An interview with Dr Waheed Arshad



Interview-at-a-glance

An abridged version of the podcast.

Tell us a little about your role as Botanical Data Specialist with Botanical Software and Candide Gardening?  

https://candidegardening.com/GB

Candide is a software company in Bristol and one of the main products is an app and website for people who love to visit gardens, and who want to buy plants and share their love of all things green and growing. Most of the people at Candide Gardening are software engineers, but I work with a small team of botanists and horticulturists to provide botanical expertise in the software development process. While I have a basic knowledge of the infrastructure behind the app, I’m not an engineer at all but I think this is a new direction for plants, horticulture, gardeners and botanists: during lockdown, we all saw what technology can offer to everyone who works in the plant sphere. The other side of the business is Botanical Software, where my role is domain expert and brand ambassador, working with key clients, mostly botanical gardens, around the world who are using our plant collection management software to manage their collections and their garden. It’s quite a varied role – every day is different and gives a real sense of excitement because every day is different!

How did you get to where you are now?

It started with my surrogate grandparents, when I was five or six years old. I was doing craftwork, helping deliver leaflets to the Neighbourhood Watch area, and saw some interesting plants growing at the side of the road. I can’t remember what they were, but the leaves were scented and I was really interested in how this plant could smell so nice! Then I started to help them in the garden – just mowing the lawn and weeding – but I started to look at flowers in more detail and became more aware of the whole garden ecosystem – including building a bird table. I also remember spotting a stinking iris (Iris foetidissima) next to a bus stop, which had these amazing bright orange berries. We looked this up in a book and I was introduced to the concept of plant names. I was really fascinated by the Latin too. I took a bigger interest in the natural world as a result and that eventually led to a degree in Biology at Durham University, where I specialised in plant physiology – the science behind how plants grow, how they function, how they respond to the environment. Then, I did a Master’s in plant biodiversity and evolution at the University of Reading, and that really gave me a broad understanding of the amazing complexity of the plant kingdom. I was so hungry for more knowledge – I got involved in projects with the RHS and with the herbarium at the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew. These experiences cemented my desire to study plants in more detail, which is why I went on to do a PhD with the Millennium Seed Bank Partnership at Kew, in collaboration with Royal Holloway University of London. I’ve really become fascinated by the botanical world and I would do another PhD, if I could!

Was there a reason you moved from academia to industry?

Doing a PhD gave me a lot of transferable skills, and while I was studying, I tried to diversify my experiences in as many ways as possible. I became well networked in the discipline, using really cutting edge research technologies that had cross applicability. I think that all of that gave me a good sense of how to adapt beyond the world of academia. It was quite an exciting prospect for me to move outside of academia and, though I did actually consider a career initially in academia, I had frustrations with the system, and they weren’t really compatible with my personal life, my future prospects, and also my interests beyond the study species that I looked at. I really wanted to fuse that passion with plants and the fast-evolving world of technology, which I can do at Candide.

Are you a keen gardener as well?

I’m in a lovely place, not far from Wells and Glastonbury in Somerset – a beautiful part of the country. Given my circumstances to date, I’ve never actually owned my own garden! I’ve not been able to make the best use of the space here, but it’s something I’m really looking forward to. For now, I do have a small indoor garden comprising a few house plants, a terrarium, and a few other bits…

Is there anything you’re working on at the moment?

It is a very fast paced environment, so we’ve a lot of exciting things in the pipeline. One of the pieces of work we’re doing is with Botanic Gardens, enhancing the visitors’ experience. One project we’ve been involved with recently is with The Eden Project in Cornwall, with whom we are trying to educate people about plants in interesting ways. We are using our app, allowing people to identify the plants that are in their Tropical and Mediterranean biomes and learn about the plants without having to be bombarded with plastic labels. We’re also working on garden tours, from audio tours and trails, to specific kinds of experiences that are showcasing the garden’s history, their plants, and their collections to help promote the key aspects of the garden.

Has anyone or anything inspired your career?

When I was at school, I used to press plants and I still have some today. I made my own paper and wrote to the Queen to show her. I attended talks by my local Wildlife Trust. From an early age, I wasn’t plant blind, but I knew very little about them – but it was some inspirational teaching during my undergraduate degree that really opened my eyes to the remarkable world of plants. I was also lucky to attend the Gatsby Plant Science Summer School in 2011, which is a consortium of universities and undergraduate students that provide this summer school for a week of practicals and workshops. It was really inspiring, especially for a topic not very well taught on university courses. I wasn’t much of a fan of the infamous lectures on photosynthesis, and the Calvin-Benson cycle, but it was more the evolution and biodiversity that I liked best! This extended to my PhD project, which focused on a really fascinating phenomenon in the botanical world known as “diaspore heteromorphism” (in Aethionema arabicum). This is a plant’s ability to produce two or more different types of fruits or seeds. Most plants produce a single type of fruit or seed, but there’s a unique adaptation in especially challenging habitats, such as those on top of mountains and harsh terrains, whereby a plant will produce two distinct types at the same time. It’s basically nature’s way of ensuring survival! I was looking at the evolutionary basis for this, and how this influences dispersal, germination, and other life history traits. I think it’s just another remarkable example of how extraordinary and really interesting the botanical kingdom is.

If you were stuck on a deserted island, what three plants or plant related things would you take with you?

I think one of the things I’d want to see or to have is a mangrove species, such as Rhizophora species. Among other things, they will protect the island from harsh winds, waves, and things like that! My second choice, possibly a shipping container full of potatoes! Everybody loves potatoes, so I think I’d probably get my sustenance from them. And the third plant? Maybe something like a coconut – great for fresh water, and nutritious food, as well as shelter.

Is there anything about your head that might surprise people?

I think one of the interesting things that people might find unusual about me is I got into plants fairly late, and was initially more interested in birds. I’m still really fascinated by the science of birds, how their populations change, the way that they migrate, and how they moult. I’m actually a registered and licenced bird-ringer with the British Trust for Ornithology – this involves fitting a unique alpha-numeric metal ring to birds legs to help us understand why populations are changing. Lots of early mornings (before dawn), but it means I’ve ringed lots of our most special bird species!

What’s next for you?

What’s next for me, I think, is to really solidify Botanical Software in the global botanic garden community, to really help people with plant collection management, and really provide a useful tool for all sorts of research and conservation projects – right through from smaller gardens’ work to the big Kew Gardens and Eden Projects of the world. I think I want to continue doing what I’m doing, and really do well at it. One of my early career aspirations was to do a PhD, and now that I’ve achieved that feat, I really want to put it to its best use – I’m very fortunate to be able to do that with Botanical Software and Candide.


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With thanks to Bruce Langridge and Will Ritchie of National Botanic Garden of Wales for question format and original podcast idea