Award for project that grew into a botanical career

Published 07 November 2008

leahwyn.jpg A young botanist at the NSW Seedbank has won a national award for the research project at the University of New England that prepared her for her exciting career.

After graduating from UNE in 2004 with an Honours degree in science, Leahwyn (Leah) Seed gained a position with the Botanic Gardens Trust Sydney, working in the NSW Seedbank at the Trust’s Mount Annan  Botanic Garden.

For her UNE Honours project, funded by an Honours Scholarship from the Cooperative Research Centre for Australian Weed Management (Weeds CRC), she investigated the inter-breeding potential of two forms of the weed Hibiscus trionum – the native “broad-leafed” form and the introduced “narrow-leafed” form. To the relief of Australian weed managers, her research clearly demonstrated that the two varieties were not able to produce a fertile hybrid, and thus posed a less serious threat than had been feared.

“My results also had implications for taxonomy,” Leah said, “in that the two forms of Hibiscus trionum turned out to be more distantly related than people had thought.”

Recently, at the end of its latest cycle of government funding, the Weeds CRC named the best Honours project conducted over the years by a recipient of a Weeds CRC Honours Scholarship. The award went to Leah, who travelled to Armidale to receive it from the hands of her Honours supervisor at UNE, Dr Glenda Vaughton.

She says it was her experience in plant reproductive biology at UNE – one of the few universities still training students in specialised botanical skills – that gave her the background she needed for her work at the Seedbank. “There are few opportunities in this field, and you need experience to be able to take advantage of them,” she said.

The NSW Seedbank currently holds more than 9,000 collections of fully-documented, wild-sourced native seed. These collections support a wide range of research and conservation projects. At the moment, some of the seeds are even being used in space research – orbiting the earth in the International Space Station.

Leah believes Australia has an important role to play in the preservation of the world’s botanical biodiversity –  because, as she said, “Australia contains incredible plant diversity”. “And compared with some other countries,” she continued, “we in Australia know much about our flora”.

There is still, however, a great deal to learn. “I do a lot of germination work,” she explained, “providing new information on how to germinate native seeds – often the first time this has been looked at for many species.”

In one of its current projects – “SeedQuest NSW” – the NSW Seedbank is collaborating with the Millennium Seed Bank (MSB) in the UK. “SeedQuest NSW” gathers collections from 250 different NSW species a year, with half of each collection remaining at Mount  Annan and half going to the MSB. The MSB aims to have 10 per cent of the world’s dryland flora species held in seed conservation collections by 2010.

Leah is enthusiastic about the practical applications of the Seedbank’s work, and would like to see an ever-expanding role for it in conservation research. “It’s all about gaining a broader understanding of native species so that we can not only reintroduce any that become extinct, but also support greater protection of native plants in the wild,” she said.

THE PHOTOGRAPH displayed here shows Leah  banking seed collections in cold-storage.  (Photo credit: Botanic Gardens Trust, Simone Cottrell.)