NTBG Internship Series: Emily Saling

Over half a century, NTBG has hosted hundreds of interns that have become leaders in plant-based careers. In this series, get to know a few of our former and current interns who are forging their paths in tropical plant science and conservation and creating brighter futures for generations of plants and people.

Kupu member Emily Saling reflects on her experiences in NTBG’s seed bank and laboratory.

By Jon Letman, Editor

Portlander Emily Saling was a sophomore on a medical track at the University of Puget Sound when she took an elective class that sparked her interest in plant conservation. That class opened her eyes to the idea of plants as a career path. Shortly before graduation, her biology professor told her about an AmericCorps Hawaiʻi-specific conservation leadership development program called Kupu.

As a Kupu member, Emily applied for and accepted a position similar to an internship at NTBG’s seed bank and laboratory on Kauaʻi. Since September 2021, Emily has worked as a seed lab conservation technician with NTBG staff.

Through the Kupu program, Emily and others like her are gaining practical conservation skills, leading complex projects, and collaborating with other Kupu members. Now in her second 11-month Kupu term, Emily is considering her next steps for when the term ends. Emily is exploring conservation positions with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service or possibly working for a non-governmental organization in conservation.

Emily spoke about her involvement in the Kupu program and her experience working at NTBG’s seed bank and laboratory.

Will you continue working in seed conservation after you leave NTBG?

I don’t know, but I like seeds a lot. NTBG’s seed bank curator and laboratory manager Dustin sent me information about a seed stewardship program which sounds really interesting. It would be cool to learn a whole new flora of a different region. Seed conservation is a really niche thing but I feel like I have such a strong foundation now, I would like to keep building on it.

How did you develop this strong foundation in seed conservation?

From working in the NTBG seed lab. I had a basic knowledge of plant physiology but coming into work every day I learned something new. It’s been really interesting to learn so much about a field completely new to me.

What is it that you like about working with seeds?

In this position I’m able to figure out what conditions are best for these seeds. It’s like a puzzle and a mystery. Once you figure it out, you’re home free and can make all the baby plants you want. It’s exciting that at NTBG we’re able to send the seeds down to the nursery where the plants can mature.

How do early career opportunities like the Kupu program contribute to the perpetuation of plants, ecosystems, and cultural heritage?

I think with Kupu and even more so at NTBG, people already have such a passion for plants, so working with likeminded people really encourages me to keep going. We’re given a lot of opportunities here to try different aspects of conservation. Being on Kauaʻi, you see the flora and talk to people who have watched species go missing and you can’t help but want to be on the ground and be part of it. Learning leadership skills through Kupu and at NTBG definitely encouraged me to keep going.

How has the Kupu program and your connection to NTBG influenced your expected future career path?

I don’t think I would have thought about working with seeds before coming to NTBG. Also, I didn’t realize there were so many positions in conservation. There’s always something new to be involved in. I see opportunities that I didn’t know were available before.

Why should people support Kupu and other intern programs at NTBG?

Kupu specifically does a really great job of keeping people engaged and creating different opportunities. We already come in with a passion for conservation so to give us a big opportunity to learn, gain mentors, and network with people is so valuable. I feel incredibly lucky to be in this program. I hope that people continue to be a part of it because it’s so crucial at this time in our history, and there’s so much still to be learned. 

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