Real Voices: Martin Cheek

Olivia Kersey interviews Martin, a researcher at Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, looking for new plant species

Researcher at Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, pruning some ferns

Martin Cheek

What do you do?

I work at Kew Gardens, identifying and naming plant species in tropical areas, particularly Africa and Madagascar. My team and I target areas that are unsurveyed, and sample, identify and classify every species we find. We investigate their potential uses and promote them to protect them from extinction.

Have you personally discovered any new species?

I’ve found 100 new species: ferns, trees, climbers, all sorts!

What is your favourite plant, and why?

The Darlingtonia californica. It’s a carnivorous plant found in the mountains of California. It looks like a cobra, and even has a ‘forked tongue’, which lures in insects by secreting nectar to attract them.

What would you say has been the most exciting recent discovery?

The Kupea martinetugei (Triuridaceae) – a plant which exists only in deep, dark forests and is only known to two sites. It has no chlorophyll and is mycoheterotrophic – an organism that depends solely on fungi for nutrients by tricking spores into ‘plugging into them’.

How would you advise students who are interested in following a similar career path?

Do what you enjoy. At university I did a sandwich year, which allowed me to gain relevant experience very early on, making me much more employable. The experience also helped me see careers I never even knew existed.

Why is it so important to search for new species?

Plants and fungi have all sorts of different uses – food, fibres, cancer treatments, antibiotics – and we still haven’t worked them all out! Only when we’ve found and identified these plants can the human race start to benefit from them.

Find out more on careers in plant science at – search for ‘botanist’.

About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Plants’ in May 2016.

Ecology and environment, Careers
Education levels:
5–7, 7–11, 11–14, 14–16, 16–19, Undergraduate, Continuing professional development