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We spoke to James Ritchie, an apprentice technician in the Department of Plant Sciences, about his work in the Herbarium – the oldest collection of dried plant specimens in the UK.

James Ritchie © MPLS
James Ritchie

I joined the department in July 2014 at the age of 16, two weeks after leaving school. I knew that I wanted an apprenticeship in science. I found the vacancy on the University’s website and applied immediately.

The Herbarium is a huge taxonomic collection of dried plant specimens that researchers use for scientific referencing. It contains specimens dating back to the 1600s, including collections by famous naturalists like Charles Darwin.

My role includes everything from curatorial work such as the conservation of our collection of plant specimens, and working with advanced computer software to create and modify databases of specimens, to assisting researchers with DNA sampling and examination.

A typical day involves sending specimens out on loan, and checking them back in when they’re returned. There is still a lot of work to be done to identify samples. Often herbaria around the world exchange specimens so they can help one another identify them. We currently have many specimens from the USA that have been loaned to us for several years.

There’s a huge herbarium at Kew. They have several million specimens compared with one million in Oxford. I’m hoping to spend some time at Kew as part of my apprenticeship.

This is a three year apprenticeship. I am working towards a Level 3 Diploma in cultural heritage at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. This is equivalent to A Levels. After this I would still like to do some A Levels – in Biology for example – and then do a Level 4 qualification which is equivalent to a degree.

This experience is broadening my horizons. I did a course on plant identification. I hope to do more of them. I use microscopes and have learned lots of Latin names! I meet undergraduates and help them find specimens for their studies. Plant Sciences is a nice department because it’s not too big and you feel at home.

I would recommend doing an apprenticeship because you get work experience alongside your studies. I get to meet the other apprentices too – in Engineering and Business for example. There are only a few of us at the moment, but the aim is to have many more.

Clive Shepherd, Apprenticeship Manager in Personnel Services, said, ‘James has been a perfect example of how apprenticeships are supporting our world leading research and teaching across the University. As a Division, MPLS has the biggest proportion of our current 46 apprentices, who are employed in a hugely diverse range of support staff roles. There have been substantial benefits to departments where apprentices bring fresh ideas and a new perspective, as well as learning the skills and experience that we need to sustain our work for the long term. There has never been a better time to explore to possibilities and benefits of apprenticeships'.

Please visit the apprenticeships website at