Meet the OPAL Director: Dr David Slawson

Plant scientist Dr David Slawson has been appointed as the new Director of OPAL, based at Imperial College London.

Dr Slawson, who previously worked at the Food and Environment Research Agency (Fera) and was involved in the development of the OPAL tree health survey, took up his new role on 10 March 2014.

He replaces Dr Linda Davies, who masterminded the creation of OPAL and spent six years at the helm of the project before stepping down at the end of 2013.

We caught up with Dr Slawson to find out a bit more about his goals, his advice for budding scientists and his passion for the Welsh coast.

Dr David Slawson
What was your previous role?

Previously, I worked at Fera where I've undertaken a number of roles, including Principal Plant Health & Seeds Inspector with responsibility for managing national surveillance and outbreaks, including high profile campaigns such as Phytophthora ramorum; Head of Plant Protection Programme which delivers all statutory diagnosis, research and consultancy on plant health; and, most recently, Head of Plant Health Public Engagement where I've led some fun projects such as the Stop the Spread show garden at the 2013 RHS Chelsea Flower Show and the OPAL tree health survey.

In the last 18 months, I've been heavily involved in the Government’s response to the Chalara ash dieback crisis, where I have acted as an official adviser to the Secretary of State’s Tree Health and Plant Biosecurity Taskforce and have helped to draft the new plant health strategy that will be published shortly.

What do you hope to achieve at OPAL over the next three years?

First and foremost having won the three-year, £3 million Big Lottery Fund project to extend OPAL to the rest of the UK, the small OPAL team must build relations with a new group of partners to successfully deliver the project. We recently met all the new partners and the energy and enthusiasm that they demonstrated makes me confident that this is the start of something special.

In addition, I must make it my mission to secure OPAL’s long-term future. My predecessor Dr Linda Davies started something special when she developed the OPAL concept and the baton has passed to me to make it sustainable.

What are you most looking forward to about working at OPAL?

Dr David Slawson and OPAL staff surveying treesHaving worked closely with them on the tree health survey, I am most looking forward to working full-time with the OPAL team. They are young, enthusiastic and have such a great can-do attitude. I really want to see them flourish and fulfill their potential.

Also, having seen first-hand the landscape-changing damage that pests and disease can do to our woodlands and countryside, I am eager to raise people’s awareness of these and other threats to nature and inspire them to help protect our environment for future generations.

What advice would you give to people considering a career in plant science?

Follow your passion. There is a huge range of opportunities available for all interests. If you are happy never ‘leaving the cell’, then go for high-tech CSI molecular biology, but if you like being outside concentrate on ecology, woodlands or gardening which offer scope for more fieldwork.

And I know that it sounds boring but we also need policy-makers and administrators. Believe me, the cut and thrust of negotiating in Whitehall and Brussels can generate a real buzz too. Finally, there is a growing recognition that what is really important is the interaction between natural scientists and people. This opens up the world of social science, media and communications.

Where is your favourite place to enjoy nature?

Mawddach Estuary in WalesI am never happier than when walking around or splashing about in the sea off the Welsh coast (‘splashing about’ is a fair description of my feeble attempts at surfing). Pembrokeshire is a real family favourite but if I had to pick one place it would be the majestic Mawddach estuary (pictured right) with the brooding Cader Idris on its southern shore. The area is fantastic for both coastal and glacial geography.

Shropshire County Council ran a field studies centre in the area and I was lucky enough to spend a week there when I was about 13 years old and then two further weeks during my A’ levels. I really hope that OPAL and our partners, such as the Field Studies Council (of which I am a life member), can inspire the same life-long passion in today’s youngsters.

How do you relax outside of work?

My main passion outside work, other than my family, is rugby. Since the age of 11, I have spent Saturday afternoons running around a rugby pitch, first as player and later as a referee. Sadly the legs are less willing these days but I am really lucky to have become an RFU-qualified referee coach.

We have a development squad of young, talented referees in Yorkshire and I act as a coach to two or three of them each year. This again gives me the opportunity to do my bit to enable youngsters to fulfill their potential. In addition, I do get the occasional ticket or two to watch England at Twickenham but I am not sure that that counts as relaxation!


Mawddach Estuary photo by Flickr user nualabugeye, some rights reserved.