Botany 101

Driving in this morning, through some spectacularly bad traffic and hot sunshine, I switch on my precision European-engineered air cooling system, getting a nice blast of diesel from the bus in front. Realising that this won’t cut it, I duck down an avenue lined with sycamores. I get to thinking, as I bask in the shade of the broad leaves, that maybe engineers should start their training in a botany department. I would defy the sharpest design whizz to beat the cooling system of trees. And so it begins, I’m starting to eat, sleep and dream botany and its only been three days!
Today is back to basics. I’ve gotten through four papers when I realise I need papers to explain the papers and possibly some more papers to explain those papers!. I get straight to the point ” Karen, I need books!” After a pleasant coffee break, punctuated by much discussion on what’s wrong with the education system ( a lot, we conclude), Karen struggles up the stairs carrying two monolithic tomes. As an undergrad, this is the very thing that would have sent me running. However, free from the shackles of exams, it’s like getting a new toy. I seize on the second title, the precisely named “Botany”. Yep, that should cover it.

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After lunch, we have our safety induction with Eugene Sherry. As teachers, we’re used to the aftermath of students sometimes kamikaze take on experiments, so we have no qualms about hanging on his every word. Just as he begins to explain how to write up a hazardous incident, a pigeon, with an uncanny sense of the dramatic flies full force into the window. If I ever wondered whether pigeons understand comic timing, I have my answer!. I suggest to Eugene that a standard operating procedure be drawn up for future pigeon-related calamities. Eugene shows us first and second year lab manuals. It’s pleasing to see the fundamentals haven’t changed. Worms are still getting the Damien Hirst treatment and locusts are still being deprived of their mouthparts. I’m glad the classics of biology are being given the respect they deserve.
A hot afternoon is spent pouring over the textbooks. Not an unpleasant task by any means, but when Karen arrives for a chat, I seize the break gladly. We talk about sources, websites, where we get our info. In a world where Wikipedia and Google have become verbs, it’s nice to know journals are still consulted by some!. Back in my postgrad days the mantra was “Publish or perish”. It seems things have moved on a bit since then. Now it’s publish, get cited and shared on social media. No pressure then. The temptation to slip “cure for cancer” into a title must be huge.

When I get home, I immediately have to justify my day to the kids. My daughter wants a blow by blow account of what plants can do. I explain as simply as I can how they can change colour, turn sunlight into food, talk to each other in a special plant way. Things a five year old might appreciate. Curiosity unquenched, she wants to know “the rest”. I’m in for a long night…..

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