I was lucky enough to go to a school with its own farm (complete with steam-powered threshing machine), and knew from early on that it was the combination of plants and humans that interested me. I went to Reading University to study Agricultural Botany (a subject now extinct at undergraduate level) where Barbara Pickersgill and Hugh Bunting taught me about genetics, crop domestication and agrobiodiversity, and a chance encounter with the late and much missed Peter Reynolds (of Butser Ancient Farm) introduced me to the archaeology of agriculture.
In 1983-4 I did the new MSc in Bioarchaeology (archaeobotany option) at the Institute of Archaeology in London, where I have maintained links ever since. I was heavily influenced by two teachers on the course. Prof. David Harris taught a brilliant worldwide survey of 'resources and subsistence', based on firsthand travels to just about everywhere. David taught us to see the bigger picture and broader patterns in the evolution of subsistence. Gordon Hillman taught us archaeobotany, emphasising a rigorous approach to identification, and pioneering the application of ethnographic models in a way that has transformed the subject. This masters course (now the MSc in Environmental Archaeology) has trained a significant proportion of the world's archaeobotanists.
I then went to the British Institute at Ankara in Turkey and worked on the archaeobotany of a wide range of archaeological excavations, ranging from the Epipalaeolithic to Ottoman, with excursions to Iraq, Bahrain and Turkmenistan. It became apparent that wild grass grains (caryopses) presented a major identification problem, so from 1994-7 I did a PhD joint between the Institute of Archaeology and Kew, leading to the publication of an identification handbook. Two postdocs followed, the second funded by the Wainwright Fund at the Oriental institute, University of Oxford. I resigned from this in 1999 to take up a post in the (now abolished) Centre for Economic Botany at Kew.
For the first five years I worked on a wide variety of useful plant projects and databases, notably as co-applicant and project manager for the Plant Cultures website (launched 2004). This combined community and museum resources relating to plants in South Asia, and was a big, complex project that reached a wide audience and influenced Kew's subsequent digital and outreach programmes.
From 2005 I've been looking after the Economic Botany Collection. This decade has seen the acquisition and cataloguing of 9000 specimens, with the assistance of a great team of volunteers, much rearrangement, and the development of very active programmes in conservation, teaching and research. Collaboration with a range of mainly London-based universities has been crucial, leading to many projects by excellent Masters and PhD students.
Following on Plant Cultures, I have continued to be involved in public engagement in the Gardens, and chaired the Science in the Gardens output group in 2015-16, a time of rapid evolution in public engagement in the gardens, I'm also on Kew's publications committee and often review manuscripts and other interpretation materials. The Economic Botany Collection is popular with journalists and featured extensively in the Radio 4 series Plants: From Roots to Riches.
In recent years I have worked closely with colleagues in Kew's Library and Archives, and throughout Kew, to develop a wide range of projects drawing on the arts, humanities and social sciences. With Kew's 2021 Science Strategy, the name of our research group changed to Interdisciplinary Research to reflect this wider mission.
Photo by Elena Heatherwick