Brett Summerell, the 402nd person I’ve met on my quest to have lunch with 500 strangers, has spent the past 35 years working for one of Sydney’s most beloved organisations, the Botanic Gardens of Sydney.

Brett joined the organisation in 1989 as a plant pathologist, or “tree doctor” as he describes it. Today, Brett serves as chief scientist. He oversees the Botanic Gardens’ scientific research and conservation programs, and also gives regular public presentations to promote the Botanic Gardens’ work.

One of the Botanic Gardens’ key focuses is researching plant diseases. Naturally, this kind of research attracts less funding than attempts to understand and cure human diseases, Brett says. But it does have one big advantage, which is that you can do as much experimenting as you like, because no one cares if you kill a few plants. As a result, scientists have made a lot more advances than one might expect given the level of funding.

To be a good scientist, you need to be able to think critically and keep an open mind, Brett says. However, that can be hard to do when you consider that, sometimes, certain evidence or outcomes may make or break a person’s career. Scientists are human, after all.

Brett ended up at the Botanic Gardens by accident. He studied a Bachelor of Science in Agriculture and expected to be working with crops. But there weren’t many agricultural positions available when he left university, so he decided to take a ‘temporary’ job at the Botanic Gardens. Brett loves his work, so he’s grateful for how his career turned out.