The University of Western Australia

Stephen Hopper

Stephen Hopper

From London’s Royal Gardens to the Australian outback – meet UWA’s plant man

Professor Stephen Hopper loves plants, especially Australian plants. The internationally renowned plant conservation biologist gave up his job in England as Director of the world heritage-listed Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew, to take up a new Chair in Biodiversity at The University of Western Australia – and promptly moved to Albany.

"I went to Kew in 2006 as the first non-British born Director with a simple aim - to ensure the world, biodiversity and the organisation were in a better place by the time I left. Biodiversity has an enormous role to play in helping moderate the worst aspects of global warming and in enabling people to live healthy, sustainable lives," Professor Hopper said.

The amazing biodiversity in Western Australia is one of the reasons Professor Hopper was drawn back to Australia in 2012.

“It was the pull of the country, my country” he said.

“Australia is one of the great places on the planet to pursue biological studies.”

Professor Hopper is fascinated by the way Australian plants propagate and survive, especially given the harsh environment and climate in which they live. His PhD in the 70’s centred on the Kangaroo Paw – a plant that thrives on smoke and whose seed germination is greatly stimulated by the poison cyanide.

Professor Hopper has written eight books and published more than 200 articles on plant biology. He was awarded the Centenary Medal for his contributions and in 2012 was named a Companion of the Order of Australia. He is also an ARC Discovery Outstanding Researcher for 2014-16, which was awarded for a Discovery Project on exceptional attributes of bird and mammal pollination of South West Australian plants, undertaken with colleagues at Kings Park and Botanic Garden, where he served as Director from 1992-2004.

While he enjoys the WA bush, Professor Hopper still has strong ties to his colleagues at the Royal Botanical Gardens in Kew. He collaborated with them before announcing the discovery of two new species and one new subspecies of kangaroo paw based on DNA sequencing.

"To discover new species in such a well-known genus highlights how much more waits to be unearthed and researched in Australia." he said. These are the latest among more than 300 new species of plants he has collaborated in naming over 40 years of field-based research, mostly in south-western Australia.

Professor Hopper is also increasingly collaborating with Noongar elders in the south-west to better understand through an ancient knowledge-system how "one of the richest cultures on the planet" interacts with the landscape.

"The Noongars can tell us a lot about our responsibility for the place in which we live if we want it to care for us," he said. "While we hope that novel biological discoveries will attract young scientists to the south-west, we also want to offer students another world-view and are proud of our foundation unit, ‘Knowing Country: The Dreaming and Darwin', run jointly with the School of Indigenous Studies".

As UWA’s plant man says, we still have a lot to learn.

Stephen Hopper position is a joint appointment between the School of Plant Biology and the Centre of Excellence in Natural Resource Management at The UWA Albany Centre.