Chemistry in the garden

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Dr Alison Foster on audio trails in Oxford's botanic gardens, which allow visitors to learn about chemistry in beautiful surroundings

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Dr Alison Foster – Senior Curator, University of Oxford Botanic Garden and Harcourt Arboretum [AF]

People love visiting gardens and they're very open and interested in what they see.

Dr Ed Anderson – Department of Chemistry, University of Oxford [EA]

The chemistry audio trail really grew out of our work for the international year of chemistry in which we established relationships between the garden and the chemistry department. We decided we wanted to engage the public more actively and there was technology out there for visitors to walk around the garden and listen to researchers from the chemistry department as well as actually see the plants that we were talking about.


We realised that there were loads of really interesting stories to do with the chemistry of plants that our visitors could appreciate.


One of the plants that I talk about on the audio trail is Euphorbia Resinifera. The molecule called Resinifera toxin is isolated from this plant. As a synthetic chemist I use molecules to inspire me to think of new reactions, new ways of making other molecules.

Dr Kylie Vincent – Department of Chemistry, University of Oxford [KV]

Well I think it is very important for scientists to be able to communicate their science in a way that the general public can understand. It is very difficult in the modern scientific world to bridge that gap between the very technical scientific research that is going on and the science that is relevant to everyday life and I hope that this audio trail in the gardens will help to bridge that gap.


I think this way of doing an outreach activity is really unique, something that I've never come across previously.


There are a lot of people out there who hear news stories about chemicals and they just perceive all chemicals to be bad. They don’t really think of a garden being full of chemicals.


It is very important that we are actually able to explain the importance and relevance of what we are doing to justify why public funds should be used to support our research.


We can talk about the history of science, but also really cutting edge properties of molecules. Plants give a very tangible and visual connection that the public can associate with.


In the glass houses we have a lotus plant and the lotus leaves have this incredible surface to them. The lotus plant has inspired scientists to develop self-cleaning glass. They have mimicked the surface of the plant and dirt will no longer stick to the glass and water just rolls off and takes all dirt with it. Working with the chemistry department has enabled us to bring to life, in a very comfortable way for people, chemistry, and it is helping to change the public perception of chemistry.


It’s been very exciting to be involved with the project. It provides a very personal and Oxford-centred way to communicate with the public about our research.