Dr Heather Whitney

"There is something incredibly thrilling about the fact that in this world of billions you can have an idea that is entirely novel and be the first person to ever happen upon it."

Dr Heather Whitney is a plant scientist whose work on plant iridescence has earned her numerous awards, including the 2012 Society for Experimental Biology’s President's Medal in Plant Sciences, and the 2011 L'Oréal-UNESCO UK and Ireland For Women in Science Fellowship.

Heather joined Bristol University in 2008, having previously conducted her PhD studies at Bristol’s IACR-Long Ashton Research Station.

Her current work is funded by a European Research Council grant, focused on lab-based plant development and molecular exploration of the ecological relevance of iridescence in the Selaginella uncinata as a model system.

"I’ve always been interested in science, and particularly plant sciences. My mother was a biology teacher, her father a chemist and his dad was an engineer, so science has always been in the family.

I used to go on field trips with my mother when I was a toddler, so it’s something that I’ve always grown up with. Plants always interested me because while they might initially appear just to sit there and not do anything, in actual fact they have to have as many strategies to survive as any animal – and plants can be really manipulative.

When I was studying for my A-levels, it was just the very start of molecular biology and you could almost taste the future. It really sparked my imagination as far as what could happen in the future.

There are all these things you can do that sound fantastical, like take the gene from one thing and put it in something else, and produce orchids that glow like fireflies; it’s mind boggling. I was getting into it at a time when science was exploding in many different directions.

It’s very hard to describe how wonderful it is to discover something that no-one else has ever seen before. In my case it was the impact of surface structure on colour, and suddenly I was able to see a colour that no-one had seen knowingly before.

I was actually looking at it in a tulip – tulips have been painted by the Dutch masters for centuries and I just looked at them in a slightly different way and saw something entirely new.

There was something incredibly thrilling about the fact that in this world of billions you’ve got an idea that is entirely novel, entirely new, and you’re the first person to happen upon it! It brings to mind some of Conan-Doyle’s work about ‘the lost world’; you’re the first person to have looked into that valley, ever, and there is something wonderful about that.

I’m a great believer in serendipity. When I found this structural colour on a flower it was a mixture of chance and planning. I’d been working in the physics department in Cambridge looking at petal properties. While I was there I was working with someone who was looking at iridescent structural colour in butterflies.

I was looking at these gorgeous butterflies that are like peacocks – they have such beautiful colours that shimmer – and I was thinking, ‘why aren’t flowers iridescent, why haven’t they developed these structures?’

Then something serendipitous happened – I was in Cambridge botanic gardens on a really brilliant bright summer’s day and I came across this plant which is mostly white but has a really dark centre, and you could see a rainbow shimmer over the surface; which looked like iridescence.

It’s the same sometimes with discussions; talking with the right people, discussing the right ideas, talking to people about what they’re interested in and why they’re interested in it. Then showing how links can be made between your work.

There’s a real sense of the aesthetic and beautiful about science. In some ways that’s why I do what I’m doing. I can give talks about it and show people why this is absolutely amazing, but it’s also the fact that everything that evolution has produced is just fascinating.

The inherent beauty of it is quite an effective way of demonstrating how bizarre and wonderful the end product can be.

If you think about anything in science, even the most simple thing such as agarose gel with bands of DNA on it, depending on how you look at it, it’s either just a gel with six or seven lines on it, or you can use that information to see millions of years of evolution and see how plants and animal interactions impacted on the evolution of both sides.

Teaching can be absolutely brilliant. That’s something I realised when I started doing some teaching while I was at Cambridge There is that moment where you can see an idea click in somebody’s head. You can almost see things suddenly make sense for them, and you realise, ‘ah, they’ve got it!’.

There’s a real sense of accomplishment on both sides in that moment – you’ve actually managed to get an idea across - but not only the idea, it’s also all the possibilities that go with it, and you can then see your students taking it in new directions. I think that’s where the reward really comes in.

It’s a wonderful moment when you see how someone takes an original perspective towards a concept you have introduced them to which leads them in a direction that you hadn’t thought of. You can almost see students opening their own whole new vista sometimes.

The looming deadlines that abound in science can create a sense of pressure. There’s always something more you could do – you can always write more papers, you could always write more grants, you could always do more public engagement, you could always take on more students.

The way you manage things is very personal. You’re given this incredible flexibility which is one of the distinct advantages. And it’s then up to you how much pressure you put yourself under.

For most people, because the really fun bit is the stuff that leads to all the rest – you find the really exciting results, you then need to write the paper and submit a grant proposal to continue to take the ideas forward, so the excitement and the paperwork go hand in hand.”

Dr Heather Whitney, ERC Research Fellow, School of Biological Sciences

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Watch Heather discuss what it means to be a scientist in the 21st century in our new film Can science save us?

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