Exploring the science of plants, from the field to the lab

Archive: November 2015

Oliver Sacks: A Remembrance

Posted in Personalities in Science on November 25, 2015 by Robbin Moran

Robbin C. Moran, Ph.D., is Nathaniel Lord Britton Curator of Botany at NYBG‘s Institute of Systematic Botany. He is an expert on ferns and lycophytes.

Oliver Sacks
Oliver Sacks visiting a titan arum (Amorphophallus titanum) in 2004. (Photo by Robbin Moran.)

Oliver Sacks, a board member of The New York Botanical Garden, died of cancer at his home in New York City on August 30, 2015. He was 82. Oliver was one of the world’s leading neurologists and science writers, known for his many essays and books such as Awakenings, The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat, An Anthropologist on Mars, Island of the Colorblind, Uncle Tungsten, and Musicophilia. Some of these books, or chapters in them, were adapted for film and/or stage, such as Awakenings (Robin Williams and Robert De Niro), At First Sight (Val Kilmer and Mira Sorvino), and The Music Never Stopped (Lou Taylor Pucci and Julia Ormond). Since his death, much has been written about his life, but little has been written about him as a lover of plants, which he indeed was, especially of ferns and cycads.

Oliver developed an interest in plants as a boy. At age six he was evacuated from London to a school in the English Midlands to avoid the Blitz. Separated from his parents and extremely lonely and unhappy, he took solace in holiday visits to his Aunt Len’s place in Cheshire. She had a garden and delighted in explaining its plants to an inquisitive young Oliver. They took long botanizing walks in the forest, stopping frequently to look at ferns and horsetails. These visits to “Auntie Len’s” instilled a love for plants that stayed with him for the rest of his life.

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WeDigBio: Bringing Biological Collections to the World

Posted in Interesting Plant Stories on November 20, 2015 by Science Talk

Mari A. Roberts is a Volunteer Coordinator at The New York Botanical Garden’s William and Lynda Steere Herbarium. Her work focuses on engaging citizen scientists in the digitization of plant specimens.

wedigbioDid you know that you can volunteer on a global initiative right here at The New York Botanical Garden? That’s what happened last month when 15 volunteers participated in the Worldwide Engagement for Digitizing Biocollections (WeDigBio), making information on biodiversity collections—such as pressed plants, pinned insects, and aquatic species in jars—available online.

WeDigBio was a one-of-a-kind event engaging hundreds of volunteers to transcribe specimens at more than 30 institutions via multiple transcription platforms (DigiVol, Hebaria @ Home, Les Herbonautes, Notes from Nature, Smithsonian Institution’s Transcription Center and Symbiota). One goal of WeDigBio was to increase awareness of the importance of biodiversity collections and of making them easily available online to researchers worldwide. Thanks to WeDigBio volunteers at The New York Botanical Garden, The National Museum of Natural History, Australian Museum, Florida State University and dozens of other institutions, data on more than 31,000 biological specimens will be available for researchers, graduate students and even citizen scientists!

Biodiversity collections held in universities, natural history museums and herbaria are physical representations of our planet’s life forms and biological processes. Plant specimens are collected in the field and then stored in a herbarium, where they can remain for hundreds of years. However, collections are not easily accessible to the general public, nor are there digital representations of every specimen.

“Never has it been more important for museums to open their specimen cabinet doors to the public,” says Austin Mast, a WeDigBio organizer and Associate Professor of Biological Science at Florida State University. “Everyone should have the chance to see the rich textures of life on Earth in these collections. Public participation of this sort helps science bring those rich textures into sharper focus.”

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The William and Lynda Steere Herbarium at the Botanical Garden is one of 3,400 herbaria in the world and holds 7.8 million specimens that are used by Garden scientists and visiting researchers. To digitize our collections—that is, cataloging them, imaging specimens, and transcribing specimen information—staff and volunteers work on multi-institutional grant-funded projects to target specific areas of the Steere Herbarium’s collections.

For WeDigBio, Garden volunteers captured information about the historical who, what, when, and where of 500 specimens of bryophytes (mosses and their relatives). Bryophytes are model organisms for documenting environmental change because they take up atmospheric nutrients in their environment. By studying these sensitive indicators in historic and recent collections, scientists can address research questions concerning the change in species distributions after man-made environmental events such as climate change, air pollution, and habitat destruction.


Interested in volunteering? You don’t have to wait until WeDigBio 2016! There are opportunities in the Steere Herbarium year round. Help us discover vital information in our rich collection of plant specimens and contribute to our cause of preserving biodiversity.

For volunteer opportunities in the Herbarium, contact Mari Roberts at mroberts@nybg.org.

Where Botany and Healthcare Intersect

Posted in Interesting Plant Stories on November 10, 2015 by Stevenson Swanson

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

Dr. Ina Vandebroek, Ph.D.
Dr. Ina Vandebroek

When Ina Vandebroek, Ph.D., started to study how immigrant Caribbean communities use traditional plant-based medicines in their health care, she soon realized that her subjects often did not tell their doctors about the various remedies they are using.

To help bridge this gap, Dr. Vandebroek, the Matthew Calbraith Perry Assistant Curator of Economic Botany and the director of the Caribbean Program at the Institute of Economic Botany of The New York Botanical Garden, has held nearly 50 training sessions for 740 medical students and practicing physicians.

The goal of these sessions is to raise awareness among health-care practitioners about traditional plant-based medicines so they can communicate better with their patients, build trust, and identify potentially harmful drug interactions between mainstream pharmaceuticals and the active chemicals in traditional remedies.

The shelves at a Bronx botanica, a store where traditional plant-based remedies are sold.

After initially focusing on immigrants from the Dominican Republic, Dr. Vandebroek has now expanded her research project to include Jamaican immigrants. Her research is supported in part by a World of Difference grant from the Cigna Foundation, which announced last week that it was renewing the grant for a second year.

Dr. Vandebroek recently wrote about the importance of understanding immigrant health care practices for “The Doctor’s Tablet,” a blog at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, where Dr. Vandebroek has held several training sessions for its health care professionals. You can read her post here.

From Student to Teacher: A Conversation with a Former NYBG Graduate Student

Posted in Past and Present on November 3, 2015 by Stevenson Swanson

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

Dr. Lawrence Kelly & Dr. Natalia PabĂłn-Mora
Dr. Lawrence Kelly & Dr. Natalia PabĂłn-Mora

Like most scientific research institutions, The New York Botanical Garden regularly hosts visiting scientists, but it’s especially gratifying to welcome back former graduate students who have gone on to important positions elsewhere.

That was the case recently when Natalia Pabón-Mora, Ph.D., returned to the Garden for several weeks. Dr. Pabón-Mora, who received her Ph.D. in 2012, is currently a professor at the Universidad de Antioquia in Medellin, Colombia.

She took a break from her research to talk with Lawrence M. Kelly, Ph.D., Director of the Commodore Matthew Perry Graduate Studies Program at the Botanical Garden, about what attracted her to the Garden as a place to study plant science.

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