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‘Pushing up daisies’ key to study climate change

Megan Hirst sitting on Mt Howitt (Photo: J. Hirst)
Megan Hirst sitting on Mt Howitt (Photo: J. Hirst)
Brachyscome nivalis (Photo: C. Totterdell, ANBG)
Brachyscome nivalis (Photo: C. Totterdell, ANBG)

Megan Hirst is the Seed Bank Officer with the Victorian Conservation Seed Bank at the Royal Botanic Gardens Melbourne

Why did you choose a career in biological science over careers in other areas? Did something or someone inspire you?
I thought I wanted to be a musician, so I studied for a while, and taught a few youngsters from time to time… but I don’t think it was really for me. So, I changed my pathway and entered science. My timing was fortuitous as one of my early lecturers, John Delpratt, introduced me to the world of seed technology and its many implications on restoration. I have sought his advice many times over the years, and am most grateful I can still seek him out to this day and talk seed.

What is the best thing about having a career as a plant researcher? What really excites and motivates you to achieve your goals?
Sometimes the combination of time and place can make field work the most remarkable and rewarding experience. In 2009, the Black Saturday fires devastated Victoria. Three weeks prior to these major bushfires, the Victorian seed bank team took a trip out to the O'Shannessy River catchment and collected Nematolepis wilsonii seed from the only living population, at the time. This species was subsequently wiped out a few weeks later, but fortuitously we had made a reasonable seed collection, and have since worked on germination strategies and building new populations of this important Victorian endemic.

What goal/s would you most like to achieve in your scientific career? If you could achieve one breakthrough, what would it be?
I am interested in what makes a plant rare. We know species are forecast to exhibit shifts in their abundance and geographic range under climate change, so what will happen to species with very small or isolated populations?  Are they more vulnerable to change? I want to use my research findings to identify critical factors limiting a species range and work out how to apply this at the recovery level for species at risk of extinction.

What is the biggest challenge you have faced so far in your career?
At the moment I am working on a molecular phylogeny of my study group Brachyscome, to get a better insight into their relationships at the DNA level. I have chosen to undertake my molecular work using relatively new techniques in next generation sequencing. It has been quite challenging for me, grappling with a new set of laboratory techniques; however I am keen to develop this new set of molecular skills, and am looking forward to the results.

Do you believe that students with an interest in science could be encouraged by having a mentor, such as an early career scientist as yourself?
I certainly do. However my concern is the downward trend in student participation in science generally.

Why do you believe seed banking is an important way to conserve the world's plant resources?
The beauty of seed banking is that anyone can set up a basic seed bank from home. It is a relatively inexpensive and effective method to conserve quality seed lots, and it is a great opportunity to actively involve the family, or become involved in community based seed saving networks. Seed banking is an important way to conserve the world’s plant resources, not just our home grown veggies.  Under climate change wild plant populations may not be able to thrive in their current range, so we need to have strategies in place to deal with this, especially for rare plants that we may not know a lot about. Conservation seed banking can maintain the genetic diversity of a species, as well as provide the opportunity for research.

Would you like the role of seed banking in conservation to be more widely recognised for its contribution by scientists, politicians and the public?
Conservation seed banking provides an opportunity not only to maintain the genetic diversity of wild plant populations, but to investigate species we may know very little about. I think this type of research is very exciting and needs the recognition it deserves in addressing the problems we are facing with the global decline in wild species biodiversity.

What is your favourite plant?
There are over 260,000 species of plants on earth, and you ask me to choose one! Well, I will tell you my favourite Brachyscome, Brachyscome nivalis, the Snow Daisy. It is a high altitude daisy that has the best mountain views, so as I catch my breath after scrambling around seed collecting on the Bogong High Plains, the sight of these daisies flowering on mass is an absolute delight.

Do you know any good science quotes or jokes you might like to share?
“Don't judge each day by the harvest you reap but by the seeds that you plant.” – Robert Louis Stevenson