Stories of Science—Tracy Commock


For the last two weeks, we have had a very special visitor at FIU and FTBG, Tracy Commock, Director of the Natural History Museum of Jamaica. I met Tracy, a fellow botanist, in 2014 and she has since become a great colleague and friend. In 2016 Tracy accompanied me during my field work, collecting Plumeria in Jamaica, along with Keron Campbell, botanist (at the Museum) and also Ph.D. student (University of the West Indies (UWI) at Mona).  During this trip, I participated in the museum’s “Afternoon with a Scientist” program for middle school students and also gave a talk at The University of the West Indies (UWI) on my research on Plumeria. Tracy has since started her own Ph.D. research at UWI (major advisor Prof. Philip Rose), and she and I share committee members (Dr. Javier Francisco-Ortega, FIU professor and Dr. Brett Jestrow, Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden’s Collections Manager). The UWI is the largest regional University of the Caribbean, with over 40,000 students. Tracy has been paramount in developing a collaboration between UWI and FIU through an inter-institutional official agreement already in place between these two universities. I took her out for ice cream and we chatted about life as a botanist in Jamaica.

What’s your favorite flavor of ice cream?

I’m boring, I like vanilla

How did you get into this collaboration with UWI/FIU?

Being Director of the Natural History Museum of Jamaica (part of the Institute of Jamaica), I saw lots of researchers coming through the museum and was very interested in their work. Javier came to Jamaica to teach a course on DNA systematics and I learned about his research throughout the Caribbean Islands. Through a project funded by the Mohammed Bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund I was able to work more closely with Brett and Javier looking for critically endangered plant species in Jamaica. I then came to Miami in summer 2014 to take the FIU Tropical Botany graduate couse where I met you! I returned soon after to take another FIU botany graduate class at Fairchild, Plant Anatomy Techniques, taught by visiting professor Dr. Andrés Vovides from the Institute of Ecology in Xalapa, Mexico. As I was learning about research happening at Fairchild, I started to realize that the problem in Jamaica is that there are lots of species that need to be researched, and not many botanists to do the job. I realized that we need to encourage new students to take on these projects. In 2014 an official collaboration was started between FIU and UWI and a Memorandum of Understanding was signed, with the intention of developing and implementing collaboration in research, teaching, and student mobility. This was when I decided to pursue my Ph.D. with Dr. Philip Rose, lecturer  at UWI, as my advisor and both Javier and Brett as my committee members.

What are you doing in FL now?

I am here to work on my dissertation research, which has four main components. The first is an introduction on the endemic genera in Jamaica, the second is the typification of names associated with some of these endemic genera, the third is a closer look into the taxonomy, biogeography and conservation of the genus Dendrocousinsia (Euphorbiaceae), and the fourth is the an anatomical study involving scanning electron microscopy (SEM) and the molecular phylogeny of Dendrocousinsia. During this visit I have been working in the lab at Fairchild on the molecular portion of my dissertation. During this third research visit I am doing DNA sequencing of the nuclear ETS region of Dendrocousinsia howardiana, D. lesteri, and D. crenulata. I also worked at FIU taking SEM images of pollen of some Dendrocousinsia species and outgroups that may be related to Dendrocousinsia. And writing! Lots of writing.

What do you like about coming to Miami?

My everyday job is very administrative. So even though I am a student, I am distracted by the telephone, reports, meetings, etc. When I am here, I can interact with other botanists, and see their work. I like hearing about everyone’s research and outreach and being immersed in botany. I usually stay at the Kampong or Montgomery Botanical Center, and even though it might seem remote to be ‘locked away’ it’s a nice retreat to be able to focus on my work. I am grateful for the opportunity to work with everyone at FIU and Fairchild. I also really love seeing all of the Jamaican plants at FTBG. It would be nice, and it is our goal, to get more Jamaican people to appreciate their native plants and to better understand why they are important.

What kind of education programs do you have at the Natural History Museum?

Currently we have a Biodiversity Awareness Programme, funded by Trans-Jamaican Highway. The program is currently in 5 primary schools (up to grade 6) and focuses on the use of a Biodiversity Centre (constructed under the project) installing school vegetable gardens and increasing appreciation of Jamaica’s rich biodiversity. This year schools involved in the Biodiversity Awareness Programme were encouraged to participate in a  “Cleaner is Greener Challenge” where students showed the value of gardening to the environment. We have an Earth Day competition and this year’s theme was “From Trash To Cash” where students showed how they can recycle everyday items into things that could be sold. We also recently had the operational opening of the Natural History Museum and plan to have a grand opening later this year. The space features Jamaica’s Ecosystems with dioramas  including: geology, coral reef, wetlands, dry limestone, and both understory and upper canopy of a rainforest. These exhibits are interactive with touch screens (provided with the support of Japanese government). As part of our outreach programs we have a mobile bus to take information into the public, similar to your mobile STEM lab bus! I love the educational programs going on at FTBG, it’s good to brainstorm with you for our own programs. Thank you Nichole for the opportunity to share some of what we do at our museum in Jamaica.

Thank you, Tracy, for chatting with me and giving us a glimpse into your life as a botanist and museum director!