Spotlight on personal development – Botany at the University of Canterbury

Environment Canterbury Senior Land Resources Officer Jean Jack was granted one of two Personal Development Awards in 2016. This award supports staff to undertake opportunities beyond those identified in their annual development plan.

Jean used the award to attend an eight day botany course at the University of Canterbury to support her to provide ecological advice to customers and staff. Jean tells us about her intensive immersion learning experience...

"In February a Personal Development Award allowed me to participate in a training course I'd had my eye on for several years; a practical field botany course offered by the University of Canterbury.

Over the last six years my work within the Biodiversity team and (now) the Terrestrial Ecology team has entailed providing ecological advice both to our customers and other staff to deliver desired outcomes for biodiversity. My personal development goal has been to 'improve my ability to identify native flora'.

At the council this is a key skill required to undertake field assessments for ecological significance, to define and monitor wetlands or to review consent applications that land on our desks. Outside of work of course there is the ever persistent query during a hiking trip: "Jean, you're an ecologist, what's this plant called?"

Field Botany Course University of CanterburyOn finding out I had received the award to attend this eight day intensive immersion learning course I had a mild freak-out – did I still have what it took to pass a university exam?

Over the Christmas break I began to feverishly read text books, scanning notes from colleagues who had attended the course in the past, and drafted up dozens of flashcards to improve my memory of curly Latin names which plant-people insist upon using. I became what I used to roll my eyes at during my undergraduate days – an overly enthusiastic adult-student.

Days prior to departure on a warm summer evening I was making my way up a rock climb above Lyttelton, rehearsing under my breath incomprehensible botanical terminology, and my husband Greg reminded me that the point of the course was to teach me all these names and not to learn everything before I go.

However, I was concerned I may have slipped mentally over the years and that all those young students were going to leave me behind in the classroom. On clipping the chains at the top I called out in triumph "Utricularia dichotoma", the name of a tiny carnivorous purple bladderwort plant which I had never seen before and whose name I had been struggling to commit to memory.

Later on during the course we found this plant on the shores of Lake Pearson and I successfully recalled its name, attesting that learning while under danger of falling appears to be highly effective.

The course delivered by expert botanist Dr Pieter Pelser was based at the University of Canterbury's Mountain Biological Field Station at Cass. This location provided an engaging learning environment and facilitated excellent field trips into the surrounding hills.

Roughly two-thirds of participants were final year students while the remainder were professionals who, like me, wished to acquire or upgrade their plant ID skills and came from organisations including Crown Research Institutes, MAF, Botanic Gardens, private consultancies and the horticultural industry.

The course stretched my cognitive abilities to understand the finer details of plant morphology and even my physical abilities to negotiate steep scree slopes in the hunt for the elusive penwiper plant.

Indeed this unforeseen latter challenge provided the additional benefit of some great fitness training for my Coast to Coast mountain run the following fortnight.

In the end, my time at Environment Canterbury must have kept the old brain working as I received an A.

Of course in the spirit of all adult-students, I ponder what I got wrong not to get an A+, but will be content with this result and find it motivating to keep learning and developing my botanising skills."