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Preserving Plants Forever At Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria

Dream Job

Not your average photographer, Angharad Johnson is the Digitising Officer at the National Herbarium of Victoria.

Highly knowledgeable yet modest, she’s a charming ambassador (our word not hers!) for Women in STEM and her fervour for furthering global, collective knowledge is infectious.

From Mandurah to Melbourne, with a stint at London’s esteemed Natural History Museum in-between, this mother-of-two gives us an insight into her next-gen career!

13th June, 2019

Angharad Johnson works her dream job as the Part-Time Digitising Officer at The National Herbarium of Victoria. Photo – Amelia Stanwix for The Design Files.

The National Herbarium of Victoria building, located within the Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria, Melbourne. Photo – Amelia Stanwix for The Design Files.

Angharad holds a BSc. Marine Biology and MSc. in Biological Photography and Imaging. Photo – Amelia Stanwix for The Design Files.

Not only did she teach me how to pronounce deceptively-spelled ‘An-hah-red’, but also about the astounding Global Plants Initiative. Photo – Amelia Stanwix for The Design Files.

‘The whole point is to get it out of the cupboards, out of the museum, and make it online and accessible for everyone,’ Angharad tells of her digitising work. Photo – Amelia Stanwix for The Design Files.

How is this for a lunch spot! Photo – Amelia Stanwix for The Design Files.

Angharad is responsible for scanning and photographing Australian type specimens from the Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria’s collection, checking the protologue information, and updating the collections database as needed. Photo – Amelia Stanwix for The Design Files.

Digitising collections opens up a whole raft of project opportunities. Photo – Amelia Stanwix for The Design Files.

Working with teammate Curation Officer Nimal Karunajeewa. Photo – Amelia Stanwix for The Design Files.

The 40-year-old Digitising Officier, mum-of-two, and The Planthunter contributing author. Photo – Amelia Stanwix for The Design Files.

Elle Murrell
Thursday 13th June 2019

‘With the world’s environments under threat, I feel my teammates and I are creating an important record of plant diversity for future generations.’ – Angharad Johnson.

Angharad Johnson has an impressive skill set that bridges both the arts and the sciences. Working as National Herbarium of Victoria‘s Digitising Officer since 2014, she’s pivoted from marine science to fashion photography and half-way back. And this is all while raising a family, plus penning brilliant articles for The Planthunter too!

A big part of Angharad’s job is centred around the astounding Global Plants Initiative. This collaborative international project aims to digitise type specimens and other botanical resources from herbaria around the world. Making these resources available online has the potential to aid in all manner of new discoveries, from agricultural to medical, as well as facilitate repatriations. Delving into the Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria’s vast collection, she and her teammates have so far scanned and photographed thousands of specimens (including an incredible illustration from 1806 and an ornate, leather-bound ‘Seaweed Album’ when I was visiting!).

Growing up in Mandurah, on Western Australia’s south-west coast, Angharad studied a Bachelor of Science in Marine Biology at James Cook University, where she also undertook photography as an elective. Picture this: it’s 1998 and you’re on field trips to vibrant Great Barrier Reef research stations, there’s plenty of scuba diving, and other tropical adventures!

After graduating, Angharad moved to Melbourne and picked up work at a photographic studio. The bulk of the shoots were for fashion catalogues and provided her first plunge into digital photography as well as lots of hands-on, practical experience.

Missing science, in 2005 she ‘took off overseas’ to travel and ultimately merge passions via a Master of Science in Biological Photography and Imaging at the University of Nottingham (slightly less tropical field trips this time!). In London, a year of one-day-per-week volunteering at The Natural History Museum, while working to save for her studies, allowed Angharad to later undertake her dissertation at the renowned institution.

Upon returning to Melbourne with her British husband, she saw an advertisement for a Part-Time Digitising Officer opening on the Victorian Government’s job’s website. An application, panel interview, and short while later, she had the job!

That was five years ago. Today Angharad, aged 40, shares more about her unique and incomprehensibly important position…

The most important verb in the get-your-dream-job lexicon is…

Stay curious! Don’t feel you need to be stuck in one role; skills are transferable. Take risks and be open-minded to opportunity.

I landed this job by…

It was the first job I applied for when I relocated back to Australia in 2014 from the UK so I felt pretty thrilled to jump straight into such a great workplace.

A typical day for me involves…

The collection in the herbarium consists of 1.5 million pressed and dried plant (plus algae, bryophyte, lichen, and fungi) specimens. The main bulk of my day is photographing Australian or Global type specimens, which are designated specimens to which a taxon name is permanently attached and are important for botanists to compare against and check plant names. The images are then uploaded to a global partnership database called the ‘Global Plants Initiative’, where they can be accessed and shared around the world. I regularly check-in with the Curation Officers and Foreign Database team to query plant names or service their image requests. I also collaborate with botanists on various projects, such as imaging Eucalyptus specimens, or seedlings, for the online Flora of Victoria.

Occasionally, I also work with external artists who use images of our specimens or objects from the botanical library as creative inspiration.

Aside from the significant scientific value, some of the specimens are really beautiful, almost like small artworks in themselves, so I love seeing the creative outcomes of these projects.

The most rewarding part of my job is…

I genuinely learn something new every day. I love digging out the stories. On one side there is the historical element, as each specimen is essentially a time capsule; it could be collected on a particular expedition (say, Charles Darwin on the Beagle voyage) or a species that is now extinct in the wild. On the flipside, I am surrounded by colleagues who are at the forefront of research and publishing new findings.

Overall it’s a great sense of achievement to see the images go live to increase the accessibility of the collections. With the world’s environments under threat, I feel my teammates and I are creating an important record of plant diversity for future generations. And of course, there are the beautiful gardens themselves… I can’t complain about the lunch-break scenery!

On the other hand, the most challenging aspect is…

… anything to do with technical equipment comes with its own set of challenges – trying to maintain industry standards. Plant taxonomy has also been a very steep learning curve (one I am still mastering!).

The culture of my workplace is…

…. collaborative and open.

Everyone takes their job seriously, but has a great sense of humour (very important!). My teammates are really supportive and always on hand to answer my million queries; my boss Pina’s mantra is ‘No such thing as a stupid question!’

I’m always…

Taking photographs of dead plants… and drinking cups of tea!

On Job Day at school, I dressed up as…

I grew up in Mandurah, Western Australia by the beach, so, it was definitely a Marine Biologist/Dolphin-Whisperer. I was dead-set on being one from the age of nine. While my friends had posters of boy bands on their bedroom walls, I had ‘Cetaceans of the World’!.

Alas, there are no dolphins at work…but there’s plenty of seaweed.

My idea of the perfect workplace is…

My role here is pretty niche but ticks many boxes: photography, science, history, and culture. And there’s always an excellent selection of cakes before meetings!

The best piece of advice I’ve received is…

Work hard and do what you love (thanks Ma and Pa).

Over the years, my workplace has…

This role has grown over time as the project scope has increased. Mass-digitisation and citizen science are the new hot topics as more and more worldwide collections are being digitised and disseminated. Once collections are online it opens up a whole raft of project opportunities.

In the next five years, I’d like to…

Build on my skills and continue to collaborate with my colleagues to unlock more incredible stories housed in the State Botanical Collection.

 

Find out more about the National Herbarium of Victoria, located within the Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria, here. RBGV has an enticing program of events, including Harp MeditationsClimateWatch Walks and Aboriginal Heritage Walks, view the full calendar here.

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