A day in the life of a Kew botanist: Sara Barrios
As a student in Portugal, a conversation with botanist Jorge Paiva spurred Sara Barrios to apply for an internship that led her to the Herbarium at Kew Gardens. Some 16 years later, fresh from fieldwork in the British Virgin Islands, Sara spoke to me about her role as Conservation Partnership Coordinator for the UK Overseas Territories at Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. Our chat took us from her part-time masters and IUCN Red List assessments, to the importance of fundraising and excitement at the botanical work still to be done.
What is your role at Kew Gardens?
I’m a Conservation Partnership Coordinator for the UK Overseas Territories (UKOTs), which promotes plant conservation. I coordinate conservation activities in overseas territories and support my colleagues’ research activities both in the territories and at Kew. I manage the UKOTs database, process Herbarium specimens, apply for grants and do my own research, which involves Red List IUCN conservation assessments, estimating how near extinction the plants from the overseas territories are.
I just returned from the British Virgin Islands, which is an overseas territory situated in the Caribbean just north of Puerto Rico. It was a special trip because we’ve all been at home for two years. It was good to reconnect with the people and the plants.
“The first time that I went to the small island of Montserrat… was the first time that I’d been in a tropical forest. It opened my eyes to a plant biodiversity that I did not know existed.”
How did you get into conservation?
I’m from Portugal, and when I was doing my biology degree, one of my first jobs was working in the Herbarium of Aveiro University, to the south of Porto, which is where I graduated from. I enjoyed working with plants, and on digital platforms to make content accessible to schools and young people.
I wanted to work in conservation, so I attended a fieldwork day in a nature reserve in Portugal. The person leading the fieldwork day was a botanist called Jorge Paiva. He was a very inspiring person.
The University was part of the Leonardo DaVinci programme, sponsored by the European Union. It sponsored students from all over Europe to do internships in different countries. I knew about the EU scholarships, so I went to his office in Coimbra University and asked him for advice.
At that point, I wanted to go to Madrid – because they had the Flora Iberica project – but he said Kew was the best place to work in plant conservation, so he phoned the Keeper in the Kew Herbarium. I came to Kew as an intern for six months, and started working on the UK Overseas Territories Programme.
What happened next?
I worked with this team for nine months before the grant ran out. The collections and the people who work here are very special, and I fell in love with the Herbarium! After the internship finished, I applied for a job as a Team Leader in the Latin American Plants Initiative at Kew. I worked there for three years, digitising all the Latin American type specimens from the Herbarium and training colleagues in Latin America in digitisation techniques.
Then, a vacancy appeared on the first team I had worked on: the UKOTs team. I got the job in 2010, and at the same time, I did a masters in plant diversity at the University of Reading. For me, learning about the UK flora was a novelty! As well as gaining more knowledge, I also got to know people who work in conservation in other organisations, with different plants.
How does the job differ when you’re in the field to when you’re in the UK?
In the UK, I spend a lot of time putting data into the database and writing Red List conservation assessments. This involves a full review of a plant species distribution, population numbers and threats. When we go to the field, we verify this information to see if it corresponds to reality. It’s also a way to discover new species and make new records for the island.
One of the tasks we do in the field is to look at which threats the plants are subject to and how these threats impact both the species and their habitat. Then, we do a full conservation assessment. Our knowledge about the flora increases every time we do fieldwork: knowledge of the diversity of these islands, the threats they face, and how we can best protect them.
“We live in a time when we can open the computer and have the answers for everything, but when it comes to our knowledge of the plant world, there are still things to discover.”
Do your partners in the territories carry on working on the projects when you are back in the UK?
Yes, they do. For example, in the British Virgin Islands, we work in partnership with the National Parks Trust of the Virgin Islands. Project work does not stop when we are not there: our colleagues carry on doing field work. We have set up a WhatsApp group and we exchange plant names quickly!
They do a lot of active conservation. In one group, we identified species that would be beneficial to collect for the botanic garden. Now, they are collecting cuttings for conservation. Each one of us has our own skills, whether that’s propagation or plant identification.
How do you analyse species for the IUCN Red List?
For a global assessment, we want to know the full distribution of the species; whether it occurs in just the country we are studying or worldwide. We want to know the threats the species faces and how it will be impacted: will a single threatening event make a species disappear? To answer this, we estimate the size of the population. We also need to know which conservation measures are needed and which are already in place. Does the species occur inside a protected area? And have we already collected seeds?
In terms of threats, we can analyse the past, the present and how the threats will impact the species in the future. To figure that out, we need to know the generation length of the species, which can be difficult.
A species can be widespread, but rare at a local level, so it may need protection in a particular country. That’s the difference between a global assessment and a national assessment. The results are then given to the conservation practitioners, politicians and the people that set conservation goals.
What advice would you give to young people who want to work in conservation?
Dedicate yourself to your degree. I did a biology degree. I now specialise in plants, but plants were a small part of my degree. Build a strong base first, and decide what you want to specialise in later.
It’s good to be flexible because that will be required from you in the workplace – whether that’s applying for funding that you weren’t expecting, or going on a last-minute field trip. Be open to other people and other ways of working. People across the world will do things differently, and it’s important to be open to that. I also think it’s important to be connected: social media can be a great source of opportunities for jobs, grants and internships. I use Twitter to find conferences, for example.
Finally, you have to be good at working with computers, but nowadays everyone is good with computers! We work a lot with databases. I think there is a perception that if you work in conservation you are always out in the field, taking photographs and exploring new things… but you also need to know how to gather good data to publish your work, so that other people can be made aware of it.
“Our knowledge about the flora of these places increases every time we do fieldwork.”
What advice would you give to someone switching careers into conservation?
The conservation world is about opportunities. Even if your first job related to conservation is not ideal, grab it! Because once you are in a conservation environment, and you are flexible, you will find a way to do what you want.
It’s important to go to talks and conferences and to build a network. You’re not going to work in conservation if you’re looking for a high salary, so you must enjoy what you do. That passion will help you to look for opportunities, and to make the most out of them.
What is the biggest challenge in this profession?
Funding is the biggest challenge, both for jobs and for projects. If we don’t fundraise every two or three years, we cannot carry on with our projects. We need a long-term vision of where we want to go with our conservation work, but we also need short-term aims to fundraise.
The amount of money available for conservation is not enough to cover the work that needs to be done. Plant and fungi conservation competes with mammal conservation… bears and the big fluffy animals that everyone loves! Plants are not always the priority. It is important to fundraise money for all types of conservation – birds, mammals, invertebrates – but overall, the pot of money available for conservation is too small.
Is there more funding now that people are more aware of the climate and biodiversity crisis?
Two out of five plant species are threatened in the wild, which is a shocking statistic. People are more aware of the need for conservation, but I don’t think the amount of funding matches the awareness. We need more philanthropic funds and we need governments to dedicate more money to conservation.
We need to increase awareness of the services that ecosystems provide to all of us. One example is mangroves: this specialised habitat is under threat worldwide. But mangroves are the first line of defence against hurricanes. When mangroves are removed, hurricane damage is worse, and it costs countries billions of pounds to recover. We cannot afford to keep losing species because in the end the consequences will bite us in the hand – and cost a lot of money!
What have been the best moments of your career?
Coming to Kew! And the first time that I went to the small island of Montserrat, which is one of the overseas territories on the Lesser Antilles. It was the first time that I’d been in a tropical forest. It opened my eyes to a plant biodiversity that I did not know existed. That was a special moment.
Finishing my masters was another highlight of my career. I did my masters part-time while I was working. Working and studying at the same time was hard, so I feel proud that I did that and managed to achieve a Distinction!
What has been your biggest conservation success?
A key success for me has been increasing the conservation of threatened species in their countries of origin. We did some preliminary conservation assessments at Kew, based on Herbarium specimens. Then, after doing field work and going to the countries, we noticed that the species we were studying were more widespread than we initially thought. Our knowledge increased, so we could direct our efforts to preserve other species that really need it.
It also gives me hope that there is more to discover. We live in a time when we can open the computer and have the answer for almost anything, but when it comes to our knowledge of the plant world, there are still things to discover. At Kew, we describe on average 250 new species a year. So just imagine all the other botanical institutions around the world discovering new species too.
“Coming back from the fieldwork in the British Virgin islands, I’m feeling really motivated to carry on doing conservation work!”
Has the profession changed since you started working?
These days, all the work we do is in collaboration with a partner institution. We no longer go to a country and simply bring plants back to Kew. We moved away from that way of working a while ago, which I think was essential.
Another thing that has changed significantly is that there are more women working in conservation. For many years, it was rare to see women doing conservation work. Another positive change is that there are more of us from around the world: only a collective global effort can help us to conserve wildlife and biodiversity.
In terms of botany, some things have changed a lot, while others remain the same. We still collect plant specimens in a similar way to Charles Darwin!
Coming back from the fieldwork in the British Virgin islands, I’m feeling very inspired. We had a fantastic two weeks. People there were very happy to have us back, because Covid stopped us from being able to interact. I am really motivated to carry on doing conservation work!
You can learn more about Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew by visiting the Kew website.
Are you interested in becoming a botanist yourself? Check out our guide How to become a botanist, or explore careers advice from professional botanists.
Author profile | Sophie Blackman
Sophie Blackman is a book editor and writer who is passionate about doing something each day to help the environment. She works at DK on books about gardening and natural history. She has a blog of top tips for sustainable living at last-straw-blog.blogspot.com and has also contributed to other publications, including Outdoor Europe. She also volunteers for the Surrey Wildlife Trust’s Hedgerow Heritage project.