project will also assess and update existing conservation assessments for 225 plant species following the global IUCN’s Red List criteria. The TIPAs designations and conservation assessments are crucial to protect tropical biodiversity within an already heavily threatened landscape.
During my placement year, I presented the preliminary results of my research project at Kew’s Student Symposium event, a daunting but fantastic experience nevertheless! Two new plant species known to science were described in our study area by Kew botanists. As a team, we mapped and georeferenced over 2000 plant collection records and will be looking to identify TIPAs in the upcoming months.
What was my role?
Fortunately, I worked in a team full of friendly people who made me feel so welcome, I truly felt like a member of the team! My role within the project involved collecting and analysing plant distribution data, both from herbarium specimens and external data sources. In addition to this, I conduct my own research project focussing on data used in conservation assessments of Chiquitania endemic plant species. As part of the project team I developed key skills including digitalising, georeferencing, GIS mapping, statistical analyses and have learned to use the software R. I also gained valuable experience in tropical plant identification and taxonomy, teamwork, scientific communication, together with an improved understanding of current conservation issues and believe all of these to be fundamental for a career in science research.
Would I recommend a placement?
Absolutely. My time on placement has been invaluable and I would recommend a placement year to anyone thinking about completing one. I consider my placement year an investment for the future because working in a scientific institution during my undergraduate degree has equipped me with the skills, abilities, confidence and connections needed for a successful career in ecology and conservation.
Image caption: The amazing botanic diversity within the chiquitania dry forest (left to right): Calea dalyi Pruski & Urbatsch (Chiquitania endemic), Centrolobium microchaete (Mart. ex Benth.) Lima, Paspalum pectinatum Nees ex. Trin. and Mimosa auriculate Benth. (Chiquitania endemic).