Interview with a Botanist

Making the grass greener with Sara Middleton

Sara Middleton in her study field

Welcome to Interview with a Botanist, where I’ll be introducing you to botanists from a range of fields and the amazing work and research they do. Today, we’re meeting Sara Middleton, a NERC studentship PhD student from the University of Oxford. She’s half way through her PhD, researching the effect of drought on a calcareous grassland, while also filming a documentary, running an outreach program and starting a new YouTube channel.

What are you researching for your PhD?

My research looks at the effect of drought on a calcareous grassland. My focal species is the grass Brachypodium sylvaticum. I combine three approaches of characterising plant dynamics: plant characteristics (functional traits), key plant life moments (demography) and plant neighbourhood effects (species interaction)

My research examines the dynamics on the individual, population and community organisational levels. Functional trait approaches are often seen as the silver bullet for understanding a variety of plant ecological phenomena such as predicting the next invasive alien species or tropical forest community structure under climate change. 

In my project, I am interested in knowing if we can predict how well the grassland community responds to an experimental drought treatment just by measuring a bunch of physical and biophysical traits (e.g. leaf thickness and photosynthetic capacity). To test this, it involves lots of counting, measuring and drawing!”

Drought shelter in a field of Brachypodium

Do you have any fun facts about your research species?

“The roots of Brachypodium Sylvaticum species have a mutualistic association with the fungus Epichloë sylvatica. This relationship helps the plant gain extra nutrients and offers a degree of protection against pathogens and droughts.”

What is your favourite subject area from your course, and why?

“I have really enjoyed learning about plant biophysics traits through a course I went on earlier this year in Peru. We looked at how a number of plant species across an elevational gradient can adjust their internal temperature (thermoregulate) to optimise photosynthesis.

I am amazed at how fast plants can respond to changes in their environment and adapt their biophysical machinery. I also got to use a cool piece of kit called a LI-COR.

A LI-COR machine in the lab

What is your favourite plant?

Hahaha this is an unbe-leaf-ably hard question! I think it would have to be the legume Nootka Lupin (Lupinus nootkatensis) which is the plant that turned me into a plant ecologist!

The species is aesthetically pleasing with its palmate leaves and tall purple flowering spike and a nectar source for insect pollinators. I also think it’s cool that it can fix nitrogen through its association with rhizobia bacteria.

How long have you been interested in plant science, and what first got you into it?

As I child I always enjoyed being outside and exploring (climbing trees, making dens etc). I was more into spiders, frogs and newts than plants. I used to collect spiders in a jar and study their behaviour and then release them after a few days. I continued to enjoy the natural world throughout my childhood and chose to study environmental sciences for my bachelor’s degree.

This was the time I discovered my love and fascination for plants. It was during a volunteering trip to Iceland during summer break that I discovered a beautiful purple plant (a Nootka Lupin) that grew in large dense patches on the otherwise barren mountains. It turned out this purple plant was an invasive species brought from Alaska in 1945 to stabilise the barren landscape and is now growing out of control.

When I returned home, I researched this plant and found out so many cool things about it and down the rabbit hole I went… I returned the next year and did my final year bachelor’s project on the plant. I looked at the effect the Lupin had on the native Icelandic plant community in a variety of habitats. Since then I have been obsessed with plants!”

Do you integrate plant science into your everyday life?

“Yes! I have plants on the brain most of the time. I think about the plants I use in my cooking or in the household objects I buy. I also own a lot of house plants (about 50) and enjoy caring from them and they have really helped with my mental well-being.

What is the one thing you wish people knew about plant science?

“Plants are not passive beings or a green backdrop in which animals exist in. Plants dominate our living planet. If you were to add up the mass (as carbon) of living things across the tree of life, plants outweigh animals 225:1.

People are also amazed when I mention some of the cool things that plants can do such as: adjust their internal temperature (thermoregulate), show levels of parental care, have the ability to shrink (retrogress) in challenging environmental conditions, communicate with each other through hormones and move (slowly).”

Find out more about Douglas Fir communication

What are your plans for a future in plant science?

“I am excited about what the future holds, although I don’t know which branch I will follow within plant science, as I have so many interests! I am drawn to working in roles outside academia such as science policy and environmental education.”

What is something you’ve learnt from your studies that’s been most useful for your everyday life?

“I have come to appreciate that ecology is more grey than green, it’s complex and doesn’t fit into neat boxes that we humans like to construct.”

Tell me more about the documentary you’re working on.

“I am involved in documentary film Bananageddon in a team of six people. We peel back the story of the banana about how it came to be the world’s most popular fruit. In the film, we explore the ecological, social and economic issues involved in current banana production methods and how the system needs to become sustainable if bananas are to have a fruitful future.”

What’s the Human Nature Stories Project?

I founded the Human Nature Stories Project to interview members of the public about their relationship with nature. I have interviewed close to 100 people around the world and it has been wonderful to share their nature stories.

Brachypodium sylvaticum

Thank you, Sara, for your incredibly thought-provoking answers. It’s inspiring to see someone enjoying their research so wholeheartedly, and taking that love into their everyday life. If you’d like to find out more about Sara, you can find her on Twitter or on her YouTube channel, Lil Plant Stories!

If you’d like to be interviewed for this series, you’re welcome to contact me on Twitter or right here at Fronds with Benefits.

Image credits:

Douglas Fir: Luis Alejandro Apiolaza / CC BY-SA

Brachypodium sylvaticum: Kristian Peters / CC BY-SA


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