Being a botanist

When I tell people I am a botanist, it’s usually met with a look of confusion. Most people know that botany is the study of plants, but what does it actually mean to be a botanist? For me, studying plants means inspecting the subtle and sometimes grandiose differences between species. I love learning the aspects of a plant family and knowing what makes two species different. Sometimes this involves rogue memorization, sure, like knowing which families have latex that pours out if you break a leaf off, but often it’s carefully scrutinizing whether a leaf has tiny hairs or not. This is important for the categorization of species. Only through grouping species do we really have any way of quantifying the biodiversity that exists in an area. The study of taxonomy and nomenclature, is part of systematics, which is used to understand the evolutionary history of life on earth and is my area of specialty.

My love for botany stems from seeing how our food grows. I grew up in upstate NY where we always had a garden full of vegetables, apple orchards, we tapped our maple trees and made maple syrup, and we were always canning things that we were able to eat all winter long. Most people are so disconnected from what they eat, that they think that pineapples grow on trees! They don’t, they’re in the Bromeliaceae family and with their basal rosette of leaves maybe look something like an Aloe plant, with less fleshy leaves. Though if you look closely, the flowers and fruits are completely different. I have an aloe plant that I have been growing for years and is finally flowering for the first time. Growing plants, the field of horticulture, is a part of being a botanist. Personally, I find horticulture to be a bit of an art, one which I lack the paintbrush for, I kill more plants than I keep alive, but that’s unsubstantiated.

The best part of being a botanist, for me, is the variety of what a typical day looks like. Some days I am gallavanting through the rainforest looking for plants that haven’t been collected in decades—though usually it’s not quite as glamarous as that sounds, field work can be extremely challenging with the heat of the tropics, mosquitos, and difficult driving and hiking conditions. Lots of days are also consumed with writing: grants to fund my research, academic papers that are crucial for communicating to the science world new discoveries, non-academic articles that can inform the general public (sometimes via this blog!) why science and academics is important. I also stay very active in outreach and organize workshops for students and teachers. I have interns, both at the high school and undergraduate level that I work closely with on several different projects. Lots of my days lately are spent in the lab. Species relationships are mostly informed through plant DNA.  To retrieve this information, I have to extract the DNA, isolate the gene or region that I am targeting, and then sequence it which will give me the code which I will then use to compare to other species. Using complex algorithms we can then statistically compare these sequences to gain a better understanding of species relationships.

When I think about what I really love about being a botanist, I picture being in the middle of a lush green rainforest. However, I have a profound respect for many different types of biologically diverse ecosystems and the biodiversity that they harbor. I caught my first frog, a red-eyed tree frog in Tortuguero National Park, Costa Rica in 2006. I vividly and horrifyingly remember listening to the personal stories of the extinction of the Golden Toad of Monteverde; global warming during this time period was, for the first time, officially linked to amphibian extinctions. My continued travels throughout the tropics have given me a deep appreciation and understanding of tropical plant diversity, sustainability, and conservation. I have seen first hand the devastating effects of deforestation and the implications it has for the world. The field of botany has been said to be a dying field, which always surprises me, because I think our work now is as crucial as ever. Documenting life on Earth as it is increasingly threatened is imperative in my opinion. If we don’t know what exists in an area, how can we properly implement conservation strategies to preserve Earth’s beautiful biodiversity?

From left to right: Bananas (Musaceae), Aloe (Asphodelaceae), Bromeliad (Bromeliaceae)