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.
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.
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.
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.
When you dream of saving plants for a living, you don’t expect to wait for tribal elders to rule on whether you can get started…or to sleep in the sage-scented high desert on your first camping trip ever…or to walk through the woods to spray your hand-raised seedlings with a deer repellent that smells likes rotten eggs and garlic.
Students take courses at both the Chicago Botanic Garden and Northwestern University and work with researchers and faculty from both institutions. Alumni of the graduate program—which includes a doctoral track—are working for nonprofits and agencies including the Field Museum, the Morton Arboretum, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and participating in research projects in places including India, China, and Malaysia.
Here are the stories of these three graduates from the master’s program:
Tracy Misiewicz’s research project was on hold, while the village elders poured fermented rice wine into the ground. During the ceremony, in the western mountains of Cameroon, the elders chanted in Bakossi, a Bantu language, asking their ancestors if Misiewicz—a native of Maryland who decided to become a scientist in the seventh grade—could enter the rainforest. Then the elders threw down a handful of cacao nuts to see if they would land in a certain order. They did; the ancestor had granted permission.
And that, recalled Misiewicz with a delighted laugh, is how she began her fieldwork in Cameroon. With her sister as a research assistant and their Ngomboku neighbor—a basket weaver—as a guide, Misiewicz trudged through the forest to look for Dorstenia, the second largest genus in the moraceae (mulberry) family. Dorstenia species—some of which are considered threatened or are already extinct—are used by indigenous people for medicinal purposes and show promise in their use in modern medicine. As part of her master’s thesis, Misiewicz looked at the family tree and evolutionary history of some species within the genus.
In Cameroon, Misiewicz and her sister learned how to cook local dishes and dance to local music. “You really get to know the people and the culture,” said Misiewicz. “When we left, we were crying, and the ladies in the village were crying.”
For her master’s research at the Garden, Misiewicz worked with adviser and Garden scientist Nyree Zerega, Ph.D., and Garden conservation scientist Jeremie Fant, Ph.D. “They are two of the smartest and nicest and most supportive mentors I could have had,” said Misiewicz, who went on to get her Ph.D. at the University of California, Berkeley. “They made science fun. They made me understand that when your experiment didn’t work out or things are going wrong, it’s OK. I learned to overcome and move forward and still love science…at Berkeley, my experience was wonderful, but there were times where I was like, ‘What am I doing? I’m not having fun. Nothing is working.’ Always, I would think back to my experience at the Chicago Botanic Garden, and think, ‘I love science.’”
Misiewicz now works as a science project specialist for the Organic Center, a nonprofit organization in Washington, D.C., that focuses on research and education projects related to organic food and farming. The job is a good fit—she loves policy, science, and thinking through problems. “I think science is sort of like cooking in that you can follow a ‘recipe’ and learn to extract DNA,” Misiewicz said. “That’s not the hard part. It’s the thinking critically and creatively and problem solving, and understanding what’s going on. That’s what I really took away from the Garden…I learned how to think.”
Alicia Foxx hit the ground running when she started her master’s degree program, under the supervision of Andrea Kramer, Ph.D., a conservation scientist at the Garden. “The second time I met her,” recalled Foxx, “we were getting on a plane” to work on a research project in the Southwest.
The two of them drove and camped in the high desert of the Colorado Plateau, which covers parts of Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona, including the Grand Canyon. Foxx, a native of Chicago, had never slept outside or seen mountains before. And she had never seen the way that invasive species could choke out native plants, including bunch grasses and wildflowers.
“On paper, it was a very interesting subject,” Foxx said. “You’ve got invasive plants that are taking over the West. But I think seeing how there were pretty much one or two [native plants left] in a very large landscape and how we’re losing the plant diversity that we really need to gain back was very different than just learning about it. It made me think, ‘This work is really important.’”
Originally, as an undergraduate at Elmhurst College, Foxx had planned to become a veterinarian—until she worked with her advisor, a botanist, on an invasive species project. “I just loved it,” she said. “I thought, ‘This is really interesting, and plants are really cool.’” One day, while looking up a list of invasive plants on the Garden’s website, something else caught her eye. “I thought, ‘Oh, there’s a graduate program there?’ So I clicked on the link.”
Foxx was accepted into the Garden’s master’s program and, in June 2012, made the weeklong trip with Dr. Kramer to the Colorado Plateau. With a team of researchers, they gathered the seeds of promising native plants—those tough enough to thrive in harsh conditions—as part of the national Seeds of Success collection program.
For her master’s thesis, Foxx studied native species that may be able to compete with cheatgrass (Bromus tectorum), an invasive species in the Plateau. Now, she is a doctoral candidate in the plant biology and conservation program. “I am so excited about working at the Garden for another five or six years,” she said. On some days, especially in the summer, she gets to the Garden an hour early to visit favorite spots, including the English Walled Garden.
Someday, Foxx hopes to have a role similar to Kramer’s, as both a researcher and an advisor. “Andrea is a very intelligent researcher who thinks of rather elegant research questions,” Foxx said. “On the advising side, she is very kind, understanding, and patient, and this has helped me to grow as a scientist.”
As an undergraduate at Northwestern University, Byron Tsang—now a project manager and ecologist with the Chicago Park District—was a chemistry and biology major. Tsang, who grew up in Atlanta, thought he might go into some sort of disease research, specializing in immunology and diagnostics. But something else tugged at him.
With a passing interest in ecology, Tsang took some field ecology classes and volunteered to work on the North Branch Restoration Project. (The organization helps protect and restore native Illinois ecosystems along the North Branch of the Chicago River.) And on vacation in New Zealand, he happened to learn about a challenging ecological problem—a common weed was taking over pastureland needed for sheep. When he finished his undergraduate studies and decided to pursue a master’s degree, Tsang had settled on a new field: plant biology. “I thought, ‘Hey, I could actually do this for a living,’” Tsang recalled.
Tsang wasn’t sure what his master’s thesis would be about, but he knew that he wanted to focus on a local problem. “I ended up falling in love with midwestern ecology,” he said. His adviser, associate conservation scientist Daniel Larkin, Ph.D., steered him to the Garden’s Jim Steffen, a senior ecologist. Steffen, who is leading restoration efforts in the Garden’s McDonald Woods, mentioned an intriguing question: why had two native wildflowers—pointed-leaf tick trefoil and violet lespedeza—failed to take off in the Woods? (The two legume species had been able to grow in other area oak woodlands; both are indicator species that appear in healthy woodlands.) Tsang took on the question as his master’s thesis; as part of his research, he sprayed young seedlings in the woods with a smelly deer repellent.
“My experience studying at the Garden really set the stage for my career as an ecologist,” Tsang said. “I learned a great deal about the intricate and often delicate ecological relationships that tie Chicago’s natural areas together, but equally important, I built invaluable personal relationships with academics, scientists, and restoration specialists in the Chicago area, all of whom I consider my colleagues and co-conspirators in my ongoing work at the Park District.”
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.