Dr Judy West, Executive Director, Australian National Botanic Gardens, 18 September 2015
CARISSE FLANAGAN: Hi ladies and gentlemen, and welcome again to Landmark Women. Before I hand over to Catrina who is going to introduce Dr West for us today, I wanted to remind you that, in October Landmark Women won’t be the third Friday, it is technically the fourth Friday, the 23rd, that we’re going to have Christine Waring, who is a milliner and who has been creating hats for Canberra’s fashionable ladies and ladies interstate, particularly for the racing season. As it is October, I’m going to ask everyone to wear a hat and I might be giving a prize.
We have our Encounters exhibition starting at the end of November. It’s an amazingly important exhibition for the Museum. It is going to be fantastic. We are going to be having a preview breakfast on 25 November. I am going to give away two tickets to that to the best hat. In the next few weeks I will open up tickets for that breakfast. I really hope that everybody who can come does, because it’s going to be quite a significant and important event for the Museum. I will hand over to Catrina, who is the manager of the Development Unit. Thank you.
CATRINA VIGNANDO: Thanks, Carisse. Welcome this morning to a beautiful spring morning. We thought it fitting, given the change in the weather and the focus on plants, the focus on Floriade and the focus on things regenerating, that we invite Dr Judy West, who is the executive director of the Australian National Botanic Gardens to join us this morning. I am really excited that she has accepted that invitation and will shortly be coming up to talk a little bit more about her life, her passions and her interests.
By way of background I have some very short notes to give you a bit of a sense of Judy’s background and of her amazing achievements. Dr West oversees the Parks Australia science and natural resource management activities. She’s very interested in botany, and her work is extensive. She has written countless publications. For her contributions to Australian plant systematics she has been awarded the Nancy Burbidge Memorial Medal in 2001, and in 2003 she was awarded the Order of Australia for her considerable work in this area.
Judy has more than 25 years’ experience in scientific research and policy. As a research scientist she has worked at the CSIRO in plant industry as a director of both the Centre of Plant Biodiversity Research and the Australian National Herbarium which, as some of you may know, is a herbarium that is collecting a lot of data about Australian plants. I am sure Judy will give us much more information about the nature of that project and her involvement with it.
Judy also currently holds an adjunct professorial position at the Australian National University. Her work is well regarded and highly acclaimed. It’s a delight to introduce Judy and to invite her to speak a little bit more about the small and light glimpses that I’ve given you this morning and her amazing work in plants and biodiversity. Judy, if you would like to come to the stage.
Dr JUDY WEST: Thank you very much, Catrina, and thank you all for inviting me to talk to you today. I don’t often talk about myself. I have lots of other talking to do but not so much about me. It’s really appropriate, as Catrina said, coming from a kindred institution as this in terms of national institutions that do like work. It doesn’t matter what the collections are we work on, basically they are much the same and the things that flow through it.
I am basically a plant scientist, a botanist that has done a few other things along the way in the last 65 years. Thinking of my journey and thinking about what I would talk to you about made me think more about collections. Really the theme we both have is about collections. Collections have run through my life pretty much, even where I am now at the Gardens of course. That is obviously very similar to what happens in the Museum, different sorts of collections but you obviously have similar interests and a lot of historical interest in that as well.
I grew up on a farm of mixed agriculture and grazing, and my two brothers are still on the land there at Harden. So it’s not very far away. Most of you have probably been through Harden-Murrumburrah or somewhere there. It’s quite close by. As I said, my family is still there and we see each other a fair bit.
I had a great childhood growing up on a farm. It’s probably a privileged lifestyle in terms of activities and what you learn about life and everything else. We were a family of five children. I think the district used to think my father used us as slave labour on the farm, because we were very much horse oriented - much more than now with bikes everywhere - and we did a lot of work on the farm with mustering and things. In those days many farms had workmen on them besides the family, and I particularly used to like working with them.
We all did correspondence school until high school. Because I liked doing them, so much my father used organise most of those mustering things later in the week. So as long as I had done all the work for correspondence in the first part of the week, I was allowed to go out and do all the stuff later in the week, which I loved. So a fairly horsey sort of family with lots of show riding and that sort of thing.
My first trip to New Zealand was actually on a pony club show jumping tour. I went to boarding school in Sydney at ten, pretty young really. In the local school there was nothing above intermediate stage, so we went off to Sydney to boarding school. In the first year I was there I topped the class - the first and last time I ever did it. That shows you the high standards of the Black Forest correspondence school and still our School of the Air is much the same from talking to people in remote areas of Australia. We have a bit to do with that with Parks Australia with our big parks that are out there. In that first year when I was at boarding school I had actually done a lot of the work already. It was those sort of standards that are there, which is a fantastic thing for Australia.
When I think about it, and I have thought about it a lot in the last few years, basically I never went home again. I went home for holidays and thing in all that time, but basically I went from school to university, went to Adelaide to work and I will talk about that a bit more but then I came back to Canberra, which is much closer to Harden, but I never lived at home as such. My two other sisters did at different times, but not me. I probably don’t suffer from it but I have never really had a good relationship with my parents as an adult, I guess. I had a good relationship with them but never living with them in that time. It sounds a bit dramatic, I realise, but it’s basically true. Once you go away, if you take on other things you don’t go back again.
I enjoyed my years at boarding school. There were some differences in the way it happened. I was pretty homesick for the first couple of years. My cohort was the first year of the high school certificate in New South Wales so we were the top of the school for two years running and I was head prefect for both of those years. It was an all girls’ school, as most of them were at that stage single sex schools. I am pretty sure I wouldn’t be where I am now if I hadn’t been at that school, especially in terms of the science programs that ran there. Having that grounding was a significant part of where I am now.
Then I went straight to Sydney University and did a science degree with honours in botany, and I will talk a bit more about it. I had a very active university life and worked hard as well. I was in a college for a while and then lived in a little flat in Newtown. It wasn’t anything like it is now. It was a pretty gruesome place to live. There were three of us: one of the girls in the house was doing veterinary science and the other one was doing an arts course. Sometimes our parents would give us food when they came down from the farm or something, and we’d have chops in the freezer and stuff. I’d come home at night thinking you were going to have this and Helen, who was doing the arts course, had already eaten it because she’s there during the day all the time. We were full time at university with practical classes and stuff. It was fine but just one of those things that happens.
When I started in CSIRO a long time ago they do a security clearance on you when starting in the Commonwealth government, and I found I still I had an ASIO record which was from being in the clink overnight one night with the Vietnam protests. I don’t know whether it’s still there. I don’t know how you get rid of those, because it was a long time afterwards.
Why botany? I think the person with the greatest influence on me in the direction of my career - and lots of people say this to you later - was probably my senior professor at university Roger Carolin. He was a very inspiring teacher and analysed things to whatever level you wanted to work on it, but engendered interest in you and what you might do. With the stimulus he led me to think about investigating plants. He was also a bit of a character himself. In those days he used to knit coming to work on the train, which was pretty unusual for a man then. He led a lot of his fieldwork when we were in the field in thongs, as some people did do. You wouldn’t be allowed to nowadays with the OHS and work health and safety things we have to follow. Roger was a great influence on me. He’s still alive and lives down at Berry, and I see him now and then. A very stimulating person to work with.
What I do is systematic botany, which is like taxonomy, and I will explain a little of that but some of you probably know what it is. You have to be very rigid with your attention to detail in this, which Roger wasn’t. That didn’t matter because you had a lot of things around you. He provided the contexts and the bigger thinking for you to think about what you were doing and giving you confidence about what you could do. That followed my influence in growing up in amongst crops in an agriculture situation and thinking about on the property where some plants were growing, what they were doing with different crops and different soil types. You realised you were thinking about that at that time. We had quite a lot of rocky outcrops that were fenced off from rabbits and things on the place, so we were already dealing with native plants and looking at trees and where they occur.
My honours in botany was actually in taxonomy. Being plant taxonomy, what species do we have where, what the classification system is, where do they grow, what do we know about them, how do they function - that sort of thing. My honours project was on a very small little plant, a little gardenia, if any of you are plant oriented - it doesn’t have a common name - and brought in all sorts of parts of the discipline itself. There was none of the molecular analyses and genetic analyses that are very common now and that we do every day in our research. None of that was occurring at that time. Those sorts of facilities and access for technology hadn’t happened.
The other thing that happened at that time with an honours course - and some universities still do this – is that you might do some coursework of an undergrad course as well. I chose to do a third year physical geography course at the time. It was really great. It was coastal geography with [CR] Twidale, and some of you might have heard of him. He was a very famous coastal geomorphologist in Australia. I have a house down at Narooma. So now I can scan and describe what the dune systems are doing and the rock platforms and things. It gives you another angle for plants, which is good.
In early 1972 I was married and moved to South Australia. I worked in the botany department in the University of Adelaide as a lecturer doing my PhD at the same time. I wanted to do the PhD at the same time, which meant it took a lot longer than a normal PhD would do, which is about three and a half years. Mine was longer than that. I worked on a group of plant called hop bushes Dodonaea that grow widely in Australia, probably everywhere except high alpine areas, great genus. Talking historically, basically no-one had looked at this genus in Australia, had treated it in terms of a systematic look of what do we have, what does it consist of since George Bentham in the 1860s, a British botanist that did collecting in Australia and then worked from Kew Gardens, which I will talk a little bit more about later.
I spent a lot of time in South Australia. The National Trust in South Australia, and some of you may know this, is one of the few national trusts that actually manages native properties; that is, natural reserves. Most of the national trusts manage buildings. They had buildings as well but they were often donated properties and they didn’t know what was on them. A few of us used to do full formal surveys on weekends of these new National Trust properties. That was great and kept you occupied during the weekends. It was a lot of work but we did a lot of good collecting as well from these areas which were new to the reserve system. That was adding to the national park processes.
I have seen a lot of Australia through doing fieldwork for my research as a student and later when I was in CSIRO as well. With the fieldwork we ran on the smell of an oily rag in those days and did it as best you could, sometimes in your own vehicle, sometimes work vehicles or whatever. I did manage to see a lot of especially South Australia and Western Australia in that time, because I didn’t have enough information about them.
The species I am talking about are dioecious, two houses, with separate male and female plants, and they are wind pollinated. From herbarium specimens - I am sure you know what a herbarium specimen is, a dried plant specimen - people had collected these without really noting down in detail that they’d actually taken something from two different plants. So you have two specimens, two bits of plant on a sheet. You might not be able to tell whether that had come from the same plant or two plants if they weren’t flowering or whatever. So you actually needed to look at the population in the field so you could get an idea of was this species totally two houses, two separate male and female plants, because it’s a group that has been evolving towards total two houses. So it has some species with one house, all the flowers on one plant, and others have worked right through to two houses, total separation. So it’s a really interesting group to look at from an evolutionary point of view. That was why I needed to do the fieldwork or that’s what I said. It was good doing the fieldwork.
I will tell you about a few adventures I had with these big field trips. In 1975 when I was at Adelaide I had some money from a grant program that I now run. It was a very small amount of money to go and do some fieldwork in south-west Western Australia. I had another colleague coming with me. We were going in the old four-wheel drive from the botany department. I was asked at the last minute to take two other young students who had just started their PhDs and needed to see some of their plants in WA. I said, ‘Yeah that’s fine.’ So four of us set off.
I said it was an old vehicle that we had, which seemed to be pretty good, but we got as far as Nullarbor homestead. Have any of you driven across the Nullarbor before it was sealed, before it was bitumen? This was 1975 when it was a dirt road. We got to Nullarbor homestead and had a break, came back to the vehicle and there was water all over the ground outside. The water pump had broken. Here we are. You don’t have spare water pumps everywhere.
We had a big confab on what we were going to do about it. It was a Sunday, and I rang the lab manager - I had his home number - from the botany department. I said, ‘You’re going to have to get a water pump out here.’ We decided we’d go on to Eucla because it was more likely that a plane or something would come into Eucla than Nullarbor homestead, so we thought. He wasn’t very pleased with me of course but he said he’d do it. We went on with a big four gallon drum on the top that we kept stopping and topping up the radiator so we didn’t burn out the engine.
The other thing about this time on the Nullarbor when it wasn’t sealed, and you have to know this, is trying to overtake semi-trailers or road trains when you have a wall of dust at you and you have no idea what was ahead. It took us a while to work out but what they do is they move over onto the wrong side of the road so then you know there’s nothing coming. But you’re driving through a wall of dust hoping to god they’re right, because they can see a long way ahead of course. It took us a while to work it out, but that’s the sort of protocol that had built up between the truckies. I talked to lots of people afterwards who have also been through the same process. Pretty dangerous stuff to do. You couldn’t see to overtake at all and you couldn’t even see when you did overtake on the wrong side. You were trusting them. Some of Australia’s techniques that we engender, I suppose.
So we got to Eucla. Those of you who have been across there will know that Eucla is one of these places that gathers up strange people, odd bods from around the world gather together and there were a lot of characters there. It was great fun. We ended up there much longer than we thought we were going to be. At Eucla the roads are up here and the dunes follow down to the sea and the Bight there. The air strip is down there as well. We were camping all the time, of course, and we camped up on the ridge.
The first day I didn’t know whether they would get the pump to the plane that day or not. So we waited until the plane landed and raced down there to see if he had the water pump. No, he didn’t have the water pump that day. So the next day I got on to Doug again and got stroppy. He said, ‘We took it there.’ So I said, ‘Put another one on there.’ Then the next day no plane came. What had happened is that they got to Nullarbor homestead and thought, ‘We’ve only got a parcel to go to Eucla, we’ll go back home.’
Then I decided maybe we’ll try the other end. I rang a Toyota company in Perth, who didn’t know me from a bar of soap, and asked him if he would - because buses come through from WA - deliver a water pump to the bus station and I have forgotten who the bus company was. He said yes, they’d do that. The next day the bus comes through and it had a group of dancing girls on it and it had gone from their place instead of going from the depot. They didn’t have a water pump either.
During these four days we had quite a time. We had collected every plant there was in the region and we had been doing our work as well. We had also been getting to know the locals, playing pool with them and stuff at night. They were starting to bet how long we were going to be there. They had an old four-wheel drive they used to use for rescuing people off the road, they’d go out and help people. So we said, ‘If we can get your water pump out of your vehicle and put it in ours, can we have it?’ They said, ‘Oh yeah’.
By the time we’d been there five days, I said, ‘Right. We’re going to have a go at this.’ So I had two men and another young woman and myself. Having grown up on a farm I’d done a fair bit of mechanical work and when I first started I did a mechanics course. You couldn’t do this nowadays because you’ve got computers everywhere in the cars. We decided one night we’d have a go and try to get this out. It took ages. The other guy that was with me was absolutely hopeless. Anyway we managed to get it out and got it into our vehicle. One of the mechanics came and gave us a little bit of help, but basically they were standing by watching to see if we could get it to work. We did, and off we drove with the water pump. We did all the distance around south-west WA with that same water pump in the vehicle. Three new water pumps were delivered to Eucla. My lab manager really blew off at me. He thought it was a really bad deal and I should try to get them from them. They were about $20 then. So we left Eucla with three water pumps.
Our collections from around Eucla are very well known now. There’s a very good collection in different herbaria around Australia. One of the things with herbarium collections is that we can collect - when you collect an animal you obviously have a single specimen, except for invertebrates and things. But when we collect plants, we often collect duplicates. That’s the sort of protocol to do. So you have a duplicate, you’ve taken a branch and you take it in smaller pieces. We almost always would collect duplicate specimens. In Australia we send them to other herbaria so there’s a bit of insurance in case any of us gets burnt down or something happens to material. Our collections from there got well distributed around Australia.
Another field trip I did, after I was in CSIRO, was in 1981 in northern Australia when I needed to look at some of the Northern Territory-Kimberley area. I went up there for some other work and then I managed to find an old bushie. He worked in CSIRO forestry based in Darwin at the time. He was formally collecting bulk seed for the Australian Tree Seed Centre, which is mostly distributed overseas, and he wanted to get out to some of these same areas. So we went in his vehicle, and I had some money for it. He was a character.
When I am going on field trips, even though you are camping and stuff, you can still eat decent food. He said he’d do all the food to start with. We were about three weeks or something. It turned out to be bully spam, that spam tinned stuff. I couldn’t stand it after the first couple of days so I took over the food after a while. But you can only stop in certain places then to find food.
We went out first to eastern Northern Territory out towards McArthur River in the Borroloola area. The McArthur River was a dry river bed at the time. ‘Oh no, the crocs will be fine, we can sleep in the river bed.’ We had stretcher type things as camping. Most of the thing you didn’t need anything to sleep on sleeping out. I woke up part way through the night, and he wasn’t beside me. He was somewhere else. I found he was on the bloody roof of the vehicle. He had decided he didn’t want to stay there but he had left me there and didn’t say anything to me because he would have had to wake me up to move. He was a great person to do the field work with.
When we got into Western Australia and were going across from Katherine west, this was straight after the wet season. From my experience with Kakadu now, which we look after, the clearing of the crossings and everything on the roads and stuff after the wet season is a major piece of work that we have to do every year for Kakadu, but it happens all through those northern Kimberley routes as well. We knew that we were probably the first to be going through. We had been trying to get information from both Northern Territory and WA Roads to find out whether they had cleared particular roads or not. Some had been cleared; some not. They didn’t even know what the state of the roads were, because they are impassable until the rains stop. It wasn’t raining at all, but there was a lot of water around.
We got to the Pentecost River and we really weren’t sure how deep it was at all in terms of the vehicle. So Ken says, ‘Can you go and test it?’ I said, ‘You mean walk through it?’ Yeah, go through it. So I took my boots off and then I had long knee trousers so I took them off too - I am not quite sure why I did that. Anyway I walked across. It was up to waist high, and the vehicle went through fine. Then when we got to the other side some people had pulled up on the other side, and here is me standing in my underpants soaking wet. He drove off as if he didn’t know who I was.
The worst thing - or funniest thing looking back – was after a few days in the Kimberley when we were trying to come back to the Northern Territory crossing the Victoria River. I am going to say no-one had been across it but someone had attempted. We get to our side of it, and there was silt built up, that really fine silt. So the vehicle all of a sudden went down. We managed to winch ourselves on a big tree that was right down the side of the river first to get on to the river and then we got across the causeway, because the actual crossing was a cement causeway.
But on the other side, and we could see them when we first pulled up, was an old Holden station wagon upside down and Aborigines sitting around and lying around. They’d got stuck as well, so they turned the vehicle up the other way thinking they’d get it out and be able to drag it off, but they had hadn’t. So they were sitting around. Someone had gone off to the Victoria River Downs station to get a Ferguson tractor to come back and pull it up. So they were there part way in the road. We had to get across. We got across the first part and then the vehicle went down, all four, and we were right on the belly. It was totally bogged. It was really hot weather. It was about 2 o’clock in the afternoon. So we had to try to dig it out.
There were no mobile phones – none of all that stuff, of course - but we knew we were only about 15 kilometres from Victoria River Downs Station and Kidman Springs where my husband and another person were doing work, and we were going to meet at Kidman Springs that night. So we knew someone knew we were supposed to be getting somewhere.
We were hours digging this thing out. The spades that the Aborigines had were sort of straight. They were homemade ones so they were much easier than our things to get under the vehicle so we were using their things. They just lay around and chatted to us, which was fine, and drinking. But they weren’t drunk; they were just having fun. Then their Ferguson tractor turned up. If you know what that is, it’s a pretty light little tractor and of course it didn’t pull us. They wanted to try pulling us out with the Ferguson, it was rearing up and there was no way.
There weren’t enough big trees on the side for us to winch onto, so we were digging and digging. Then guys from the water board turned up to do the measurements on the water. They didn’t know we were there. These guys said, ‘Oh no, we can drive past you,’ and I said, ‘I think it’s pretty wet out there.’ They were going to go around the side of us. They went over to the side, and this arrogant guy looked at me as if to say ‘stupid woman wouldn’t know what she’s talking about, it’s not wet there,’ and then they were stuck as well. They weren’t on the road; they were on the side.
By the time Ian and Martin realised there must have been something wrong and they had driven with their vehicle, we managed to get out but it took us something like six hours to get out. Then we drove on to Victoria River Downs station, and there’s 15 helicopters sitting on the ground. It was a big exercise in those days.
But what happened is that the Aborigines were laughing at me. I had shorts, T-shirt and boots on and I said, ‘What are you laughing at?’ One of them said, ‘You’re the same colour as I am,’ and I was. I was totally covered in mud. It was quite a humbling situation by the time you got to see what were the facilities on Victoria River Downs station, all those helicopters sitting there and there we were digging this thing out with hands - but a good experience. That was fun.
I resigned from my position in the university in Adelaide to finish up my PhD. It was just taking too long and I decided to stop doing that and to finish the PhD. I spent my work between the herbarium in Adelaide, which is in the botanic gardens, and the university, which are almost beside each other, with just a bit of North Terrace in between. That was good getting it finished it up.
Then I moved to Canberra to the CSIRO. That’s an interesting thing looking at the recruitment process I went through - or not - with the processes then in about 1980 compared to what we have been doing through recruitment processes in the Public Service in the last 18 months, which has been a nightmare, as some of you would know about.
I actually had applied for a job in botany at the ANU while I was still in Adelaide. I think it was called the school of botany then at the ANU, and I was offered this job. In the meantime Jim Peacock, who was the chief of CSIRO Plant Industry at the time - he’s still working in CSIRO, and some of you will probably know his name; he’s a pretty famous scientist - had contacted me via someone else about a job he had in CSIRO Plant Industry in the herbarium and was about to advertise. I said, ‘Yes, I’d be really interested,’ and he said, ‘You’ve certainly got the job.’ I said, ‘Is it going to be advertised, what’s happening?’ I would have preferred the position in CSIRO rather than at ANU at the time for a whole lot of reasons. But I didn’t want to reject the ANU one and then not have another job, or accept the ANU one and then leave it soon. That was not a practice I would do.
I was trying to find out from him [Jim] how long it was going to be to find out about the job in CSIRO. I finally got to ringing his assistant who said she’d ask him about it. She said, ‘I’m sure it’s your job.’ I said, ‘If I take this other one I don’t have anything at all in paperwork from CSIRO. What if he gets run over by a bus next week?’ So next thing I have this phone call saying, ‘I hear you’ve been wishing bad things of me and death.’ It was Jim. I did get that job.
It was some years later that he got on a bus in Sydney, and he happened to sit beside a woman with a painting. It turned out to be my aunt, my mother’s sister, and they got talking as they do - both of them talk quite a lot. She discovered it was me that he knew about. She said, ‘I believe you employed me,’ and he said, ‘Yes, I always go for the best person I can get in that position at the time. Of course.’ He never said that to me and he’s probably telling a lie anyway. But that was something I never knew about. Typical Jim, he wouldn’t have told me at all why I got appointed.
Having moved to Canberra and then I thought maybe ten years in CSIRO, you don’t plan how long you’re going to be in a place, 30 years later I left CSIRO to go to the position I’m in now. It just shows you it was probably a pretty good place to work. It has a lot of ups and downs and still is going through ups and downs, but CSIRO is a great place to work. The bigger picture of it, it’s bashed around by the government and others all the time. Then it puts itself through lots and lots of reviews and processing, but overall it’s a very good institution and well respected in Australia.
CSIRO was for me a good grounding in science and whatever you could do. There were lots of colleagues you could work with in different fields, which is a really good thing to do. I worked in the Australian National Herbarium on a totally different group of plants. I have done lots of things but it was on these little succulent plants, Australian endemics again, called calandrinia. They’re very good horticultural products that aren’t used very much yet. We’re trying to bring some into cultivation much more in the Gardens now. I worked on them and did some more fieldwork about things.
One of the things I was able to do was in 1987 and 1988 I competed for and was appointed as the Australian botanical liaison officer based at Royal Botanic Gardens Kew in London. At that time so did India and South Africa have these botanical liaison officers based at Kew. The main reason for that is the early collecting that was done in Australia by Joseph Banks or in the Robert Brown collection. Robert Brown was the main botanist on Flinders’ expedition from 1801 to 1805.
Most of those specimens that they had collected had gone back to Britain, and most of them were in Kew or the Natural History Museum in London. A lot of our material was also in European herbaria like Paris and Vienna. Much of the Australian material was lost in Germany - Dresden and Berlin lost a lot of our material in the bombings during the Second World War. Vienna and Salzburg did as well, but some of it was put into vaults and underground. People realised the value of it and put it into safe, secure collections - not just our collections but all of their collection.
So off we went to Kew in 1987. Our oldest daughter was nearly five at the time and Leah, the youngest one, was 18 months. Ian was on sabbatical from ANU and working at Imperial College near Sunningdale out near Ascot on the western side of London. We decided we’d live there, and I’d travel rather than the other way around so he could do the kids. That’s what we did.
At that time you don’t think about it but Australia had pretty good child care stuff even then, especially home-based child care with other people, which we’d been using here in Canberra. But that wasn’t happening in Britain at all. It took us ages to find someone that the younger one could be at home. Kim was at nursery school age, they called it there. That was fun; they had a great time. Except Kim had actually been in home-based family day care – I’ve forgotten what it’s called now in someone’s home. We didn’t think about it until we were in Britain, but she’d always had non-Western people in the groups that she was in. She had Vietnamese, Indigenous Aborigines and all those things. When we got to Britain she asked us about why were all these people the same as her. So the nursery school she was at was in the Ascot area so it was probably likely.
That was a really great year. I had worked at Kew a couple of times before and visited. There are lots of colleagues and friends that I still keep in touch with - we had some here just recently - very long lasting and a great place to work. It was an extremely good experience.
The liaison officer position is not all fun. You were helping people in Australia and New Zealand - we used to do it for New Zealand as well - to help them find material, find information. We didn’t have libraries at that stage. A lot of the older material which you have to look at for taxonomy was in European herbaria, and we didn’t have copies of them. Nowadays it’s all online or most of it is. The specimens were basically there.
The concept of a type specimen - I don’t know if you know about this. Basically if you are looking at taxonomy, you have to work out what was the concept the person who described this new species had in their head. The specimen they cite with what they publish is the main thing you have to look at again, and most of them were not in Australia.
What we were doing was selecting material that might be formally borrowed. There is a very big exchange system that happens between herbaria around the world. It is a very strong protocol that is very safe in order to exchange material. We don’t do it nearly as much now because a lot of the imaging has happened with digitisation of the specimens. That’s means less damage to the specimens, less postage and all that sort of stuff.
I had to look at material and make judgments on something. If someone could give you enough details of what they wanted me to look at, you’d go and look at specimens, find them in the collection and look at them for them. The Australian stuff, of course, wasn’t actively worked on at Kew because they had enough other things, and most of Kew’s scientific work is in much more to do with Africa and South America. That was great fun. You were also answering queries from Britain as well, anyone in the UK. Sometimes you’d get landed with a whole lot of prints where someone had just been to WA and taken a whole lot of photos and were asking you to identify them from the photos. That was a bit of a test.
When I first got there, it was quite interesting. We’d just got fax machines whereas we’d had fax machines in Australia for about a year. When I got to Kew they still had their typing pool, women in the typing pool, all women, and the fax machine was in their typing pool. When I left here I was writing a paper with someone else in plant and industry. I took a laptop with me, which also they weren’t using very much at the time. It was a bit revolutionary really, because we didn’t have email or anything then.
Rudy was here in Canberra. So I’d work on this paper during the day and send the manuscript by fax before I came home. I’d come back in the morning and he’d done his bit and it was back there. It was a 24-hour turnaround, which we hadn’t had anything like that. So the fax machines were really revolutionary at that stage. But the women in the typing pool couldn’t understand this fax machine. They couldn’t work it out at all. Ian had the same problem in Imperial College where they’d also got a new fax machine. The person one day said that she’d send something to Australia for Ian. She came back and she said, ‘It’s come back to me four times,’ so the paper going through had come back to her. I think she thought it was all going to go down the line or something. Anyway they finally worked them out, just different technologies.
On Australia Day we decided to have a party at Kew with a few people to do an Australian thing. I don’t think it would happen now but I managed to get wine and beer out of the New South Wales and South Australian consulates and the Australian embassy. They were really good - that was fun - being bicentennial year of course, 1988. Anyway we decided we had to make lamingtons. We were providing all the food for this thing. Neither of us had ever made them. We do lots of cooking but had never made lamingtons before.
We lived in part of an old 1830s church in Sunningdale. The oven was fine, but it wasn’t big enough for what we needed. There was a nice little baker in Sunningdale. We went and asked him if he’d make us this sponge cake of this size. He said, ‘What on earth are you doing with this?’ So we explained about lamingtons. When we finally made them, we kept some so they could try them. We’d covered our whole kitchen in chocolate and ground coconut, but they were a hit at Kew. Some people at Kew knew about them. It was fun. We did all sorts of things. Because we were living out at Sunningdale we had pavlovas and all sorts of things in the car that we had to take in on the M25. It all went really well. A funny thing because the bakery thought they were fantastic and they started making them then. Ian was back in Imperial College about ten years ago and they were still making and selling lamingtons. That’s good. We left a bit of a mark on them.
The other thing that happened with it being 1988 is that they were some really good articles in the media about Australia at the time. Sometimes when you see things about Australia overseas you cringe, but these were really good about the bicentenary and all sorts of things. But no-one at Kew realised that the school curricula had obviously put something in the curriculum about Australian plants and Joseph Banks. So in the first week of January we had this incredible amount of inquiries about Australia and Australian plants with inquiries from the public, from kids and everything. Five or six were coming in a day. I said, ‘My God, we better do something about this.’ Then they found that the school curriculum hadn’t informed anybody that that is what they had done and they had put it into the curriculum. So we had to make up a whole dossier about it, which was an interesting thing to do for another country.
I did manage to visit other European herbaria while I was there. We did some driving to other places in Europe as well. Paris and Leiden in the Netherlands have a lot of Australian material as well as Vienna and Uppsala, which is the home of Linnaeus. That was really interesting stuff to look at material. People had asked me ‘If you are going to these places, can you look at this specimen for me or see if you can find it?’ Finding it in some of the older herbaria is a chore sometimes, because the Australian material is not what they work on all the time and they might be in the vaults or in another place.
When I returned to CSIRO at the end of 1988, Jim Peacock, still chief of plant and industry, asked me to take on the program leader job. I didn’t want to do this because I wanted to do more research. Once you start going into that role, you’re not going to have as much time for research. We debated about it for some weeks and months. Then I got the hint that basically saying no was not going to work. People kept saying to me, ‘I don’t think you can do that. I don’t think you can’t say no to him.’
So I took over a program which had very senior scientists in there, older than me and much more senior in their careers, very good people. But in CSIRO that doesn’t really matter. The hierarchy isn’t as important as you find it when you are in the Public Service proper. I was director of the herbarium at that time as well. We did a lot of innovative things. We were the first to start doing using online systems for identification systems for plants with multi-access keys and everything like that.
In 1992 we had two herbaria on Black Mountain. We had one in the Botanic Gardens and one in CSIRO, both owned by the Commonwealth. We started to think ‘Why don’t we put these together?’ Through a fair bit of time we actually did bring them together into one unit, and that’s what the Australian National Herbarium is now. We also started in 1993 putting a centre research body around that. The Centre for Plant Biodiversity Research was formed then, which is a joint venture between the Gardens, as being part of the Department of Environment, and CSIRO Plant Industry. We had the main body in Australia for plant sciences on plant research and the main body that was responsible for managing on the ground at a national level the national parks and the Australian National Parks and Wildlife Service. That’s what we brought together and that still exists today. We have done two ten-year ministerial level agreements between the two places. For the Gardens, this is fantastic because basically the centre does our research work collaboratively. We haven’t had to build up labs and that sort of thing on the Gardens side. We do that work together. They work a lot with us on the living collection as well. It’s an extremely good partnership. So I was there until I moved to the Gardens.
In the early 2000s, every now and then in research places you have a poli visit, and Robert Hill at the time was Minister for Environment and he came and visited the centre. We showed him about the database that we had for all the specimens that we’d been working on, digitising all the information. As he was walking out the door he said, ‘Well, this has to be done for all of Australia.’ We said, ‘Oh yeah, okay.’ He said, ‘How much will it cost?’ This is on the doorstep as he was leaving. I said, ‘Oh $20 million,’ out of my head. But he was serious.
For the next two years we worked across Australia - the herbaria, of course, were very keen about it but we had to get all the state governments on line, but we did. He [Robert Hill] was fantastic. It was ministerial sign-off from all the ministers from each state and him to agree to form Australia’s virtual herbarium. We got $10 million. We were estimating that we had about six million specimens between us - this is just Australian specimens, nothing collected from overseas. It started off Australia’s virtual herbarium.
Now 6,500,000 specimens have been databased from our major herbaria in Australia and are all available online everywhere. It was a massive project for the herbaria. It has changed the way we did our work, changed everything. The museums have always been very jealous of us. We did try a few times before that to do that sort of databasing for all museums and herbaria. The museums have done their vertebrate collections, but the invertebrate collections are massive and we’re just not there. We’re trying to help them. It revolutionised the way we work in herbaria. We kept saying to the herbaria: ‘To start with this is going to change everything you do.’ We had to keep the specimens moving through; we had to employ a whole lot of databasing people; our staff had to have curated the collection before they were going in or doing it afterwards. It was very good. It changed the way everyone works. So it was a massive thing. It has been modelled. The Chinese came and saw us and unashamedly wanted to copy it - and they have with multi, multi million dollars more. They literally used the same model totally. I saw Robert Hill recently, and he remembers all that happened. He was really instrumental in ensuring we had sign off from all the state environment ministers.
It was for that, Catrina mentioned before, about me having an Order of Australia. It was basically my work in systematic botany and getting Australia’s virtual herbarium up - I think that’s why I was awarded. You are never quite sure who nominates you for those things. Catrina also mentioned the Nancy Burbidge Memorial Award. I was the first one to receive that from the Australian Systematic Botany Society. In 2001 we had a Flora Malesiana meeting, so we’d been working in that Malesian region, and we were hosting the meeting in Australia. It was an international meeting at Sydney Gardens. And 9/11 happened while we were there. I work up in the morning and someone came in and said, ‘My God, have you seen the television?’ You all would have been through the same reaction.
But I had to do the guest lecture that night. We had people there from all over the world - some people from America of course – and everyone was really upset about what had happened with the 9/11 exercise. They did this big introduction to me from a person I know, and then I got up and just started talking. Afterwards I thought, ‘I didn’t even say thank you’ - for anything. It was one of those worst times when you have to speak. Luckily it was all planned, and I had it sorted. The feeling everybody had and then, if you remember, Ansett went bust two days later and we had all these people in Australia who couldn’t get out, especially with this region. So it was a pretty massive time to have to help and do things.
I spent a year in 2003 in what was DEST then, the Department of Education, Science and Training, leading a task force on science and innovation mapping, so looking at the whole of Australia’s innovation, science and mapping area for future directions. We came out with whopping great reports from that. Brendan Nelson was the Minister for Education at the time. Things go round, don’t they?
In 2006 I had a bit of a setback. I got sick part way through the year and the GP couldn’t work out what was going on. I had about two months of doing all sorts of tests and trying all sorts of things. I kept getting sicker. I was still at work but people kept saying there is something else wrong with you. I’d walk up Black Mountain and I was puffing and coughing. Then it got worse and worse.
My younger daughter was living with me at the time. She was 20 and she was at uni. I went off and had tests and all sorts of things. One time I was in emergency. I was getting really hot sweats at night, changed the bed twice a night and that sort of stuff, and we couldn’t work out what was wrong. Then this guy diagnosed me with lymphoma, and my daughter was with me. Anyway, I did the wrong thing. I refused to let her to tell my family because I thought this guy was wrong. I was pretty sure he was wrong. He hadn’t had any of the tests or nodes that he should have been testing and stuff. Then I had MRIs, full scans and things, and I was just so exhausted. I said to Leah, ‘I’m going to have to go back into hospital. I can’t do this.’
So this time I used the lymphoma to get out of emergency and get in there faster, which obviously worked. I was a week or something in hospital and they were still testing, moving me from one department to another, working out what was wrong until someone they had the blood cultured and it came back with a massive infection. It turned out I had endocarditis. Basically bacteria had eaten holes in the atrial valve of the heart, so it was flipping around in the breeze.
When they took me down to have this test, the scan, it was on a Saturday and Leah my daughter was with me. The technician showed us what was happening, it was just sort of flapping. Oxygen and blood obviously wasn’t getting around the body. He started telling us that it was the leaflets that weren’t coming together and stuff. Leah is slightly laughing and he said, ‘Why are you laughing? This is very serious.’ She said, ‘Well you’re telling my mother, who is a botanist, that she’s got leaflets around her body.’ The infection was bad enough that I had to have a week of solid antibiotics before they did anything.
I then had open heart surgery and I’ve got a Teflon Dacron valve in the heart. It seems to be ticking away very well and everything is fine. But it was four months before I could go back to work. You go home and basically they were telling you that you can’t lift any more than a cup. It was really frustrating, but that was true. I felt like a very old lady and it made me realise what’s going to happen in the future. Leah was with me all that time - she was terrific - but she was doing exams at uni, which was tough.
My two sisters were wonderful. They came and lived with us for two weeks and three weeks at a time. My younger sister, who’s on the farm at Wagga, came and was starting to do things out in the garden and that sorts of stuff. I didn’t want her to do this because I wanted to do it. I’d say, ‘I’ll be able to do that when I get stronger.’ We were having this great barney all the time because she was cleaning up the garden, which was great but it was because she wanted to be busy. I was telling my elder brother and he said, ‘Don’t you remember? She’s a control freak.’ You don’t often live with your siblings at that age.
My older sister was very much like a mum to us. She was cooking away and Leah thought it was fantastic. She was getting great food every night. It just shows you how the family were fantastic in all of that - and still are. Leah lives in Canberra. She makes sure I’m all right every day. So she still looks after me.
The interesting thing was that the cardiologist and other heart people had a disagreement about how long I’d actually had this in the body. Some of them were saying it was six months or something. There is no way it could have been because in June I’d walked the Larrapinta trek in Central Australia. Somewhere in that two-month period before they diagnosed it was when I contracted whatever it was.
If I go to another doctor anywhere now, like a GP, they want to know all about it because they don’t get to see this sort of thing in what they were seeing as healthy people. It’s usually injecting drug users or something that end up with endocarditis. They also told me I was too young - I had to have an artificial valve because I was too young to have a cow valve because I was going to need another one in 15 years or something. That’s why it’s artificial but it seems to be working well.
In 2007 we did a proposal for a big research hub of the Commonwealth government and we got that for $6 million. That was coming to an end when I moved on secondment to Parks Australia and to the Botanic Gardens. Moving from CSIRO to the Public Service, even though most people see CSIRO as public service, is a very different situation. Because we’d had the centre between the two places anyway, I’d worked a lot with the department and knew a lot of people there so it was not a hard transition for me, but it really is quite different in terms of that aspect.
What I’ve been really enjoying doing in the department in government is actually linking - some of you will know about this - the science policy end of things, trying to get results of good science taken up in policy or how you do do that. That’s been really fun. We’ve built up the scientific aspects of Parks Australia as well quite a lot in the last five years. I hadn’t actually ever planned to work at a botanic gardens or to manage a botanic gardens but I am thoroughly enjoying it. Some of you might have seen that we’ve done a master plan just recently at the Gardens, and we’re just planning building conservatories and all sorts of things right now. That’s rejuvenated things to get things moving along those lines.
The Gardens has a very scientific base to it. It was always designed in the first concepts of these gardens that it would be a scientific garden. That’s why they located it between ANU and CSIRO, and that relationship is very close still. We do research work with both. All the plants growing in the Gardens have a herbarium specimen voucher in the herbarium so it gives them that scientific validation. It is a very well recognised collection worldwide. So people ask to borrow or get material from us, especially now that people use just a few leaves to do DNA analyses or something. So they don’t have to come to Australia if they’re working on plants and they can ask to borrow – to have some leaves. We don’t borrow leaves.
Also the seed bank is something that I’ve built up since I’ve been there. There was a seed bank there but not a very big one and not active. We’ve employed a seed conservation biologist and a new curator of the seed bank. This is a conservation seed bank. It’s not providing seed for massive restoring or landscapes but it’s a conservation seed bank so we’re talking about long-term storage. And long-term storage could be thousands of years that those seeds should be able to be retained.
What we do is work out germination protocols for them. Every one of them is tested before they go into the seed bank to try to come up with a protocol for each one of how you would grow it. We’re especially interested in some of the more horticultural potential species. We’ve some really good horticulturalists in the Gardens. The Gardens grows about a third of Australia’s plants, which is a very good situation given our climate. A third of Australia’s flora is in the Gardens.
I’ve tried to get them to focus a bit more on particular areas since I’ve been there. We look at a couple of major ecosystems here, the grasslands and grassy woodlands of the south-eastern region and the alpine and sub-alpine, both of which are recognised as ecologically endangered communities. Not only those - obviously with the rainforest gully, we have relationships with some of the gardens in Queensland, especially Mackay, to growing material from there. The scientific basis of them is a real inspiration for work to be done there.
Lots of people come and work in the gardens. We have lots of people working in Kakadu and Uluru and all of these places who want and come do research work in Australia - it’s not quite that level, but certainly we have a lot of people working in the Gardens. The seed collection, the herbarium and the living collection itself is quite an asset, and something very serious that we have to manage properly. The master plan has given us some ways of doing a bit more of that. The master plan was done of the infrastructure not the plants themselves. That’s not included.
What I also do is look after the science in the natural resource management work that we do in our other Commonwealth parks. I actually look after Norfolk Island National Park and Christmas Island National Park. There are managers and staff on those, but I oversight them. Then also the science and stuff we do in Kakadu, Uluru and Booderee National Park down at Jervis Bay. We’ve tried to bring that science together, trying to help the staff.
There are some really good staff in those places but they are collecting massive data by monitoring things and doing the right thing, but they’re not qualified to write up a scientific paper or whatever. What I’ve done is link them with people from CSIRO or a university to help them write up all the work they’re doing, so they’ve been getting the information out, because you obviously don’t want to just collect the material to not do anything with it. You need to feed it back into the management of the parks.
I think probably the major thing I’ve done in my life is facilitating linkages and partnerships, and clearly the virtual herbarium was one of those things and also the Centre for Plant Biodiversity Research, which is still running, between our places. The Gardens has been another one of those linkages within Parks itself. That’s all I wanted to say. Thank you. [applause]
CATRINA VIGNANDO: Thank you, Judy. That was an amazing journey and such a pleasure to hear the variety and influence that you’ve had personally on so many very important aspects of what are happening. Particularly the digital herbarium, as you said, a lot of museums are looking at what you’ve done and thinking about how access is made available even for collections that we hold. The lead that you’ve taken is very inspiring. Do we have any questions for Dr West?
QUESTION: Thank you so much. That was fantastic. I’m a horticulturalist myself. I have actually tried using the website to look up different plants and what have you.
Dr JUDY WEST: The Gardens website?
QUESTION: Yes. I am pretty sure I have. There seemed to be not so many photos of different things. When you want bark, leaves or what have you, not being a specialist, is there another website behind there that is for the specialists who can log in and look at more images?
Dr JUDY WEST: Yes, there is. You should be able to see it though. If you google a plant for images in Australia, you will mostly come up with images that are in our collection. The other collection we have is an image library. There are about 65,000 images in there, which are almost all available.
QUESTION: I think I was trying to reverse -
Dr JUDY WEST: Yes, go the other way. You should be able to go into our site though. Maybe I can have a chat to you afterwards, and we can follow it up.
QUESTION: Okay thanks so much. That was fantastic.
QUESTION: Thank you very much, Judy. May I ask two questions please: how much of Australia’s plant life still has to be documented in different ways? And I will leave it to you to describe which ways they are scientifically. How does Australia’s plant science compare with that of other countries? Are we a pace setter, do we follow along or do we contribute significantly? I’d be curious to know how we compare please.
Dr JUDY WEST: Good question. I will answer the second one first. In terms of plant sciences, and taking it broadly, Australia is well and truly up near the front. The work that’s done in CSIRO, ANU and Melbourne university are leading in terms of experimental work in physiology, biochemistry, genetics and all those sorts of areas. In the systematics area particularly in taxonomy - systematics is like taxonomy except it’s looking at the evolutionary pattern of the family trees, sort of understanding more detail about organisms - Australia has developed a number of tools to do some of that work. Working on our own groups we’ve done very well. There are not very many taxonomists in Australia, and we are really low on both animal and plant taxonomy, so I guess in terms of keeping up with the knowledge of our groups we’ve done well, but we are not at the front line. But in terms of quality of people, we are. We’ve got a lot of really good taxonomists and ones who have come through in the last 25 years or so. When you look at what used to happen to your PhD students that you have supervised before, you feel encouraged that we’re getting somewhere.
Coming back to your first question which is about what we don’t know about what we have. Some of you might have heard of Bush Blitz, which is a discovery program we’ve been running with very significant support from BHP Billiton. BHP Billiton put $6 million into this and the Australian government from our department put $6 million and Earthwatch work with us. This is a discovery program. We are trying to work through the national reserve system looking at reserves that have never had a biodiversity survey done - great multidisciplinary work to be getting involved in. People go out there and you have all sorts of zoologists, botanists or whatever all together.
In four or five years that program has discovered 700 and something new species, mostly invertebrates but there’s new plants, new reptiles and freshwater fish. Amongst that are new range extensions as well. But the biggest area we don’t know about is mosses, liverworts and the lichens. We know there’s a lot there that aren’t formally described. There is a difference between - it’s the same with museum collections - what might be formally described and in the literature and everyone knows about, but from another taxonomy there might actually be quite a lot of specimens in the collection that someone hasn’t recognised them as being something different or they haven’t been described. So there’s two different ways of looking at that.
CATRINA VIGNANDO: If we don’t have any more questions, I’d like to invite you all to join us in the Friends Lounge and join me again in thanking Dr Judy West for her wonderful talk. [applause]
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Date published: 01 January 2018