KZ: Hi Dr Karen! What experience did you have before this role?
K: I studied and practised horticulture for many years, beginning with a Horticulture Certificate at TAFE and working in plant nurseries. After that, I did a Bachelor Degree in Horticulture at University, and then a PhD in Science.
KZ: What is the best thing about your job, and the hardest part?
K: The best thing about my job is watching seeds grow. I never get tired of seeing a huge tree grow from a tiny seed! The hardest part is collecting the seeds – I sometimes have to travel a long way to find the rainforest seeds I want and sometimes, after all that travelling, the seeds just aren’t there to collect.
KZ: What has been the highlight of your career so far?
K: The most recent highlight was in December last year. I flew to Cairns to collect seed for a special project to conserve rainforest plants from tropical mountain tops. I went to the top of Mount Bellenden Ker in a cable car with a team of people and then we went seed collecting in the misty, cloudy rainforest. It was very beautiful, very peaceful, and very, very wet!
KZ: What inspired or influenced your decision to become a horticultural scientist?
K: My grandmother’s garden was the first thing that inspired me. My grandmother grew all sorts of beautiful flowering plants as well as strawberries, peas, beans and other vegetables. I loved looking at the flowers and I really loved picking the strawberries. I liked to spend time in my grandmother’s garden and in nearby bushland just looking at all of the different plants. That helped me to learn which plants like to grow where. When I was at high school, I studied chemistry; that was a big help in my career and is something I use every day in the laboratory at work. One really useful thing chemistry helped me to understand was how plants can use energy from the sun to turn carbon dioxide and water into the food we eat and the oxygen we breathe. When I was older, I had a garden of my own and I enjoyed looking after that so much I decided to make it a career.
KZ: Are you currently working in any other roles, part of any new projects or researching a particular topic?
K: One of the main things I’m working on at the moment is looking at why some rainforest seeds can be dried but not frozen. To see what happens as the seeds freeze and thaw, I’m using a very cool machine that lets me lower the temperature of a seed to -160°C and then raise it to 50°C.
KZ: Can you share an interesting behind the scenes fact about your job?
K: To preserve seeds and shoot tips at extra low temperatures we use liquid nitrogen. Since nitrogen gas makes up about 78% of the air we breathe, liquid nitrogen can be made by cooling and compressing air straight from the atmosphere. This liquid form of nitrogen is very cold (-196°C) and very dangerous – the liquid can cause nasty freeze burns and the vapour can kill you by replacing the oxygen in the air. When we use it, we wear a lab coat, special gloves and safety glasses and we open the laboratory doors to let in plenty of fresh air.
KZ: What would K-Zoners be surprised to learn about you?
K: I love to dance! And I’m learning to play the piano from YouTube videos.
Want to read more of our interview with Dr Karen Sommerville? Grab the November issue of K-Zone, on sale now!