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First Woman Interview with Monique Simmonds

Monique SimmondsMonique Simmonds was the First Woman to become Deputy Director of Science at Kew Gardens. She researches the traditional and economic uses of plants and their potential for foods, drugs and cosmetics and instigated great strides in this revolutionary field at Kew. Professor Simmonds also blazed a trail regarding Kew’s relationships with large, commercial organisations, promoting understanding about plants in order to overcome the current environmental, conservation and ethical challenges of our modern world. She talks to First Women UK about what she has learnt on her inspiring journey.

My grandmother was an inspiration to me

She was Swiss – a free spirit, a fascinating storyteller, and a very social lady who spoke about fifteen languages. She lived an unconventional life and taught me that, ‘nothing is impossible if you set your mind to it.’ She was a strong character who would encourage me to do things. When I visited with my parents she’d say, ‘why do you need them? Why can’t you travel on your own?’ But that strength of character worked both ways – she disapproved of who I married, and informed me that if I went through with it, she would never speak to me again. And she never has!

Science is just one way to understand something

I have spent a lot of time with indigenous healers in my work with folkloric medicine and viewing it through the lens of medicinal plant chemistry. Those healers deeply inspire me. They taught me that understanding something scientifically is only part of the picture, that there is another side to things that might not make scientific sense – and that that is not to be disregarded. These people are not always top scientists. They have gained the extensive knowledge they have about these plants by years of being with them, smelling them and tasting them. I think we have become very urbanised in the West and have lost that innate skill. We do not have that level of closeness with nature any more.

Don’t be so risk averse that you don’t take any risks at all

As a scientist, you have to have confidence in your work, but when I submit a paper, I still always think – ‘have I got it wrong? Is there something I missed?’ That’s why I always ask for help and involve others in projects – two minds are better than one! As a scientist you also have to accept that your errors will be pointed out to you – especially when you have lots of very, very bright people working with you. But I believe you learn from mistakes; many new discoveries arise from things not going quite right. So don’t be so risk-averse that you potentially miss out on the benefits revealed by what could go wrong.

Only take shortcuts when you have the experience to do so

Scientists have to be patient. You cannot push things, because you might miss something critical. When you have experience, yes, you can make short cuts, but even then, you have to learn which shortcuts you can safely take and always ask yourself, ‘why am I in such a hurry?’ Master the basics first – then you can fully understand how and when to save yourself time.

Hire people smarter than you

I give my team members ownership of what they are doing so that they care about it. If they care, then they will own the mistakes they make and want to fix them. As a manager, I have also learnt that it pays to be approachable enough so that people will feel safe to tell you if they made a mistake. Sometimes, I will even make a mistake a bit on purpose to see if they spot it and if they feel comfortable enough to point it out to me. When I choose a team, an absolutely, non-negotiable criteria is that they must be better than me. You need people that will take you forward. If I think, ‘I could do that better myself!’ then that team is not going to grow. How everyone communicates is important too. Can they explain something well? Can they put complex ideas across in more than just one way? I also look for people who listen carefully and make sure that they really understand what you have asked them to do before they do it.

As a woman in charge you have a responsibility

…To ensure the female voice gets heard. The male voices are often the ones willing to express themselves with certainty. Less so the women. And if a man and a woman in a meeting say the same thing, it will more often be the man that gets quoted. Women are also less likely to talk over somebody. I have witnessed this many times. Encourage the women if ever you have the means to do so. Make sure that every voice gets heard.

Career paths are not always obvious – so follow what you love and let that take you where you want to go

I always wanted to be a scientist – but I was never into plant science [laughs]. I wanted to be a vet and did a Zoology-based double degree. I was finishing a post-doc on the subject of insect/plant interaction and thought I might go to the Natural History Museum. Then in 1985, the new director of Kew Gardens, showed an interest in my work and he invited me to Kew to do a bit of research. I thought, ‘hmm, as long as it’s not too plant-y…’ and accepted the position. I was totally hooked and have had a fantastic time ever since. There is no obvious career path that would have led me to where I am now and I think a large part of job happiness is based on what you decide to make of what naturally happens to you. As such, I always encourage my students to, first: study as hard as they can, and second: always follow their interests.

When you feel that something needs to change, work hard to see it through

Persistence and drive are important traits in my world. At Kew, I would be asking questions about our practices and highlighting things that hadn’t been considered before at every opportunity. Yes, we can talk all day about plants – but if we can also highlight how important plants are in people’s lives then we can convey how crucial it is to expand diversity.
Within organisations we sometimes need to step out of our ivory towers and look at how our work can benefit others. We have to understand how to articulate what we do in ways that will bring about change. It is nice to have wonderful plants, of course – but could they also be a new source of a drug that would help people? Could they be the next source of fuel or food?

Dare to speak the unspeakable

People don’t like the word ‘commercial.’ It can be very taboo. But I like to have drugs that work. I want cosmetics that work. I want to make sure that what I’m being told is in a product is actually in that product. Why should it be someone else that deals with the unpalatable ‘commercial side’ of plant use? Why can’t it be Kew? We have the information! We have the knowledge! And we can possibly help people with what we know.
For example, you’ll often see large areas being de-forested in the international countries we work with because the local organisations simply cannot see how a forest can supply them with income. If we at Kew, with our knowledge, can show them that the plants they want to cut down can be used to help the people and – yes, ok, be converted into dollars – then there is an incentive to keep the forests safe. And this is critical in our times right now.

If you want change, prepare to be challenged by the status quo

The younger generation are coming into Kew and of course, they think that the way we do things is the norm. But it wasn’t always like that. There was a fight for change. The scale of what has really shifted only hits me when my colleagues in meetings say, ‘well, we wouldn’t have done that a few years ago unless Monique had pushed it!’ and you kind of think, ok maybe I have had an impact. I don’t think you acknowledge what you are trying to do at the time. You just always feel like you’re making trouble, that you’re the one they just want to go away. I am so lucky that the chairman of the Kew trustees gave me his support. He acknowledged that there was logic in what I wanted to do. Oh, he would make me sweat for it, mind you. He would pull my arguments to pieces, but I knew he was actually being supportive.

Become as resilient as you can to criticism

It helps if you have a strong inner conviction that what you are trying to do is right. You have to know in your heart that you are not trying to exploit anyone, because that is the accusation that people will level at you when you are working in the commercial side of business. If I’m working with an African plant then I will 100% ensure that the African communities will somehow benefit. I have to have total integrity and keep my morals in good health at all times.
We work with Proctor and Gamble, and working with corporations can draw considerable cynicism. But P&G are a very big company and consequently, they can make things happen. If they want to replace all the plastic [in their packaging], or ensure all their plants derive from sustainably harvested material, they have the means to ensure that that happens on a massive scale. If we work with them, I have to know my stuff and maintain my integrity. We use contracts to ensure that if anything goes against our ethics, the big boys cannot muffle us. It oversimplifies things to say that its ‘bad’ to work with corporations; you have to look more closely. If a big company is causing an environmental problem, you have to think instead, can we and what we know be part of their solution? Sometimes the companies really do want to do it right, but they just don’t know how; and we can help them. This can be a difficult truth to tell – and a difficult truth to be heard.

Three tips for young pioneers by Professor Monique Simmonds

  • ‘If you believe in it – really go for it. Unless somebody you admire and respect says its a waste of time! But even then, if you really believe, try anyway. You only have one life.’
  • ‘Don’t make excuses as to why you can’t do something. Is it really true that you can’t? If someone says, ‘it’s not possible,’ is there a way around that?’
  • ‘If you have an interest, go for it fully, whether it be the hobby or the career. Try and make the most of what really engages you in your life.’

Interview by Deborah Willimott

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