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Love of plants sprouts from getting hands dirty

Peter Cuneo (Photo: Kim Cuneo)
Peter Cuneo (Photo: Kim Cuneo)
Peter Cuneo with the invasive African olive Olea europaea ssp. cuspidata (Photo:
Peter Cuneo with the invasive African olive Olea europaea ssp. cuspidata (Photo: Simone Cotterell)

Peter Cuneo is the Manager – Natural Heritage at the Australian Botanic Garden Mt Annan, which is part of the Royal Botanic Gardens and Domain Trust.

Why did you choose a career in environmental science over careers in other fields? Who or what inspired you to make the choice?
I come from a keen family of gardeners and was always interested in plants and nature from a young age. I studied earth sciences at university, but also did some plant biology as well. After graduation I got a job working in a native plant nursery, ever since then native plants have been my total preoccupation. I was inspired to enter the world of native plants by my mentor – botanist and native plant author Dr Thistle Harris – who wrote some of the first books on native plant horticulture and design.

What is the best thing about having a career as a plant researcher? What is it about the field that inspires you to achieve your goals?
My motivation has changed as my career has evolved, in the early days I was motivated by the thrill and challenge of propagating and growing plants that were unknown to horticulture. Now I am more motivated by conserving highly threatened plants through an understanding of their seed biology. My other interest and motivation is in restoration ecology – it is now really important to use seeds for restoration of our damaged ecosystems. It is really inspiring to see seed germination and ecological restoration happen before your eyes!

Were you were involved in another field of research or profession before you entered plant research/ and what motivated you to make the change in your career?
I trained in earth sciences/geomorphology, but was inspired by the world of native plants and horticulture. Securing a job at the formative stage of the Australian Botanic Garden, Mount Annan was a unique opportunity to develop my interest into a career.

Why do you believe seed banking is an important way to conserve the world's plant resources?
It remains the best and most cost effective way to safeguard against extinction. We simply don’t know what potentially useful and unique plants are being lost, and seeds give us good options for the future.

Would you like the role of seed banking in conservation to be more widely recognised for its contribution by scientists, politicians and the public?
Yes, most definitely. The importance of biodiversity and the conservation role of seed banking is not commonly understood. We get confused with agricultural seed banks.

How do you believe the work of the seed banking program could be most effectively promoted around the world?
We need some good ‘hero’ wild species that are promoted by a high profile media person such as David Attenborough. We need to make the strong link between plants and animals, after all, plants equal life!

What goal/s would you most like to achieve in your scientific career?
Making a real difference by developing an ecological restoration technique that becomes widely used to restore degraded ecosystems.

If you could achieve one major breakthrough in your field, what would it be?
Develop a new direct seeding restoration technique that works reliably.

Would you like to make new scientific discoveries or change the way people use/view science to improve the world?
That would be nice, but I would be happy enough to see people become a bit more reconnected with the natural world and value it!

If you were given the opportunity to excel in one area of research, or make a major scientific breakthrough, which one would you choose?
I would love to make a scientific breakthrough that eradicated an invasive species, such as the cane toad.

What is the biggest challenge you have faced so far in your career?
Balancing the demands of a full-time management role, doing and publishing research plus a family.

Do you believe that students with an interest in science could be encouraged by having a mentor like an early career scientist such as yourself?
Yes, most definitely, but a research career is becoming less attractive to young scientists as a permanent position is increasingly hard to achieve.

How do you relax after work? What is your favourite hobby, sport or pastime?
I like to go bike riding or bushwalking – anything that gets me away from the computer and office!