Lucy DeBolt ’20 was lost. It was early June and she’d just arrived as a summer intern at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew, outside of London. She had one task: report to the Jodrell Laboratory, where she would spend the next two months working alongside plant evolutionary biologist Félix Forest.
But there was a problem: DeBolt couldn’t find her way to the lab through the maze of walkways and paths that make up the expansive gardens, which annually see more than 1.5 million visitors. As the minutes ticked by, she raced back and forth along the walled length of the gardens until suddenly she happened upon the right pathway that led her straight to the lab.
It was a nerve-racking start to one of the most important experiences of DeBolt’s Smith career. The one benefit of having to search for the entrance? She got an early preview of the magnificent gardens, greenhouses and conservatories that would be her intellectual playground for the summer.
“The gardens are beautiful—and overwhelming,” noted DeBolt two weeks into her internship. “I’ve spent at least an hour almost every day, and four or five hours that first day, exploring, and I still feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface.”
DeBolt and fellow junior Emma Kelley are the latest Smith students to win coveted spots in the highly competitive Kew Gardens internship program. The internship offers students a chance to dive deep into the methodologies of scientific research covering plant anatomy, genetics, molecular systematics, biochemistry and biological interactions.
Since its inception in 1994, 46 students have participated in the program, with many earning credit as co-authors on scholarly articles about their research in prestigious scientific journals.
Smith students see the Kew internship as an opportunity to galvanize their budding interest in plant biology and genetic research.
“I applied for this internship at Kew because it’s the biggest botanic garden in the world,” DeBolt says, “and so that I could find out if I liked research lab work. Answer: I do enjoy the lab work.”
Fellow Kew intern Emma Kelley ’20 says the program was a chance to build on the skills and experiences she developed while working at Smith’s botanic garden. “Plus it was the chance to be funded to work in London,” she adds.
Roots of a Partnership
Paula Deitz ’59—editor of the Hudson Review and cultural critic in the fields of art, architecture and landscape design—was among the first to recognize the potential benefits of a partnership between Smith and Kew. The idea for the internship program has its roots in a conversation she had in 1993 with Kew geneticist and botanist Michael Fay.
“As we walked around the gardens together, he at first told me there was no student intern program in place in his micropropagation unit and that he engaged only postdoc students,” Deitz recalls. But by the end of “that memorable visit,” Deitz says, Fay had agreed to accept one student intern from Smith.
Later, in another transatlantic phone call, Fay’s American colleague, botanist Mark Chase, overheard Fay discussing the internship and expressed interest in engaging a Smith student for DNA studies in his plant taxonomy laboratory. “He was well aware of what Smith students were capable of,” Deitz says. “He said to Fay, ‘If you have a Smith intern, I want one, too.’”
For the past 25 years, the Muriel Kohn Pokross 1934 Travel/Internship Fund has been providing Kew interns from Smith with the necessary travel and living stipends. The fund was established with the help of Joan Pokross Curhan ’59 in honor of her mother, a well-known philanthropist who spent her junior year in Paris, and throughout her life was devoted to horticulture and landscape design.
Over the years, the internship program has inspired numerous Smith students to pursue fruitful careers after graduation in the botanical sciences, landscape architecture and plant research.
“The Kew internship basically shaped my scientific career,” says Elizabeth McCarthy ’06, who was an intern in 2005. Today, she is pursuing the same research she began as a student—studying the evolution of Nicotiana (tobacco)—as part of a joint program with Queen Mary University of London, Kew and the Natural History Museum.
“I had done research at Smith as a STRIDE scholar and research assistant,” McCarthy says. “But my Kew internship was the first time I did research full time.” This fall, McCarthy will start a new position as an assistant professor of biological sciences at SUNY Cortland in upstate New York.
Diana Xochitl Munn ’95, now director of public programs at Harvard Museums of Science and Culture, interned with Kew botanist Fay on the micropropagation of rare orchids and with Kew science policy head Simon Owens on the reproductive biology of Cosmos atrosanguineus—commonly known as the chocolate cosmos flower.
“These lab experiences, together with my exposure to thousands of plant species at Kew, opened my eyes and mind to a world of possibilities—both professional and personal,” Munn says. “The internship made me more curious about plants than I already was before I arrived in London, and it gave me the confidence to pursue my interests in botany, science and natural history.”
Tim Johnson, director of the Botanic Garden of Smith College, isn’t surprised by the success of these former Kew interns. As a plant scientist and former head of preservation at the international nonprofit Seed Savers Exchange, he has seen his share of unique gardens around the world.
The Kew, he says, “is one of the greatest botanic gardens on earth. For our students to have access to that is outstanding.”