Sefra Alexandra on Listening to the Stories Within Seeds
4 March 2022
This is part of a weekly series in honor of the International Day of Women and Girls in Science featuring interviews with inspiring, talented female scientists whose work involves conserving crop diversity.
If you have the pleasure of meeting her, she’ll introduce herself as Sefra Alexandra. But this ethnobotanist also goes by another name – the Seed Huntress – and she’s on a hunt to preserve the biodiversity of our wild and cultivated landscapes through seed conservation.
Sefra discovered her passion for nature as a kid during after-school adventures with her parents and twin brother. That enthusiasm for the wild made a career in science the perfect fit and she earned a Master of Arts in Teaching in Agroecological Education from Cornell University. She put her experience and research into practice as a Genebank Impacts Fellow under the CGIAR Genebank Platform, managed by the Crop Trust, and through leading The Ecotype Project, which is fortifying a native seed supply chain in the northeast of the United States in support of ecological restoration.
We spoke with Sefra to learn more about what drew her to a career in saving seeds and to hear her advice for other women in science. The transcript of the conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.
Why did you pursue a career in science?
I grew up exploring the wild lands around where I live and I was always fascinated by everything I saw in nature, from the trees to seeds, moss and the lichens. As I got older and realized that this is actually a field of work that I could go into, I let my passion guide my explorations to survey everything in the naturalist realm.
After a few years of being a generalist of regenerative agriculture, I found my way to seeds and really had an ‘aha!’ moment of ‘this is what I want to become a specialist in’. I love the general world of science, but seeds are what really captured my heart.
Did you have any mentors or role models?
My mother, Louise, took my twin brother and me on adventures after school. What that did, from a really young age, was solidify this love for expeditioning, investigating, appreciating and exploring the landscape.
So, I think that if you provide kids with the ability to be in wonder and discover things on their own, that can grow as a source of love and passion for the wilds. Now, those same emotions of gratitude happen when I am doing field work in the South Pacific… when I had the privilege of being invited to hike into beautiful, ancient indigenous taro fields high in the mountains of the Cook Islands.
How can we encourage more girls to choose a career in science?
Why should we let the men have all the fun?! I mean, the sciences are endless – whether you love birds, sounds, soil, rocks, or art. Science might sound like just one term, but there are all of these “ologies”, like limnology – the study of lakes, ornithology – the study of birds, carpology – the study of seeds. What a delight to simply imagine the huge arcs of diversity within each of these fields and how much you all can contribute to that!
So, I encourage all of you to just go outside and see what catches your interest. See what makes your heartbeat faster, what you’re really inquisitive about, what you want to learn more about. The second you start doing that, you will see that an entire professional network and cohort exists within each of those wild niches.
You can all do whatever you want and whatever you love – that’s why this world is so amazing! If the oceans inspire you, there’s endless sciences to be explored. If the land and plants and seeds inspire you, there are endless ways to go all around the world or in your own backyard to be a scientist and a caretaker of our wildlands.
So, I would say to find what you love, what catches your attention, what inspires and delights you. Personally, I want to be outside as much as possible. Being a scientist, you get to be outside a lot. It’s just so very fun.
Why do we need more women and girls in science?
As my mentor says, “we stand at a pinch of time in our genetic diversity where we can either stand by and watch it all go away, or stand in as stewards” –I believe that means all of us. I don’t know why more women and girls aren’t in science, but I think it perhaps needs to be presented as a more engaging curriculum for girls when they are younger. Because nothing’s more fun.
I think, often with the issues surrounding our changing climates, that people get very overwhelmed by the doom and gloom. But I can tell you this much: when you save one seed and plant it, the next year you get thousands! The return on investment (ROI) of ecological restoration is truly encouraging. So remember, all those little things that we do, can ecologically contribute a great deal.
As Margaret Meade says, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” So, we need you. Come join us because it’s going to be your ideas and your innovation, your passion and enthusiasm that is going to help us grow into the succession of the new paradigm of everything that the world can be – happy, healthy, and healed. We need your minds and your hearts to come and join us in this effort of conservation, restoration and science.
What is your favorite part of your job?
If you look at an acorn, that little seed grows into these massive, mighty oaks that feed so many. These seeds are living embryos. When we hold seeds, we hold living things that are just sleeping and waiting to be planted and to grow. Those seeds carry stories within. Seeds are the great story-keepers of all those that have come before us for all those that come after us.
There are all these great seed dispersal mechanisms, like anemochory, which is seed dispersal by wind and hydrochory, which is seed dispersal by water. When we go on our BOATanical Expeditions that I lead, where we paddle in canoes and plant native plants, we are putting those seeds back in the living seed bank, in the soil. We can have our seed ex-situ, backed up in the seed banks, but the best place they can be in is in-situ, in our soils, because they are ever-adapting, ever-changing. Once they are there, nature will do a marvelous job of distributing these genetically appropriate seeds through all of these dispersal mechanisms.
We all have a role to play in caretaking and stewarding this beautiful Earth, and it is such a privilege to be able to make sure that we are rewilding our corridors with these seeds. You are helping to carry and tell a story of food, of wild medicines, of humans relationships with the landscape, of habitat for our pollinators.
As an ethnobotanist, there’s so much wisdom and beauty that I see – from Hopi women I am friends with stewarding seeds saved for thousands of years, elders in Haiti after a natural disaster for whom I was helping to safeguard their seeds, to telling the tale of the totem crop taro as a Genebank Impacts Fellow for the Crop Trust.
When you are, as I call myself, a Seed Huntress, on a hunt to preserve the genetic biodiversity on Earth, you realize that biodiversity is so nuanced and so beautiful and so very vital to be protected and conserved. A plant might grow five feet from where a certain clay has dripped down, but not five feet over – habitats are delicate and the diversity exquisite.
When you start to learn the personalities of these plants and their habitats, you realize how precious our now very fragmented, anthropocentrically influenced landscape is. If we all work together, we can attempt to save all of it. We want to make sure we save our local seeds, preserving these arches of diversity so that we can have the greatest tool of resilience in the face of our changing climates to regeneratively restore and rewild the lands of our earth. So, I encourage you all to go and listen and go and protect the stories of these seeds.