Interview: Air Miles with Dr Tiziana Ulian

1 Sep 2020 by Hannah Brandler
Tiziana Ulian

Dr Tiziana Ulian is a senior research leader in plant diversity and livelihoods at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

What attracted you to the profession?

Passion for conserving the natural environment and working internationally in collaborative projects.

What’s your favourite botanical garden abroad?

Jardin Botanico Nacional Dr. Rafael Ma. Moscoso in Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic. Founded in 1976, it was named after Rafael Maria Moscoso, a Dominican botanist who catalogued the flora on the island of Hispaniola. A remarkable range of flora and fauna are represented here.

The garden features collections of orchids, bromeliads, ferns, palms, succulents, and medicinal plants. The garden’s symbol is a “guanito” leaf – a palm tree found in the garden. Colleagues there have been very welcoming and passionate about studying and conserving plants. I joined many botanical expeditions and travelled with them to collect and conserve seeds under Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank Partnership since 2007. We are now working on a project to save threatened forests of Hispaniola in the Dominican Republic.


How has climate change affected your line of work?

During botanical expeditions you can see the changes over time and it is always very sad to witness the loss of biodiversity due to habitat destruction and climate change. It is heartbreaking when you are looking for plants that were historically present in some places and are no longer there. Climate change has also big impact on the life cycle of plants and therefore the capacity of plants to produce seeds. As a consequence, many of our seed collecting expeditions have been impacted.

Do you work with other institutions around the world?

I work with many partners in Africa, Latin America and the Middle East. I have over 20 years experience in developing, managing, and implementing large projects and programs related to conservation, biodiversity and sustainable development across Africa, Latin America and the Middle East, and have been part of 28 projects in 18 countries.

What’s your favourite area of Kew Gardens?

I love the Great Broad Walk Borders – believed to be the longest herbaceous borders in the country and possibly in the world. At more than 320 metres, they stretch out in a rainbow of colour and offer an adventure for the senses – with fresh fragrances, dazzling flower beds and feathery grasses in a joyful display that evolves with the seasons.

Where did you last travel to?

Serrania de las Quinchas, Colombia, as part of an ecotourism project. I travelled there with colleagues and a BBC film crew, and we carried out a botanical expedition in an area which has not been explored much by scientists, owing to past conflict.

What’s the best project you have worked on?

I have many favourite and interesting projects. Each project has enriched my knowledge as a scientist but also as a person, as it has allowed me to learn about plants and the uses of plants and I was able to meet some very interesting and inspiring people. At the moment I am involved in several projects in Mexico and Colombia, which are megadiverse countries in term of biodiversity for plants, animals and ecosystems.

What's your dream destination?

Another difficult questions, each place of work has been very different. I love working in Africa as much as in Latin America. More recently, I started working on a project to preserve the Mediterranean diet through the conservation and study of edible plants in the Eastern Mediterranean in Jordan and Lebanon, which are very fascinating countries, with an interesting people-plants interaction history.

I have never been to Costa Rica though, so would like to go there and learn more about its environmental credentials: more than 98 per cent of its energy is renewable, forest cover now stands at more than 53 per cent and around a quarter of the country’s land has been turned into protected parks and reserves.

What's your indispensable travel gadget?

A silk sleeping bag. I always take it with me, as we usually stay in basic accommodations when travelling for fieldwork, so I feel safe and clean when sleeping.

What's your IFE pick?

Movies. I never have much time to watch movies, so this is a good opportunity.

How are you adapting to the current situation of Covid-19?

We have found a new way of working and although I have not seen my colleagues in person since lockdown, we have spoken a lot via Skype, [Microsoft] Teams, phone or WhatsApp. I have been working very closely with my team and we have been very productive with writing scientific articles and other work documents.


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