Planting a Degree

Rather than doing a degree course in general biology at University, some students who are interested in biology prefer to do a degree course in one of the plant sciences. Why do students take these more specialised courses? What do they offer?

Plants are essential to our life on earth. They are a resource that we have to exploit to survive, but at the same time conserve for the well-being of future generations. Those who study one of the plant sciences at degree level do so for a variety of reasons. They may be curious about how plants work, perhaps as a result of work experience in horticulture or agriculture. They may have learnt about developments in plant genetic engineering that will transform the way in which our food is grown in the future, and although they may not approve, they want to be able to understand what is behind it all. They may want to be of practical help to people in developing countries where a good harvest can be a matter of life and death.

There is a wide range of courses to choose from among the pure and applied plant sciences: including botany, horticulture, agricultural botany, crop science, crop protection, and landscape management.

Botany courses provide an understanding of what plants are, how they are evolved, how they function in growth and development. Biodiversity is an important feature of botany courses. All over the world people have come to realise that the rich variety of plants and animals is decreasing all the time because of man’s activities. But how fast is this happening? How concerned should we be? What are the consequences for our environment? Botanists are sent to sensitive areas like the rainforest to find out how many plant species there are, what benefits they may offer in terms of medicine and food, how fast they are disappearing, and exactly what the dangers of extinction might be. Biodiversity is also an issue in Britain, and new techniques like DNA fingerprinting are being used to determine the identify and measure the rarity of plants in threatened environments.

For students who want to gain the kind of knowledge that can be applied to good use in producing food and renewable materials from the land, Agricultural Botany and Crop Science courses are the right choice. Here the focus is on the plants that are cultivated in agriculture, how the crops grow and develop, the environmental conditions of weather and soil, the ecological interactions of weeds, pests and diseases, the genetics of breeding new crops, and the economics and management of resources that enable crops to be produced in this country and overseas. Agricultural Botany is the more scientific of these subjects, and applicants need to have A levels in chemistry and biology. Degree courses in Crop Protection appeal more to students who would like to specialise in this more applied branch of agricultural botany. Graduates of these subjects find they are in demand from many different kinds of research organisations and industries who are concerned with producing a safe and nutritious food while safeguarding the environment.

Horticultural crops make up an important part of our diet, and ornamental plant production is an expanding industry world-wide. Amenity horticulture provides us with the trees and other plants that make up an important part of our landscape. All this combines to make students who have graduated with a degree in horticulture sought after by employers in the private and public sectors. Practical classes are important in Horticulture, but the degree courses also deal with the science that underpins horticulture, providing the student with a basic understanding of new genetic developments that may well change the face of horticulture in the next century.

Landscape managers are responsible for conserving the improving the living environment - for many different purposes, including recreation, conservation or pollution control. A landscape manager might work in the countryside or in the heart of the inner city, on natural landscapes that have existed for centuries, on completely man-made parks and gardens, on the restoration of industrial dereliction or even inside a high-tech office building! Graduates in Landscape Management go on to become consultants, landscape contractors, or work for organisations like local authorities or the National Trust.

The plant sciences almost always have a very international outlook. Field trips will inevitably be an essential part of the degree course, and there will almost always be at least one excursion in a foreign country. Many of the degree courses offer the possibility of spending some time studying in a university in Europe or overseas. In many of the applied courses a year of work experience abroad can be organised by the university.

The future of life on Earth depends on plants. Plant scientists help ensure that future.

The Author: Professor Philip John, School of Plant Sciences, The University of Reading, UK

This article first appeared in School Leaver magazine

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