Helping Kew put Conservation on the Map with Steve Bachman
Steve is the Species Conservation Assessment Officer in the Herbarium at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. The post is based in the Geographical Information systems (GIS) Unit, which is part of the Biodiversity Informatics and Economic Botany department. Also known as Kew Gardens, the non-departmental public body is more than just a pleasure garden; it is a plant research centre of international importance employing hundreds of staff in science roles. Steve is a spatial analyst, working together with plant taxonomists to define the conservation status of the world’s flora through the IUCN Sampled Red List Index (SRLI) for Plants.
What are your key responsibilities within the GIS Unit at Kew?
“My main job role is to assess the conservation status of plants at species level, and to coordinate that across the organisation. That includes training people, advising them as well as developing tools and techniques to facilitate that process. I am responsible for the running and maintenance of GeoCAT, the Geospatial Conservation Assessment Tool. The online web browser utility is geared towards carrying out preliminary IUCN Red List assessments based on spatial data. I also help Kew to track its own progress by developing databases of conservation assessments.”
What is the best part of the job?
“I think one of the most interesting things is the diversity of the projects which I get involved with. You could be creating a dot map for someone who’s described a new species, or you could be churning through thousands of data points to work out species richness or hotspots of plant diversity, or you could be editing feature geometry. I also really enjoy training and helping students.”
What is the worst part of the job?
“Looking outside to the real world can sometimes be disheartening. Sometimes it seems like we’re not making a difference. But I think you have to just push through that – if we don’t do it, it won’t get done. At times I wonder whether working with policy would have more of an impact, or practical on-the-ground conservation. Sometimes it feels like we’re just caught in the middle, moving databases around.”
Why do you work in conservation?
“Ever since I was young, I believed in treading lightly on the planet, leaving it as I found it. It was clear that things were not good, and certain areas were under particular threat. To begin with I wasn’t looking for a conservation career, I was looking into long-term energy sustainability; I thought that wind farms should be popping up all over the place. I had a background in geography, studying a BSc in Environmental Geoscience at Brunel University when I undertook a year’s work placement at Kew. I began to see how I could use my knowledge to address the massive gaps in the Red List assessment for plants.”
What have been the key steps in your career?
“Doing the sandwich placement at Kew was instrumental. I made friends and connections within the organisation and I went on to achieve a better grade in my degree than I was expecting. I really got a chance to show off my capabilities. Soon after graduation, a job came up at Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank where I worked on a collection enhancement project, producing collection guidebooks to help target species for seed collection in the field. When Kew took responsibility for the Sampled Red List Index for plants, I got the job which I’m currently in working in the GIS Unit, and that was based largely on my previous experience at Kew.”
Do you have any career advice for budding conservationists?
“Put yourself forward, learn on the job and don’t sell yourself short. Also, be patient; I spent my post-graduation summer stacking shoes at Clark’s before a job came up at Kew. During that first summer I also travelled the Trans-Siberian Highway doing some trail-building work, and some vodka drinking as well! When it came to my job interview I was able to speak about my experience doing that, it really does help.”
“These days you have to be a real number cruncher, be comfortable with various software packages and have good data-basing skills… the data is getting bigger. It’s not enough just knowing your way around the Microsoft Office suite; employers are looking for people who can use specialist programs like R [programming language] and ArcGIS [industry standard mapping program].”
“Having said that, it’s also important to get out there in the world and get bitten by mosquitos! It all helps when you’re stuck behind your desk questioning your career choices. Don’t become too distant from the underlying fieldwork.”
What is the most rewarding part of the job?
“There’s a real mixture of students at Kew, from college based sandwich students to master’s interns and PhD researchers, and I’m often training them or helping out where I can. I enjoy teaching classes, interacting with enthused young people and sharing ideas. It’s great to see the students grow and blossom at Kew and they all go off and do their own thing. People go on to a whole variety of different jobs and become disciples for conservation; some of the past volunteers and interns are now employed here at Kew, others are in Cameroon doing botanical surveys, working in policy, or undertaking a PhD.”
What’s your proudest moment?
“The high point was definitely attending the 2010 Conference of the Parties for the Convention on Biological Diversity in Nagoya, Japan. I was part of the team that reported findings from the first stage of the Sampled Red List Index (SRLI) for Plants. With one in five plants threatened globally at the time of the report in 2010, this was the first time we’d been able to give a figure with a fair degree of certainty. I can remember it was all very exciting and a bit crazy; the SRLI project was all over the broadsheet national newspapers. Our work went on to be used in defining the ‘Aichi’ 2020 targets.”
What music are you listening to at the moment?
“I’m a big fan of a band called British Sea Power. Most bands sing about love and drugs and that’s about it, these guys sing about what’s going on in the world all around them. They have a song about the Larsen B ice shelf in Antarctica, and one about the 1953 floods on Canvey Island. To pick one song, I’m going to go with A Lovely Day Tomorrow.”
Are you interested in a career in botany? Check out the Ultimate Guide How to become a botanist!
About the author
This post was written by Conservation Careers Blogger Thomas Starnes. Thom is an Environmental Science undergraduate at Plymouth University in the UK. He has a passion for statistics, conservation mapping and science communication. Thom has worked at the National Marine Aquarium and the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. His main interests are tropical biodiversity, species distribution modelling and caving.
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