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7th October 2022

Citizen Scientists: How amateur science can shape your life

Dip your toes into the world of amateur science, guided by scientist Falgunee Sarker
Citizen Scientists: How amateur science can shape your life
Photo: Falgunee Sarker

When I reached out to the Biological Records Centre to see if they could recommend anyone for my Citizen Scientists series. The name Falgunee Sarker was returned to me almost instantaneously.

Well known for her contributions to amateur botany, Sarker is a prominent member of the Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland, a scientific organisation that aids research into flora, plant distribution, and taxonomy.

Sarker’s interest in the natural world started young, having grown up in Bangladesh. She said of her childhood, “There are a lot of forests and jungles and everything, I used to go there and watch the animals, I used to go there and watch the spiders, I used to go there and watch everything in the natural world…what they do, how they move… that was my hobby! We didn’t have [many] toys and things, but you don’t need toys when you’ve got a forest full of things. Those are my favourite toys.”

Sarker moved to the UK in 1968, age 20, as a young wife occupied with raising her two children. However, she eventually began to want to do something for herself, and took a job at the pathology laboratory at Stepping Hill hospital in Stockport, alongside returning to her studies. After gaining A-levels in Physics, Chemistry and Biology, Sarker took a course in Molecular Biochemistry through the Open University.

Once she completed her degree, Sarker continued carrying out in-house research at Stepping Hill. Despite her busy work and family life, she kept seeking out new experiences, spending her holidays helping to build an orphanage in Uganda and getting involved in the world of amateur archaeology.

Uncovering the past

Sarker volunteered for the National Trust, travelling to St Kilda in the Outer Hebrides off the Scottish coast to work on archaeological sites. Despite having no initial experience, she threw herself into daily life on the island, saying that the people she met, and the teamwork necessary for the project, were the best part of the trip.

For her first trip, her group worked to uncover the lives of ancient people inhabiting St Kilda thousands of years ago. Whilst there, she came across a piece of patterned pottery in the dirt. She said, “I was so frightened I just ran from that area and went to the archaeologist to say that I’d found something”.

The experts let her dig it out under supervision, and it was later found to be thousands of years old. This pottery, alongside the team’s other findings, eventually ended up in the Glasgow museum.

She returned to the island in 2013, helping repair the buildings and clochán left behind in St Kilda’s 1930 evacuation. As well as undertaking these trips, Saker was part of the amateur Egyptology scene in Manchester, attending lectures and discussions.

St Kilda – ‘House of the Fairies’ souterrain. Photo: Rob Farrow @Geograph

Returning to the natural world

In 2004, Sarker retired to Darlington and decided to take up botany, refocusing her attention on the nature she’d so loved in her home country. She started attending field courses and studying her newfound interest, pursuing a qualification in field botany from the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh.

“I was interested in the natural world during my time in Bangladesh, but I didn’t nurture it at all throughout my life. In the later part of my life, I decided to go back to this natural world again and just started exploring it”.

“I was completely engrossed with my work, my home life and my studies, and [then] that chapter was completely closed to me…and then it all started again!”

As part of her work, she travels to Upper Teesdale every Monday with a group to make botanical recordings, calling it “a treasure for botany”. Her group are assisting with measurements relating to the impact of climate change on the timing of flowering of plants and trees – known as phenological recordings.

Sarker also belongs to the Darlington and Teesdale Naturalist Field Club, which is 131 years old.  They go out twice a week to make recordings and send them to the Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland, alongside other Amateur Societies concerned with the protection of birds and animals.

The dandelion is Sarker’s favourite flower. Photo: GT1976 @Wikimedia Commons

Striving for greater inclusion

From attending conferences, Sarker realised that there was no provision for blind and visually impaired people within botany, and so thought, “No, we’ve got to take them with us, for our botany, we’ve got to show them how to learn botany. They’re blind but they’ve got all their other senses”.

In 2018, she joined a group that organised walks for visually impaired people, and after receiving training, volunteered to add lessons in botany to their pre-existing walks. She taught them how to use their sense of touch to help them identify different plants and trees, and their progress in this proved to Sarker that they had been excluded from botany for far too long.

In 2019, she did a presentation at the Natural History Museum for the first time, encouraging others to start similar projects. Further talks followed through the lockdowns of 2020, during which she kept in contact with her botany students over the phone, podcasts, and Zoom, recreating walks they’d taken through Darlington for them to listen to at home.

She is passionate about the positive impact of the natural world and understanding the plants around us, and wanted to involve a group that had been excluded from this area of study. Her big dream is for one of her students to give their own talk at the Natural History Museum, as a botanist in their own right.

“When I’m very sad, I think about the natural world, I think about all the plants and animals and everything and then I feel – the sadness goes, and I feel happy and I feel contented, and I thought, ok,  they are visually impaired but they could also get this happiness from all the natural things around us and it doesn’t cost any money at all – it’s all free!”

Why does amateur botany matter?

When I asked her why she was so passionate about amateur botany, Sarker replied,

“It’s free! You are free! You are free to do whatever you want to do, you don’t have to follow anything. You can just take [it] up as it suits your life.”

If you’re interested in following in her footsteps, the easiest place to start is to join a local botany or naturalist group – Manchester’s is the Lancashire Botany Group, and there’s a list on the BSBI website.

Maybe you too will set in motion a lifetime of scientific contribution?

Emma Hattersley

Emma Hattersley

Editor: Science and Technology Section

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