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Academic Lecture Series Welcomes Professor Nicola Spence CBE

Last Friday, Professor Nicola Spence CBE, a former pupil of The Mount School, delivered a lecture titled ‘Responding to an Increasing Threat: Protecting the UK’s Plants and Trees from Pests and Diseases.’ This was part of our ongoing Academic Lecture Series. 

An audience of Mount School pupils, parents, staff and alumnae gathered in the school hall for this captivating talk. The lecture not only provided insights into Nicola’s inspiring career but also helped the audience to understand their role in safeguarding the nation’s plant life. 

Professor Nicola detailed her responsibilities as the Chief Plant Health Officer and Deputy Director for plant and bee health at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA). 

Did you know the Oak tree can support 2500 other species?  

Nicola highlighted fascinating facts about UK trees and spoke of the far-reaching importance of trees and plant life. She emphasised the role UK trees play in the nation’s biodiversity, providing habitats for plant and animal life. She highlighted their global importance for carbon capture and in helping to combat climate change 

Nicola explained that her department has the crucial responsibility of researching potential threats to the plant/tree health. These threats can stem from a variety of sources, including invasive, exotic pests, the effects of globalisation, and the challenges posed by climate change.  

She then spoke of the proactive approach used by her department to educate the public on potential threats. This includes public awareness campaigns, international conferences, integrating plant health education into the GCSE curriculum, and engaging the public at events like The Chelsea Flower Show. 

Raising the profile of trees and plants has led to Nicola making frequent appearances on television and radio, to share her expertise. Interestingly, she even played a role in correcting factual inaccuracies on some BBC gardening shows! 

Did you know King Charles and Dame Judi Dench are big supporters of plant and tree health?

Nicola’s dedication to plant health has garnered recognition from notable figures. King Charles, who awarded her a CBE in 2022, was so engrossed in their conversation during the presentation that he momentarily delayed the ceremony. Additionally, Dame Judi Dench, a fellow Mount School alumna and supporter of Action Oak, also recognises the importance of safeguarding the UK’s trees. 

Nicola concluded her lecture by empowering the audience with practical ways to protect UK Trees such as joining Citizen Science projects, supporting National Park Week, contributing to the #CheckaSweetChestnut campaign or using the online Tree Alert system to report any potential threats to tree health. 

An engaging Q&A session followed. Year 7 pupil, Clemmie, sparked further discussion with a thought-provoking question: ‘Are cars checked for bugs to stop them entering the country?’ This led to a discussion on biosecurity and the UK’s island status, highlighting how diseases can spread even across seemingly short distances. The discussion explored the various routes by which ‘bugs’ can travel, including potential spread through air travel or even insects flying across the English Channel. 

One Sixth Form pupil commented: ‘The talk was really interesting. Nicola puts a massive effort in to her job in order to save and protect plants all over the UK. With her team, they fly around possibly infected areas and spot points where trees have to be put in quarantine.’  

The next Academic Lecture takes place on Friday 27 April where we will welcome Lorna Macleod to host a lecture titled ‘Technology in the Events & Travel Industry’. 

About Nicola Spence: 

After leaving The Mount School York, Nicola went on to study Botany at Durham University. Since then, she has had an extremely successful career. She was a scientific researcher in plant virology at Horticulture Research International and Fera. She has researched viral diseases of crops and horticulture both in Africa and the UK.  

In 2009 Spence was appointed Chief Executive of Science City York, an organisation supporting the development of science and technology industries in York. In this role she promoted connections between academics and local businesses.   

Nicola was awarded a CBE from King Charles III in 2022 for her services to plant health. 

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