Dr Alison Foster on the chemistry of change

Where did your career first start out?
AF: Having completed a chemistry degree I began my career as a chemist in the pharmaceutical industry, in a medicinal chemistry department. I enjoyed the creativity of the job and the varied challenges that the chemistry provided on a daily basis.

What sparked an interest in horticulture?
AF: I moved into my first rented house with a garden. Soon I began receiving cuttings and seedlings from my parents and grandmother and my gardening hobby was underway. After two years as a medicinal chemist I left to pursue a PhD. This necessitated relinquishing my rented garden. Towards the end of my PhD I moved house again – and again there was a garden. I began my first foray into vegetable growing.

So your career change stemmed from your gardening hobby?
AF: It’s fair to say that since getting a job at the end of my PhD my gardening passion grew vastly and while I enjoyed my work as a process chemist I felt more and more that a change of direction was inevitable. I took my first steps to a career in horticulture by studying for the RHS general certificate in my spare time and finally I began looking for trainee placements. I was incredibly fortunate that the Birmingham Botanical Gardens and Glasshouses gave me an opportunity as a trainee and I have never looked back.

How does horticulture integrate with your chemistry background?
AF: From day one as a horticultural trainee my chemistry background has been of interest to my colleagues. There is so much of interest to gardeners that can be explained with a sound grasp of chemistry.

I led a guided tour for the Friends of the Botanic Garden and chose to talk about the interesting chemical stories I had amassed about the colours of the leaves and flower parts, the smells released by the leaves or flowers, or the medicinal properties of the plants. I have never had such an overwhelmingly positive response from non-chemists when I’ve talked chemistry with them. I felt like I’d discovered a secret – talk to people about something they shy away from in an environment they love, and they will listen and be interested. When I first left my pharmaceutical industry job lots of people couldn’t understand why, or see any link, but after nearly two years of working in Botanic Gardens I think I’ve found the perfect link between chemistry and horticulture.

Join the online Women in Science and Industry discussion on the forums! And if you're thinking of a career change, SCI’s network can provide lots of contacts who have made the move.

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