Community Champion: Alexandra Stuart

Alexandra Stuart
Aberdeen, Scotland

How are you using OPAL to make a difference in the community?

As part of my work within Duthie Park Ranger Service, I often use OPAL resources with school pupils visiting the park or with children during the school holidays. The children get to take a closer look at something they might see every day in their local environment, but may have never stopped to investigate, such as a local pond, group of trees or patch of grass. The children always go away having enjoyed their session, and usually can’t wait to tell someone about the things they discovered in their local area.

How did you first discover / get involved with OPAL?

I had seen the website and was aware of the different surveys available.  As a member of staff knew one of the local OPAL team, we had a meeting and got some copies of the surveys sent over and started to integrate them into our sessions.

What do you enjoy most about using OPAL resources / what has been your favourite moment while using them?

I think it is great to see people discovering something new and getting really excited about nature and I enjoy the fact that the surveys appeal to a range of age groups.  Even with our younger children, we can pick out bits of each survey that we know they will find interesting and be capable of.  

Which is your favourite OPAL survey and why?

It would have to be the soil survey – because it involves digging in mud, looking for worms and the children all getting their hands dirty.

Where is your favourite place to enjoy nature and why?

I really enjoy going hillwalking in general, but some of my favourite spots are Bennachie and the walks around Glen Muick and Glen Clova, because they are not too far to travel to, but you can feel like you are quite far away from everything.

What is the most interesting/ unusual/ beautiful plant or animal you’ve ever seen?

I have been really lucky, and have visited a number of beautiful places around the world including an area of the Amazon rainforest in Peru. There were so many beautiful plants and animals to choose from during my time there:

I remember seeing a ‘hot lips’ plant while walking on a bird survey route. If you have not seen one before, the flower looks like a really large pair of lips with bright red lipstick on – very unusual!

Another plant I saw and thought was really interesting is the Annatto plant - one of the plants I often teach school groups about. The seeds in the middle of the plant pod make an orange/red colour when ground up, and this is usually what orange/red tribal paint is made from.  We also use the plant in this country though, which people are often surprised about. We would use it as a natural food colouring in things like cheese and custard to get an orange or yellow colour, and you often see the word ‘annatto’ on food ingredient lists.  

Who / what inspired you to work in your community?

In my job as Assistant Ranger, I spend a lot of time engaging with children and also volunteers about nature and the local environment, which I think is really worthwhile.

I had a keen interest in nature from a young age – some of my earliest memories are of looking for insects in my garden and taking them inside to show my poor parents! They have always encouraged me to get out and enjoy nature throughout the years.

Leaving school, I decided to pursue an environmental career by going to Glasgow University to study Zoology, and then later Aberdeen University to study Ecology and Environmental Sustainability.

During that time I had the opportunity to volunteer on and lead various environmental research projects. I saw what a huge difference these projects made to each area and the lives of the people in each community. Projects such as a litter clean-up week I assisted in help develop a sense of ownership and pride for all the people involved, as well as bringing people together and improving the local environment. All of the people I have met through these projects have also inspired me – it’s a great feeling to be surrounded by people from all walks of life who are all really enthusiastic about a common goal.

What advice would you give to people who want to encourage their communities to get involved in science and nature?

You don’t need to go far to find nature!

Lots of people think that you need to be out in the countryside or travel quite far before you can enjoy nature or do something to help nature. I think that we frequently underestimate what we have close-by because we see it so often that we do not really notice it anymore - it just becomes background scenery.  A small patch of garden or grass, hedges, parks, verges, ponds, streams or small groups of trees are all important natural areas too! If you take a closer look at what you have around you, there will always be something worth investigating, monitoring or improving. 

You also do not need to be an expert to go out and get involved in nature or inspire other people! One of the great things about the OPAL surveys is that they provide you with simple ID guides for each of the different surveys.  All the knowledge you need is right in front of you and all the resources you need for the survey are free.

Any funny stories from working with a group or any moments that made you proud? 

Our team decided to use the Soil Survey during our week-long programme for British Science Week celebrating the International Year of Soils 2015. If you have never used the survey before, a big part of it involves looking for worms – always a winner with children!

Our team had previously tested out the survey a few times around the Park, and we had found a few different species and sizes of worm, so we knew what results to expect from our surveys. I think my favourite moment though, has to be discovering one unusually long worm, which was a great deal larger than the OPAL field guide booklet, with one of our school groups.   All the girls in the group thought this was amazing while all the boys in the group squealed really loudly!

About OPAL Community Champions

The OPAL Community Champions scheme aims to acknowledge the contribution made by individuals to the OPAL network, to thank people for their efforts, and to act as an inspiration for others.

Over the next few weeks and months we'll be profiling our Community Champions who are nominated by OPAL's team of Community Scientists from across the UK.