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Lydia Guja is the Seed Conservation Biologist at the Australian National Botanic Gardens in Canberra
Why did you choose a career in biological science over careers in other areas? Did something or someone inspire you?
When I started Uni, I was uncertain of what career I wanted to pursue. My BSc was ‘Landscape Management’, a hybrid between landscape architecture and plant biology. As I progressed through the course I found botany to be the most engaging subject and realised that a childhood past-time, picking and pressing flowers, was actually a real job. For my honours project I studied seed ecophysiology and became fascinated by native seeds (and still got to use my botany for seed collecting). I realised that although seeds are critical to the world’s ecosystems and agriculture, and perfectly suited to long term conservation, that there is still a great deal of mystery regarding ‘how seeds work’.
What is the best thing about having a career as a plant researcher? What really excites and motivates you to achieve your goals?
For me it’s the ‘Australian outback.’ We have so many amazing plants in Australia, yet we know so little about them. As a seed biologist I get to visit some beautiful places and see how plants interact with their environment. Often this gives us the clues we need to understand germination cues and get things growing in the lab. I’m excited by the relationships between plants and their environment and this motivates me to get research results out there. I think it’s critical that we have a better understanding of our native flora, particularly species that are under threat, if we’re to conserve them for future generations and fully realise the potential of native plants.
Why do you believe seed banking is an important way to conserve the world’s plant resources?
I believe seed banking is crucial, particularly for threatened species, because of the massive impact humanity continues to have on the world’s plant resources. We need to do something to try to counteract the effects of continued land clearing, deforestation and human induced climate change. I believe seed banking is a clever, practical way to conserve plant species by taking advantage of the inherent characteristics of most seeds (desiccation tolerant, long lived and space efficient).
Would you like the role of seed banking in conservation to be more widely recognised for its contribution by scientists, politicians and the public?
Absolutely! I feel that there is an imbalance between the resources given to plant conservation versus the conservation of ‘cute and cuddly’ animals. Often we forget that plants, and the habitat they create, are key to the survival of many species of mammals, birds, frogs, insects etc. Generally, there is not enough recognition of the challenges and significant progress that has been made in plant conservation in Australia.
How do you believe the work of the seed banking program could be effectively promoted around the world?
I think the purpose of collecting is the key message we need to promote. We are not just locking species away for safe keeping. Across the partnership, seed banking is the basis of what we do, but we are using our collections for various research, conservation and restoration projects with real on ground outcomes.
What goal/s would you most like to achieve in your scientific career?
I’d like to contribute to seed science by creating a more cross-disciplinary understanding of seed behaviour. I’m interested in linking the information we obtain, often as separate scientific communities, about seed evolution, ecology, biology, germination physiology, and molecular biology.
If you were given the opportunity to excel in one area of research, or make a major scientific breakthrough, what would you choose?
I’d like to excel in seed biology/ecology by being part of a breakthrough that really brings seed scientists to the forefront. I’m not sure what that breakthrough is yet....but we are working on it.
What is the biggest challenge you have faced so far in your career?
I feel that the biggest challenge for most scientists is finding a secure job. Almost everyone is jumping from one short contract to the next and I think this is sometimes detrimental to our research and the progress of seed science. This is a particular challenge when working with biological systems and the inevitable delay that environment and slow germinating seeds can cause. Some species have received no attention from researchers simply because they would require decades of work and this just isn’t covered by short funding cycles.
How do you relax after work? What is your favourite hobby, sport or pastime?
When I have free time I relax by getting out into nature and exploring the bush. I recently moved from WA, where I grew up, to Canberra. Everything is very different in the east and I’m really enjoying getting to know the local flora and fauna (so far the wombats have been a bit shy).