Botanist

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Frank, 34

By using DNA analyses to determine the evolutionary relationships of eucalypts, Frank ensures that their species names accurately reflect their genetic make-up. Find out more:

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Fact file

Job description: Determines evolutionary relationships of eucalypts; runs a laboratory; co-supervises and trains PhD students; writes research papers, reports and grant proposals.

Subjects studied: English, General Maths, Biology, Chemistry and Physics.

Further training: Frank completed two years of Medicine at the University of Melbourne, then transferred to Science and he completed a Bachelor of Science (Honours) at the University of Melbourne (four years). He also has a PhD in Molecular Systematics from the University of Melbourne (five years).

Salary: $45,000 a year.

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Profile

Although eucalypts are Australia's most famous plant export, surprisingly little is known about where they fit in the evolutionary scheme of things. Frank is on a mission to change all that.

Frank's work is like putting the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle together. Working at Melbourne's world-class royal botanic gardens, he figures out how different eucalypt species evolved and their degree of relatedness. Because there are about 800 species of eucalypts, comprising 95 percent of Australia's forest trees, this is no easy task.

"Traditionally, scientists used morphology or physical attributes, like leaf shape and texture, to classify plants. But for more useful and accurate classifications, I compare their DNA sequences - the higher the number of base-sequence matches, the closer the evolutionary relationship."

Frank is one of only two researchers in the world working to construct the eucalypt family tree. He sees himself as an explorer. "Knowing I am the first person, ever, to sequence a gene or a particular stretch of DNA gives me a real buzz."

"I feel privileged to be involved with such important and interesting work. Ensuring that the name of a plant reflects its genetic make-up will help scientists in the future. They may want to track down a plant characteristic of interest, such as a pharmaceutical product. And that pharmaceutical product could potentially save lives."

Excited about learning

Before finding his true calling as a Molecular Systematist, Frank spent two miserable years doing part of a Medicine degree at Melbourne University.

"Transferring from Medicine to Science was a hard decision, but immediately fulfilling. I was able to indulge my passion for learning the principles of how things work and how to solve problems rather than just memorising facts."

Frank comes from a family of keen gardeners and naturally combined his interest in plants with science during his honours and PhD degrees.

Almost immediately, he created controversy in the 'eucalypt naming' world, when his PhD research uncovered the fact that bloodwood eucalypts were more closely related to the apple genera than eucalypts. To the disgust of some old-school botanists, his discovery lead to the recognition of the bloodwood and ghost gum groups of eucalypts as a distinct genus.

Today, Frank is mainly working on the evolutionary relationships of the Eudesmid group, which includes unusual eucalypt species that are found in tropical areas of Australia. Because the eucalypt genera are so vast, there is plenty of work to keep Frank going for a long, long time.

"I love what I do, but be warned: my day doesn't only consist of fascinating research in the botanical lab. I run a lab, which means doing the associated administrative tasks, such as ordering chemicals and equipment. I co-supervise PhD students and do a lot of writing - research papers, reports and grant proposals."

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Job specs

Botanists study the biology of all types of plants to increase scientific knowledge and apply this knowledge in areas such as conservation and management of natural resources, agriculture, forestry, horticulture, medicine and biotechnology.

Duties

Botanists may perform the following tasks:

  • Investigate the effects of environmental factors such as rainfall, temperature, sunlight, soil, topography and disease on plant growth 
  • Grow plants under controlled conditions to assess the significance of environmental and genetic variables
  • Study the genetics of plants using biochemical and molecular techniques in the laboratory and so determine the patterns of plant evolution
  • Study the nature and occurrence of plant chromosomes, cells and tissues
  • Prepare scientific reports and papers
  • Supervise and coordinate the work of technical support staff
  • Work with other scientists to develop drugs, medicines and other products from plants
  • Search for and classify new species of plants and identify plant specimens
  • Prepare handbooks for plant identification
  • Use computers for information and data storage, and for analysis of data.

Personal requirements

  • Iterested in plants and research 
  • Analytical skills 
  • Aptitude for working with computers 
  • Patience 
  • Enjoy working outdoors 
  • Able to work independently 
  • Able to work as part of a team.

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Getting started

Find out more about a career in botany:

National Herbarium of Victoria
Royal Botanic Gardens, Private Bag 2000 South Yarra, VIC 3141
Tel: (03) 9252 2300

Find out more about this career path at myfuture.edu.au (new window) (Note: free registration is required to access the myfuture site).

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