Video transcript: Because they’re worth it

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October 2011

One winner's story

Video shows Heather Whitney in the laboratory and outside in the garden surrounded by plants

Dr Heather Whitney, Winner 2011, L'Oreal-UNESCO UK & Ireland For Women in Science Fellowship
What is wonderful, particularly for me, for the L'Oreal fellowship was to actually have a group of people say "we think your work is of an international, really great standard and it is worth celebrating". Although many people see plants as really dull and they just sit there and don't do anything, in actual fact plants have to do everything animals do from find a mate, to find food, to cope with animals trying to eat them. But unlike animals, who can run away, plants have to do everything sitting down and they actually are quite machiavellian about the whole business.

Iridescence: having shimmering, changing colours like a rainbow

Video shows Heather talking to the camera, then in the laboratory working with plants

We know that iridescence is widespread in animals, however we have recently found that it is also much more widespread in plants than previously suspected and they produce this wonderful vivid iridescence blue. However, why they do this is a complete mystery and it seems to be quite counterproductive. I suspect that the number of plants producing this iridescence means that it much have some advantage. At the base at the very bottom of everything, photosynthesis provides all our energy for food. If we can find ways of increasing photosynthesis we can produce more crops for a growing population.

Photosynthesis: process by which plants uses sunlight to build up carbohydrate reserves

Video shows sunlight shining through a green leaf

If you look at the range of environments we have on this planet, from dessert to the Artic, and you have living organisms surviving through all those ranges, it's the diversity and the fact that in each of these ecosystems you have different problems. If you think about how many millions of years those ideas have almost be perfected in nature it's a wonderful resource for new ideas and new technologies, new ways of solving problems.

Video shows a number of plant leaf samples in the laboratory

We keep coming up with new problems from climate change, to cleaning water, to disease, and often nature already has had these problems and had to deal with them.

Video shows bee landing on a flower

I also work on bee behaviour and insect vision, so one of the other hypotheses for why plants might produce iridescence is that it could actually deter herbivals or confuse their search image.

Video shows old photographs of Heather in the garden with her mother

I think it started at a very early age in that my mum was actually a biology teacher so the idea that science could be a career seemed perfectly natural to me. I've always been interested in plants in particular, so it's partly having that female role models right from the word go was really wonderful.

Video shows Heather walking up a round staircase at Cambridge University and in a lecture theatre with university students

I came to Cambridge as a post-doctoral researcher so I did my PhD at the University Bristol.

What I would say to any young woman wanting to go into science is that it is going to be hard work, however, it is definitely worth it. The fact that you can spend your time coming up with new ideas, ideas that no one else has ever discovered. There is billions of people on this planet and no one else has ever discovered what you have discovered, that is a unique experience.



L'Oreal-UNESCO UK & Ireland For Women in Science, with the support of The Royal Society. www.womeninscience.co.uk