Dr Murphy Westwood (née Thomas) (MSc Taxonomy & Biodiversity 2004) is the Director of Global Tree Conservation at The Morton Arboretum in Chicago, USA. The Arboretum's 1,700 acres hold more than 222,000 live plants representing nearly 4,300 taxa from around the world. It conducts leading scientific research on tree health and tree improvement and collects and displays trees for study and enjoyment on the grounds. Murphy spoke to us about her time at Imperial and what it's like to have a career in STEM.
Why did you choose Imperial as the place to follow your interest in STEM subjects?
"I wanted to learn more about the evolution of the amazing biodiversity of life on Earth. The combination of the outstanding reputation of the College, its location in a vibrant and cosmopolitan city, and the fact that the course was taught at the Natural History Museum, were the key aspects that drew me to this MSc programme."
How did you find life at Imperial as a woman?
"There were actually more women than men in my program, so it was really empowering and inspiring to be surrounded by so many intelligent and driven women. However, the gender balance among our lecturers showed the opposite trend. It is clear that there is still work to do to support women as they advance through the hierarchy in STEM careers, so that gender balance at higher levels is achieved and women feel valued and empowered throughout their careers."
What did you learn during your time at Imperial, in class or out?
"My eyes were opened to a whole new sector of STEM opportunities that I didn’t realize existed: museums, zoos and public gardens. These research institutions, biodiversity collections, and living museums attract millions of visitors a year around the world and provide a great opportunity to translate the results of science and conservation research for a wide audience. These institutions host world-leading scientists and support vital research that contributes to our understanding of the natural world. Imperial College is leading the way by teaming up with this sector to advance STEM education in a cross-discipline manner that provides a unique opportunity to students."
What is your fondest memory of your time here?
"The bond that was formed between the students on my program was amazing. We came from diverse backgrounds and many different countries, and all shared a passion for science and the natural world. It was a wonderful group of people, many of whom have gone on to exciting and prestigious careers in science."
Please tell us a bit about the work you’re doing now...
"I am the Director of Global Tree Conservation at The Morton Arboretum, a 1700-acre public garden in the suburbs of Chicago, Illinois, USA. I run the Global Tree Conservation Program, whose mission is to save trees from extinction through global collaborations. I work closely with colleagues from botanical gardens, universities, and other sectors in strategic regions like China, Europe, and Mexico, as well as throughout the United States, to develop research and conservation projects targeting key threatened tree species. I am also a Global Tree Conservation Officer with Botanic Gardens Conservation International (London, UK), the world’s largest plant conservation network and a global voice for botanic gardens, helping to save the world’s threatened plants."
What have been your career highlights and lowlights?
"My career highlights usually involve travel to amazing places around the world to observe the great diversity of plant life. I have been to dozens of countries on every continent to visit botanic gardens, conduct fieldwork, or attend conferences. It rejuvenates and inspires me to see up close the rare and wonderful species I’m working to protect. At the more challenging times, it can be stressful in a STEM career when you are working on a grant-funded project to not know where your next pot of money is going to come from. Working on “soft money” can definitely keep you up at night."
What are you most proud of in your life?
"Every day I feel like I have made a positive impact (no matter how small!) on the world through my work."