Plant Talk | Science Talk

In Love with the Lab: A Review of “Lab Girl”

Posted in Books: Past and Present, Personalities in Science on April 26th, 2016 by Barbara Thiers – Be the first to comment

Barbara M. Thiers, Ph.D., is the Patricia K. Holmgren Director of the William and Lynda Steere Herbarium and Vice President for Science Administration at The New York Botanical Garden.

Lab Girl By Hope Jahren Knopf

Cover image via Knopf

Hope Jahren, the author of the new memoir Lab Girl (Alfred A. Knopf, New York 2016), calls herself a geobiologist. A geologist by training, she mostly studies how soil, water, and climate affect plant growth. After working at a variety of universities, she is currently at the University of Hawaii. In her spare time, she is an active blogger, mostly writing about “interactions between women and men and Academia.”

Lab Girl begins with Hope’s childhood in a small town in southern Minnesota, where her family had lived for generations. Her childhood home life was stable, although her parents were very reserved and Hope received little outward affection from them. Formatively, she spent evenings with her father in his chemistry lab at the local junior college where he taught. From this experience, she developed a love for the order and purposefulness of a laboratory as a venue for discovery and wonder.

The book chronicles Hope’s journey from undergraduate to graduate student, to struggling young professional researcher, and ultimately to successful and acclaimed leader in her field. Many aspects of this story will be familiar, painfully so, to those who began their scientific careers toward the end of the 20th century and also struggled with acceptance by colleagues, the never-ending grind of raising money, institutional politics, and the careful time-management required (especially for women) to balance family and career. Sexism enters the picture, of course, but in describing this, along with the other challenges she has faced, Hope is matter-of-fact and without self-pity. Her creative energy and desire to succeed sometimes outstripped her emotional strength, but she has found a control regimen that seems to keep her balanced.

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Sex, Lies—and Orchids?

Posted in Interesting Plant Stories on April 15th, 2016 by Stevenson Swanson – Be the first to comment

Stevenson Swanson is the Science Media Manager at The New York Botanical Garden.

OrchidOh, those naughty orchids. An insect may think it has found a safe place to lay its eggs or discovered a willing partner for a tryst, but it turns out that nest or member of the opposite sex is really an orchid. Orchids have evolved these deceptive appearances and many other techniques such as alluring aromas and vibrant colors to lure insects to do their bidding, namely to spread their pollen to other orchids so they can produce seeds.

Just in time for the closing weekend of The Orchid Show: Orchidelirium, the public radio program Science Friday has posted a short video on its website that explores the evolutionary adaptations that have allowed some of the most beautiful members of the plant kingdom to flourish. Shot at The New York Botanical Garden and featuring Marc Hachadourian, Director of the Nolen Greenhouses and Curator of Orchids, this video may leave you thinking that we humans are just as susceptible to the allures of orchids as those six-legged pollinators.

Cary Fowler Protects Biodiversity in “Seeds of Time” Documentary

Posted in Personalities in Science on April 14th, 2016 by Jenifer Willis – Be the first to comment

Seeds of Time

Nestled in the Norwegian Arctic, secure in an underground vault, rests one resource mankind cannot live without: seeds. The vault is a piece of a larger project of agricultural pioneer Cary Fowler in a passionate race against time to protect the future of our food supply, as captured in a documentary film Seeds of Time.

We sat down with Fowler in advance of our Earth Day screening of Seeds of Time to learn more about preserving biodiversity in agricultural crops and what filmgoers can do to help.
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Forest Primeval: Trekking Through Myanmar’s Northern Forest Complex

Posted in From the Field, Travelogue on April 11th, 2016 by Stevenson Swanson – Be the first to comment

Stevenson Swanson is the Science Media Manager at The New York Botanical Garden.

Gatthu Myanmar NYBG Science

Setting out, uphill, from Gatthu village on the first day of the trek

Last fall, when the leaves were turning golden yellow and bright red in The New York Botanical Garden’s old-growth forest, two Botanical Garden scientists were on the other side of the world, trekking through a very different old-growth forest in northern Myanmar.

The scientists—Kate Armstrong, Ph.D., Myanmar Program Coordinator in the Institute of Systematic Botany, and Damon P. Little, Ph.D., Associate Curator of Bioinformatics in the Lewis B. and Dorothy Cullman Program for Molecular Systematics—are part of a major Garden research program to discover and document Myanmar’s botanical diversity, build the country’s capacity to carry out plant research, and promote the sustainable use of its forests.

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NYBG Scientists Help Discover a Promising Anticancer Agent to Fight a Childhood Scourge

Posted in Interesting Plant Stories on March 30th, 2016 by Daniel Atha – Be the first to comment

Daniel Atha is the Conservation Program Manager at The New York Botanical Garden.

A chemical agent found in a member of the snapdragon family (Scrophulariaceae) has shown early promise as a potential treatment for a cancer whose victims are overwhelmingly infants and children.

I recently co-authored a paper describing the potency of a chemical extracted from Armenian figwort (Scrophularia orientalis) in killing malignant cells found in neuroblastoma, a cancer of the nervous system. Neuroblastoma is the most common non-brain solid tumor in children and the most common cancer in infancy (NIH NCI, 2016). Almost half of its victims are children under two years of age.

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An Edison Odyssey: NYBG’s Herbarium Collection Joins a New Exhibit in Florida

Posted in Interesting Plant Stories on March 21st, 2016 by Lisa Vargues – Be the first to comment

Lisa Vargues is a Curatorial Assistant at The New York Botanical Garden’s William and Lynda Steere Herbarium. Her work includes digitizing plant specimens, historical and new, from around the world for the C. V. Starr Virtual Herbarium.

The Edison Estate at the Edison and Ford Winter Estates, Fort Myers, Florida. Photo courtesy of the Edison and Ford Winter Estates.

The Edison Estate at the Edison and Ford Winter Estates, Fort Myers, Florida. Photo courtesy of the Edison and Ford Winter Estates.

Edison and Rubber: A Scientific Quest, a new permanent exhibit at the Edison and Ford Winter Estates in Fort Myers, Florida, is a multi-faceted exploration of inventor Thomas Edison’s major final research project on domestic rubber. Both the exhibit and the 20-plus-acre site present a fascinating blend of history, science, botany, and innovation. The New York Botanical Garden, which is historically connected to the Estates through Edison’s rubber research, has gladly joined this interactive exhibit with a display of recently discovered herbarium materials.

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Living Fossils: A Scientist’s Fascination with Cycads

Posted in Interesting Plant Stories on March 9th, 2016 by Stevenson Swanson – Be the first to comment

Stevenson Swanson is the Science Media Manager at The New York Botanical Garden.

Palms of the World Gallery cycadCycads, an ancient group of cone-producing tropical plants, are sometimes called “living fossils” because they have existed for more than 200 million years–since before the time of the dinosaurs. Yet despite surviving mass extinctions, continental drift, ice ages, and other challenges, cycads are in trouble today.

Some cycads such as the sago palm are popular commerical plants, but in the wild, habitat destruction and poaching are now pushing many species in this group to the brink. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature has said that 53 percent of the approximately 300 species of cycads are imperiled.

One of the world’s leading experts on this intriguing group of plants is Dennis Wm. Stevenson, Ph.D., Vice President for Botanical Research and Cullman Curator at The New York Botanical Garden. Dr. Stevenson’s cycad research has taken him to every continent, including Antarctica, and he has discovered and described many new species.

Recently, Matt Candeias of the blog and podcast “In Defense of Plants” talked to Dr. Stevenson about his decades-long fascination with cycads, which began during his years as a graduate student at the University of California-Davis. You can hear their conversation here.

Flowers in the Gallery: A Melding of Art, Botany, and Politics

Posted in Interesting Plant Stories, Learning Experiences on February 29th, 2016 by Jenifer Willis – Be the first to comment
Taryn Simon Art

Bratislava Declaration. Bratislava, Slovakia, August 3, 1968.

Chelsea’s powerhouse Gagosian Gallery is not the most likely place you’d find pressed herbarium specimens.

But that’s exactly what you’ll see there as part of the gallery’s current show by multidisciplinary artist Taryn Simon.

In “Paperwork and the Will of Capital,” Simon recreates and photographs the elaborate centerpieces that sat between powerful men as they signed agreements designed to change the world. Preparing the exhibition, Simon worked with Daniel Atha, NYBG botanist and Conservation Program Manager, and Sheranza Alli, NYBG Senior Museum Preparator and Herbarium Aid, who teach a Plant Collection and Preservation Workshop at the Garden.  read more »

The Remarkable Plants of a Pacific Island Nation

Posted in Books: Past and Present on February 26th, 2016 by Stevenson Swanson – Be the first to comment

Stevenson Swanson is the Science Media Manager at The New York Botanical Garden.

Vanuatu, an island nation in the South Pacific Ocean, lies at the crossroads of regional groups of islands with a rich and original assortment of plant life, including species from Australia and Asia that were brought to these volcanic islands by wind, marine currents, and animals.

Comprehensive, accessible information about many of Vanuatu’s most noteworthy plant species is now available in one convenient volume, Remarkable Plants of Vanuatu, by Laurence Ramon and Chanel Sam, which is newly published by The New York Botanical Garden Press and Biotope, a French publisher. The text is in English and French.

Remarkable Plants of Vanuatu is intended to raise awareness of Vanuatu’s plant diversity among the general public and aid conservation efforts in the country, whose residents are largely rural and depend on plants for food, firewood, timber, medicine, and handmade goods.
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Getting Lichens on the List—The IUCN Red List, That Is

Posted in Environment on February 19th, 2016 by James Lendemer – Be the first to comment

James C. Lendemer, Ph.D., is an Assistant Curator in the Institute of Systematic Botany at The New York Botanical Garden. Lichens, which include a fungal component, are his primary research interest.


Cladonia appalachensis (credit: James Lendemer)

Lichens, like other fungi, are poorly represented in conservation efforts in the United States and Canada as well as most other countries outside of Europe. At the beginning of 2015, only two lichens were protected under the US Endangered Species Act, 16 were protected under similar legislation in Canada, and two were listed internationally on the Red List of threatened species, which is maintained by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). At the state level, slightly higher numbers of lichens and other fungi are protected, although coverage is highly variable and no state has a comprehensive assessment of all the lichens within its borders.

The lack of protections for lichens is not, however, due to a lack of knowledge about the threats species face and the declines they have already suffered. Instead, there is a tremendous wealth of information stored in museums and in decades of firsthand knowledge held in the minds of American and Canadian lichenologists.

Recognizing that lichens were neither unknown nor unknowable, we organized a meeting at The New York Botanical Garden to advance the cause of lichen conservation internationally. For three days last year, we met with Troy McMullin, Ph.D., from the Canadian Museum of Nature and Christoph Scheidegger, Ph.D., from the Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow, and Landscape Research. Our goal was to produce the first complete IUCN assessments for a selection of lichens from North America that we knew to be threatened or endangered.

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