This article was first published in Espores on the
2 Mar 2020

Botanist of the month: Ana Juan

Ever since she was a little child, she was decided on living surrounded by nature. She loved exploring the fields, especially knowing each plant and tree’s name. Such a passion led her to study Botany and fully devote herself to the discipline. A lecturer and researcher at the University of Alicante, Ana Juan is our botanist of the month. Are you willing to get to know her?

Why did you study Botany?

As a child, I used to spend every summer in a little country house surrounded by olive trees. I dearly remember each time I would go for a trip to the mountain in front of our house with my brother Isidro. It seems like this initial contact with nature along with going camping across the Iberian System with my family helped in my realisation that I actually wanted to study Biology. I was interested in identifying what it was that I used to see while walking through mountains and any other natural environment that I visited. I made my final decision towards Botany in my second year, when lecturer Manuel B. Crespo managed to instil his passion for plants in me, especially during identification practical sessions. This passion is what made me choose a science that, with time, has become both my hobby and my job. I still remember how, as soon as I finished the practical exam for the Botany module, I went to discuss collaboration with him to delve more deeply into the fascinating world of plants.

Trip with the AIMJB (Ibero-Macaronesian Association of Botanic Gardens) to rocky mountain area Peña Montañesa on June, 1998. / José Luis Benito

What has your professional career been like so far?

I studied Biology from 1989-1993, being part of the first class to study this degree at the University of Alicante. During my third year, I chose – with my teacher Manuel B. Crespo’s help- my DFD’s topic, which was on flora and vegetation in the mountain chain Sierra del Cid in Petrel, Alicante. In 2002 I had a viva on my PhD thesis about different morphological, molecular and reproductive aspects in the Medicago citrina species, with the aim of establishing the basis of its conservation. My teaching activities started in 1998 as a part-time associate lecturer, then a full-time associate lecturer in 2007 and, at last, I became a civil servant associate professor of Botany at the University of Alicante in 2012. 

Panoramic shot of mountain chain Sierra del Cid, viewed from Elda (Alicante) on May, 1995. / Ana Juan

My research career started with traditional flora and plant studies, which have allowed me to acquire basic knowledge of the main taxonomic groups of Mediterranean flora. On the completion of my PhD thesis, my research activities expanded in range as I started out in two quite different worlds: molecular and reproductive biology, areas that I combine ever since then in my research projects. In fact, molecular biology and the application of its techniques is a mainstay of my research. It has led me to tutor several PhD thesis dealing with the phylogeny of genus such as Ornithogalum, Daucus, Sarcocornia and Tamarix, and studies on the genetic population variability of Mediterranean (Helianthemum caput-felis, Tamarix) or tropical (Vriesea incurvata) plants. I would also like to highlight my interest in the use of genetic tools for the conservation of endemic species, which are essential nowadays, since this type of data can be crucial for the correct handling of such species in their natural habitat or outside of it. One never stops learning, and studying some of these groups of plants or environments from different points of view has represented a new challenge in my research activity, with the tutoring of more ecological projects where the functional structure of vegetation in saline environments has been analysed.

Parting plant specimens after fieldwork campaign in Algarve, Portugal, on April, 1996. / José Carlos Cristobal 

All of these research tasks always include visits to different national and international herbariums and fieldwork trips for the collection and identification of plants in their habitats, since being connected to the natural environment remains one of my favourite activities. Thanks to the different research projects that I have participated in, I have been incredibly lucky to carry out fieldwork campaigns not only within the Iberian Peninsula, but also around different Mediterranean countries, as well as in much more far away territories such as Australia, southern Africa and Mexico.

Fieldwork trip in Baja California (Mexico) on April, 2010. / José Luis Villar

What is your current job about?

My everyday life is not as exciting as one may expect, since administrative tasks are more and more present in my job. As a teacher, I prepare for my class of the day, going over the pictures that I will show and updating them as new data is discovered. I believe that making sure that you are updated not only on teaching methodologies but also on the contents of those modules that you teach is an essential task that every teacher should take care of, a task that entails spending some time on attending courses and reading new publications that may contribute with new data on the topics that are being discussed in class. In addition to this, coordinating the design of new modules is also part of our job; for example, we are currently working on the implementation of a new University Master’s Degree in Conservation of Biodiversity and Restoration of The Marine and Land Environment at the University of Alicante, which will be available starting from the next academic year 2020-2021. Finally, research tasks within research group Botánica y Conservación vegetal (Botany and plant conservation) from the University of Alicante also take up time in my day-to-day activities; more specifically, I currently devote much of this time to the tutoring of a PhD thesis on population genetics in Western Mediterranean tamarisks. 

Taking notes and collecting Tamarix gallica samples at the national park Parque Nacional de Las Tablas de Daimiel (Ciudad Real, Spain) on May, 2012

Is there any project that you particularly remember?

Shortly after having finished my degree, I was lucky to take part in national project “Habitat”, thanks to which I was involved in a great number of fieldwork trips both within the Valencian Community as well as in other areas in the Iberian Peninsula. Owing to this project and in collaboration with Manuel B. Crespo, I managed to identify and learn about flora from different natural environments -dunes, salt marshes, scrublands, forests, rock formations, etc.) and the type of vegetation that they belong to. I remember going out for fieldwork throughout the year, which bound me to learn and identify any plant at any given moment of the year. This was an intensive and very rewarding learning experience that I would surely recommend to anyone wanting to become a botanist. I would also like to underline my participation in another project called “Biodiversidad y conservación en las islas de las Comunidades de Valencia y Murcia” (Biodiversity and conservation in islands in the Valencian Community and Murcia), for I started defining the activities to be carried out for my PhD thesis from this study.

Group that attended the Photointerpretation and map updating course on the occasion of the “Habitat” project. León (Spain), October, 1993

Tell us what project you are working on at the moment

I am currently analysing the population genetics of Western Mediterranean tamarisks as part of the PhD thesis that I am tutoring. I also collaborate with Celeste Pérez Bañón -specialist in pollination and syrphid flies from the University of Alicante- in a study on reproductive biology and pollination in avocado crops in northern Alicante.

To the left, main entrance to the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew (UK), which lead to the research building Jodrell Lab. To the right, Ana Juan carries out DNA purification with caesium chloride on October, 2003

How has your professional career evolved with time?

From initial floral studies in 1995 to the now common use of molecular tools, the way in which we approach the study of plants has profoundly changed. This evolution has entailed a constant process of adaptation and learning, through which I have learned to carry out different laboratory techniques such as Sanger sequencing or AFLP and microsatellites fragment analysis for their later analysis as to cover any questions that may arise during a given study. This learning process I started in 1999 at the laboratories from the Royal Botanical Gardens (Kew, UK). It was thanks to this process and after several visits to these gardens, that I could establish the laboratory on molecular biology which is now used by our research group on Botany and Plant Conservation. In recent years new genomic techniques for plants have emerged, which enable us to gather a great amount of data and even sequence the genome of plant species. We are delving into the world of bioinformatics, which is why these analyses are completely different. We have a new challenge at hand, to understand, learn and apply such new techniques to our next research projects.

As a lecturer at the University of Valencia, you have taught different generations of students. What is most important to you, as a teacher?

To be honest, as much as classes can be tedious, having to cover a series of specific contents, students need to acknowledge that we are surrounded by plants, that they are everywhere, from our kitchen and clothes to books, paintings and films. For this reason, I always try to use familiar examples for them in class, so that they realise that what they learn in class may be closer to them than what they think. Besides formal classes in the Biology Degree, I have also taught theoretical and practical classes in postgraduate courses on flora from Alicante at the University Headquarters in Biar (Alicante) and at the University of Alicante, in this case with students over 50 years of age. As a teacher, I think that it is really important to be able to convey how fascinating the world of plants is.

Fieldwork trip to coastal dunes with the most brilliant students from the second-year module Plant Biodiversity on March, 2014

Have you met interesting people through your work?

My job truly allows you to meet many interesting people at congresses, fieldwork trips or visits to other research centres. All of these people have impacted my life in unique ways, whether it be professionally or personally. Although it is difficult to only choose one person, I would like to give special mention to professor Mark Chase, researcher at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew (UK), pioneer in phylogenetic studies on angiosperms and an active member of the international research group APG (Angiosperm Phylogenetic Group), which deals with the phylogenetic classification of flowering plants.

Visiting the dunes in the Namib dessert (Namibia) on May, 2018. / Joaquín Moreno

Does your work allow you to learn about non-botanical subjects?

I am very grateful about having shared many fieldwork hours with Celeste Pérez Bañón in the Columbretes Islands, as we were developing our PhD theses. We both study reproductive biology and pollination in the Medicago citrina species from a botanist and entomological perspective. It is thanks to this double perspective that I could learn much about these insect’s biology and their role as pollinators.

In islet Illa Grossa, next to caretaker group of the Natural Reserve of the Columbretes Islands on May, 2001

What is your relationship with the Jardí Botànic of the University of València?

The Jardí Botànic of the University of Valencia is part of my botanical and personal life. I started visiting it for research purposes, back in the 90’s, well before its current reorganisation. I have been in contact with the garden ever since, especially with Jaime Güemes – its current director- with whom I even shared the teaching of the module “Introduction to Conservation Biology” within the doctoral course “Biodiversity: Conservation and Management of species and their habitats” at the University of Alicante. Additionally, for several years we have taken students to see the Botànic’s facilities and present it as an example of a centre which combines research, conservation and science outreach on plants. I have recently been invited to take part in a series of activities on the occasion of the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, which was a great pleasure and an enriching experience that has brought me even closer to the Botànic.

Ana Juan reports to the media prior to her conference for the section “Women and Science at the Botànic 2020”, organised by the Jardí Botànic of the University of Valencia on the occasion of the International Day of Women and Girls in Science. / Elisa Caballer

How important do you think scientific outreach is?

I think that scientific outreach is very important and necessary, although we unfortunately tend to overlook it. Making our tasks as botanists and the importance of plants within our natural environment known to the world is essential to render plants visible. I try to do this myself whenever I can: for example, I have participated in programmes organised by the University with activities both for high school students (“Come train at the University”) and for the general public. I have also even participated in scientific outreach programmes broadcasted on national TV channels Canal 9 and RTVE.

What does the future hold for botany?

Botany, as many other sciences, is currently evolving and, thanks to the emergence of new ways to approach its study, there will always be unsolved questions along with others that will finally become clear. There is still a long path ahead but, luckily, many people are eager to make progress and keep on discussing plant issues.

What’s an essential skill in your profession?

There is not just one; I would say that you need a combination of several skills for your everyday life. From them I would highlight curiosity, perseverance, excitement about learning and observation skills.

Studying herbarium material of the Tamarix genus at Berlin’s herbarium, on November, 2013 / M. Ángeles Alonso

Whose disciple do you consider yourself to be?

I feel lucky to have been a disciple of Manuel B. Crespo, who instilled his enthusiasm and commitment to the study of plants in me and from whom I have learned a lot throughout all of these years. I also consider myself a disciple of professor Michael F. Fay from the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew (UK), with whom, during the development of my PhD thesis, I started out in the use of the molecular techniques that are applied to phylogenetic, phylogeographic and population variability studies.

In all these years as a botanist, what is the most curious situation you have come across?

In 2010 I was lucky to have the opportunity to visit Argelia for the first time, along with my colleagues Monserrat Martínez Ortega (University of Salamanca) and Julio Peñas (University of Granada). One fieldwork day I saw myself in the most curious situation that I had ever encountered. In order to access a mountain chain for the collection of a population of the Veronica genus we had to get a military permit, since the whole of the mountain range was under the military’s control. We went up the top of the mountain not only escorted by the military, who surrounded us in a circle to guarantee our safety as we were collecting plants, but they were also wearing anti-mine equipment and we could only walk those areas that they had demarcated. On top of everything, they would look at us as if we were freaks who stared at the floor searching for plants.

Fieldwork in Argelia on April, 2014. / Alejandro Terrones

Imagine you can have all the funding you want. How would your job be, then? What aspects would you improve?

If that were really possible and not just a dream, I would first hire more researchers and then spend part of the budget on laboratory expenses and fieldwork campaigns. All of this, although now quite limited, is yet absolutely necessary to make steady steps in research. If we manage today to carry out research with barely any funding, imagine how great of an impact actually having such a budget could mean to our activity.

Trip to Table Mountain (Cape Town, South Africa) on May, 2018. / Alejandro Terrones

Are you allergic to any plants?

Yes, I actually have several pollen allergies. For example, I am allergic to olive tree pollen and to Amaranthaceae pollen. Interestingly enough, many of this family’s species grow in most of the natural habitats where I have been working for the last years, such as saline ecosystems. When I told my allergist that I am in fact a botanist, he used every plant sample that he had for my allergy test, to the point where in the end there was not a single empty spot on my arms.

Journal of scientific dissemination of the Jardí Botànic University of Valencia.
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