An informed understanding of plant diversity and resources has never been more important. Environmental surveys and effective conservation strategies depend upon detailed knowledge of plants in their habitats. To communicate such knowledge accurately and effectively, hands-on training is required in plant taxonomy, the discipline devoted to plant diversity, relationships and nomenclature.
Demand for taxonomic expertise arises from many professional fields, other than systematics research itself. These include among others:
- survey and conservation work in threatened ecosystems
- assessment of plant resources and genetic diversity
- medical and pharmaceutical research and applications
- ethnobotanical research
- agricultural and ecosystem research
- geology and soil sciences
- landscape assessment and design
- conservation policy
- forensic science
- basic research
- management of institutes and curation of collections
- university and college teaching
Currently this market is served by a number of providers on various levels:
- specialist consultants
- expert scientists in taxonomic research institutions
- in-house specialists
There are few dedicated training courses that equip future experts to address the problems of taxonomy using a methodology that satisfies the demand identified above. A diversity of approaches exists to provide teaching and training in plant systematics and classification, with some universities offering undergraduate courses in plant systematics.
These are mostly academic rather than practical in emphasis. Where post-graduate courses are on offer, access to either teaching staff or well-documented collections is restricted by imperfect infrastructure (e.g. distance between teaching establishment and collections).
The Edinburgh MSc course in the Biodiversity and Taxonomy of Plants, organised jointly by the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh and the University of Edinburgh, has successfully provided such training since 1992. It can accommodate 16 MSc students per year. The course has been rated world class and the very best of its kind by a recent education review of the garden.
Aims and scope of the Edinburgh course
Forming a bridge between traditional and modern approaches, this course equips students with a wide knowledge of plant diversity and its investigation, combined with instruction in the methods of pure and applied taxonomy. The course consists of formal instruction, practical work, essays, research projects and tutorials covering the following major areas:
- functions and philosophy of taxonomy
- evolution and biodiversity of the major plant groups, fungi and lichens
- plant geography
- conservation strategies and monitoring
- cladistics and phylogenetic analysis
- morphology and evolutionary developmental genetics
- use and scope of molecular taxonomic methods
- production and use of floras and monographs
- use of computers in handling and processing data
- population genetics and conservation
- field research and plant collecting
- curation of living collections, herbaria and libraries
- managing and funding taxonomic institutes
There are also workshops or training sessions on the practical aspects of the following: identification, cytology, plant-parasite interactions, pollination ecology, molecular methods, herbarium techniques, and bibliographic methodology. Visits to other plant research institutions are arranged.
Fieldwork is carried out during a 14-day field course in a tropical country, currently Belize during January. The field trip, together with supporting training, and a short practical exam qualifies students for the RBGE Certificate in Practical Field Botany.
This field course is a unique opportunity for students to encounter a tropical flora and to get experience in the tropical plant families in a pragmatic way.
The course lasts 12 months and involves two terms of lectures, practicals, workshops and investigations, ending with examinations at the end of term (December) and during the first week of the summer term (April).
On the basis of these exams and other course-work, students then either embark on a four-month research project to qualify for the MSc, or proceed to a third term of taxonomic study and essay-writing to be awarded the Diploma.
Most of the lectures and practicals take place at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh. Some teaching also takes place at the University science campus around three miles to the south.
The course is continually reviewed. Full details on the programme and all the modules within each year can be found in the Applicant's Handbook which is downloadable form the 'Downloads' box on the right.
Countries of origin of students to date
Whilst a large proportion of applicants come from the United Kingdom, the course has instructed students from 22 overseas countries including biodiversity-rich countries.
Many students have to find their own sources of funding. Overseas students have obtained funding, amongst others, through the British Council, overseas development programmes, such as the Darwin Initiative, the Shell Centenary award, the Alban Programme for Latin American students and the Rotary Club. The Friends of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh and the Sibbald Trust support the course financially. The University of Edinburgh also offers scholarships to EU/UK students.
Careers of past students
To date over 150 students have completed the course. Of these, the majority found medium or long term employment in taxonomy, and many have continued to PhD studies. Although the course is not a guarantee for future employment, it has facilitated access to various jobs in the past - at research institutions, councils, conservation agencies etc.
Applicants should have a university degree, or its equivalent, in a biological or environmental science. Relevant work experience is desirable. Evidence of proficiency in English must be provided if this is not the applicant's first language.
Further information and application forms can be obtained from:
The Postgraduate Secretary, King's Buildings, Mayfield Road, Edinburgh EH9 3JR, United Kingdom
Tel: +44 (0)131 650 8651, fax +44 (0)131 650 5539
For further information, also see the website for the Edinburgh School of Biological Sciences Graduate Programmes
Dr Louis Ronse de Craene, Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, Telephone +44 (0)131 248 2804, Fax +44 (0)131 248 2901
Prof. Andrew Hudson, Institute of Molecular Plant Sciences, University of Edinburgh, Telephone +44 (0)131 651 3383, Fax +44 (0)131 650 5392