In November 2015, Richa Kusuma Wati started her PhD research on wild orchids at Leiden University and Naturalis Biodiversity Center, in collaboration with the Hortus Botanicus Leiden and Bogor Botanic Gardens.Today at a quarter past eleven she will defend her thesis entitled ‘Systematics, epidermal defense, and bioprospecting of wild orchids’. Not in public in front of the opposition committee in the Academy Building, but from her home in Indonesia, video calling from behind her screen.
Her native country is also where Richa completed the last part of her PhD research, and where her passion for orchids arose. “After I finished my Master's, I started working as a researcher in the Bogor Botanic Gardens in Indonesia, where I discovered the beauty of orchids. Practice taught me how difficult it is to identify these plants when they are not blooming, and that observation planted the seeds for my PhD research.”
In her research, Richa studied the Genus Glomera, one least-known genus of necklace orchids from Indonesia and developed an informative and helpful online interactive identification key (http://glomera.linnaeus.naturalis.nl). "With the key, you can identify species based on their characteristics, such as via the stems, leaves, and flowers -if available-, supplemented with data on geographic distribution and ecology."
Via the tool, Richa wants to call on citizens and scientists to collaborate. “Citizens can take photos of wild orchids with their mobile phones and identify them immediately. This is valuable data for scientists, especially in a country like Indonesia, where it is sometimes not easy to travel to certain places. I urge anyone with an interest in wild orchids in Southeast Asia to contribute new observations, so that we can update current information on the distribution of overlooked species, and thus better understand their conservation status.”
Richa used molecular family trees to find orchid species with antimicrobial compounds. “It used to be thought that only wild orchids contain the antimicrobial compounds, but my research shows that this is not true. Orchids that are grown in greenhouses also contain active substances. In addition, there are two species of orchid, of which their extract is used as a traditional medicine against bronchitis. I see the possibility that these can be used as potential resources of substances that could relieve symptoms of COVID-19.”
Richa is pleased with the result of her research. “I am very happy with all the support I have received from my supervisors Prof. Dr. Erik Smets and Prof. Dr. Barbara Gravendeel, friends, family and colleagues. I challenged myself during my PhD trajectory: I became a proud mom of two boys and finished my PhD, so nothing is impossible!” Yet her PhD research is only the beginning of her career. “I will continue to study Indonesian Orchids in the Bogor Botanic Gardens and I want to do the bioprospecting of all indonesian orchids. It's a lot of work, but in the end, I hope to be able to call myself an ‘orchid expert’ and contribute to research into Indonesian orchids."
The web-based key identification of the orchid genus Glomera (including Glossorhyncha) encompassing a total of 169 species that are distributed from New Guinea, Papua, Moluccas up to Java, Vanuatu and the Philippines. View the identification key
Find out more about Richa's research on orchid extracts that help fight microbial infections: Nature Today
Antimicrobial Activity of Necklace Orchids is Phylogenetically Clustered and can be Predicted With a Biological Response Method
A Linnaeus NG interactive key to the species of Glomera (Orchidaceae, Coelogyninae) from Southeast Asia