Archives For graduate program

Do you ever feel like trying to understand plant science research can be as daunting as deciphering a passage written in a foreign language?

As a budding plant scientist in the joint Chicago Botanic Garden/Northwestern University Ph.D. program, I find it exciting to pick through dense scientific text. Uncovering the meaning of a new acronym and learning new vocabulary can be thrilling, especially when decoding something new.

PHOTO: Kelly Ksiazek speaking in Sydney, Australia.

This past fall I spoke to a group of green infrastructure professionals in Sydney about the importance of urban biodiversity.

But the commonly used styles in scientific writing and presentation packed with language used to convey big topics in small spaces can be really off-putting to an audience of non-scientists. Many of us can conjure up a memory of a professor or teacher who seemed to like their subject matter but couldn’t convey the material in an interesting way. All of a sudden, science became boring.

Rather than struggling to learn this “foreign language,” many folks stop paying attention. Lack of scientific literacy, especially as it applies to plants, is a pity. Plants are all around us! They are so valuable to the entire planet. The very applicable field of botany shouldn’t be something that’s only discussed and understood in laboratories or scientific conferences—it should be for everyone.

This idea inspires me to try and bring my current botany research to a wide variety of people.

PHOTO: Ksiazek takes her presentation on the road to Pittsburgh.

I’ve had the chance to speak with many visitors to the Chicago Botanic Garden about my research, and typically bring some of my research supplies, as seen here from a trip to Pittsburgh.

PHOTO: Growing UP in the City: A Book About Green Roofs.

Writing and publishing a children’s book helps bring my research findings to kids all over the world.

For example, I recently realized that there are very few resources available to teach young students about the habitat where I currently collect most of my data: green roofs. While some of the methods I use for data collection and analysis can be quite complex, the motivations behind my work and some of the findings can be broken down into some basic ideas, applicable to students of all ages. So a fellow botanist and I wrote and produced Growing Up in the City: A Book About Green Roofs.

Our children’s activity book teaches youngsters about some of our research findings. The book follows a pair of native bumblebees through a city, where they guide the reader through engaging activities about the structure, environmental benefits, and motivations for building green roofs. At the end, readers even have the opportunity to ask their own research question and carry out a green roof research project of their own.

Interested in your own copy of our book? More information and a free digital download of the book are available at greeningupthecity.com.

PHOTO: Ksiazek presents her work to a girls' middle school.

Talking to 100-plus middle school girls about why it’s cool to be a botanist was a great experience!

The activity book is just one example of ways that plant scientists can engage with a broader audience and make their research findings more accessible. Some of the other activities that my colleagues here at the Chicago Botanic Garden and I have participated in include mentoring undergraduate and high school students, speaking to community organizations, creating lessons for schools and school groups, volunteering for summer programs, and maintaining a presence on the Internet through online mentoring, blogging, websites, and Twitter.

PHOTO: Ksiazek and an undergraduate student identify green roof plants.

Teaching undergraduate students how to identify plants on green roofs is one way of passing on my research knowledge.

PHOTO: Ksiazek discusses her research with a visitor to the PCSC.

My experiments on the green roof at the Plant Science Center are visible to everyone. Come take a look!

Here at the Garden, we scientists also have a unique variety of opportunities to share our science with the thousands of visitors who come to the beautiful Daniel F. and Ada L. Rice Plant Conservation Science Center. If you’ve never been to the Plant Science Center, you should definitely stop by the next time you’re at the Garden. You can see inside the laboratories where the other scientists and I collect some of our data. There are also a lot of interactive displays that aim to demystify plant science research and decode some of the “foreign language” that science speak can be. For a really interactive experience, come visit us on World Environment Day, Saturday, June 6, and talk to scientists directly. Bring your kids, bring your neighbors, and ask a botanist all those burning plant questions you have! We promise to only speak as much “science” as you want.

For more information about my research and science communication efforts, please visit my research blog, Kelly Ksiazek’s Botany in Action, and follow me on Twitter @GreenCityGal.


©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Springing Forward in the Wild West

Undercover Science

Julianne Beck —  April 3, 2013 — 1 Comment

A race is on in the Colorado Plateau, where native and nonnative plants are battling to out-compete the other and lay claim to the land.  In this dynamic location bridging Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico, the situation is heating up.

It’s a race scientists are not willing to gamble on. Andrea Kramer, Ph.D., a conservation scientist at the Chicago Botanic Garden, is working with a research team to determine how to give native plants the lead.

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The Colorado Plateau stretches into Arizona.

Since invasive species such as cheatgrass arrived on the Plateau more than a century ago, they have fueled destructive fires and caused numerous other problems, according to Dr. Kramer.

These problems do not deter the expansion of cheatgrass, but they do inhibit many native species. This clears the way for more cheatgrass to grow each year. In this area that is home to numerous native animals including the nearly endangered sage grouse bird, a solution is imperative.

The cheatgrass invasion is an accelerating problem that once seemed hopeless. But now, building on research begun in the Garden’s Plant Production Greenhouse by Becky Barak, currently a Ph.D. student in the Garden’s joint graduate program in plant biology and conservation with Northwestern University, Kramer and her team have learned that native species are not as helpless as they once seemed.  Some of them may even be unlikely heroes.

“We’re focusing on the native wildflowers, particularly on the Colorado Plateau because they are so important to the functioning of those natural communities, and because so little is known about them,” said Dr. Kramer.

Andrea Kramer Ph.D.

Dr. Kramer samples and photographs study plants near Utah’s Zion National Park.

She has worked with botanists around the Colorado Plateau to identify specific species of native plants, categorized as native “winners,” that have naturally begun adapting to the new circumstances.

Unlike their counterparts in unaltered locations, these species have learned how to grow their roots deeper, faster to access water, or found other ways to gain an advantage. Not only are they capable of surviving in an unnaturally harsh environment, but Kramer believes they could prove to be smart and fast enough to help keep invasive species in check.

In labs at the Garden, she is working with graduate student Alicia Foxx to stage trials between cheatgrass and these plants in conditions nearly identical to those in the Plateau. Kramer’s goal is to identify the strongest native “winners.” Once they are known, she will work with local partners in the west to test the best seeds on the ground in this struggling landscape. Then, they will make sure the seed is available for restoration work — positioning the native “winners” for success.

“Ultimately, we want to get the right seed in the hands of the right people,” said Kramer.

Kramer’s field research began last year, and will resume in coming weeks. On a typical expedition, she flies into the Las Vegas airport — the closest access point to the Plateau. Along with fellow Garden researchers and graduate students, she climbs into a research vehicle and rolls into the field armed with data from the lab, a bundle of tools, and camping equipment. Over a series of days at a range of locations, they meet with local botanists and collect seeds from key locations to take back to the Garden lab for study.  

native winner vs. cheatgrass

In the Garden laboratory, a native “winner” on the left, battles cheatgrass, on the right.

This year, they are eager to return to a site they planted with native “winners” last year, in order to check for progress. The site, called Pine Ridge, experienced an extensive fire in July 2012 when lightning struck an area with abundant cheatgrass.

When compared to lab results, their findings will inform which seeds may go into development for restoration use on the Plateau.

The concept of native “winners” is helpful to many newer research projects in other locations, including Illinois. Another graduate student in the Garden’s program is beginning to apply the process to plants found in Illinois wetlands.

It is this opportunity for collaboration and expansion that most excites Kramer. “It’s a great project because it uses the expertise of many garden research staff members and engages students,” she noted. “We have this in-house expertise in working with the species, the labs here are unique, and the opportunity to engage students is also unique.”

Learn more about Dr. Kramer’s work and watch a video interview.

Kramer spent her youth exploring an agricultural area of Nebraska where she grew up. Her love of the outdoors led her to study botany in Minnesota, where she quickly became enamored with prairie plants. At the Garden, she takes every opportunity to stroll the Dixon Prairie. “It’s like revisiting old friends,” she said.

Clearly, Kramer is a good friend to have.


©2013 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org