Lawrence M. Kelly, Ph.D., is Associate Vice President for Science Administration and Director of Graduate Studies at The New York Botanical Garden.
Every year on May 22, The New York Botanical Garden joins the global community in celebrating International Day for Biological Diversity. Established in 1993 by the United Nations, this day recognizes international cooperation and commitment to take global action to reduce the rate of biodiversity loss. It is also an outstanding opportunity to increase understanding and awareness of biodiversity issues, especially, for us here at NYBG, the issues facing the plant kingdom.
It is no exaggeration to say that without plants, life on Earth would be impossible. Plants provide food, clothing, shelter, medicine, and the raw materials to meet most human needs. Plants make the air we breathe, they create the rain that waters the world, and they are essential for healthy ecosystems. The beauty of plants nurtures our souls and inspires our imaginations. Yet the plant diversity that sustains us is imperiled today as never before in human history. One-third of Earth’s nearly 400,000 plant species are at risk of extinction.
Like other scientific research and educational institutions across the country, The New York Botanical Garden has seen increased enrollment in its Master’s programs in recent years as more graduate students pursue non-Ph.D. advanced degrees in the sciences. While many Ph.D. students seek careers in research and academia, Master’s students are more often looking for training opportunities to prepare them for careers in business, industry, nonprofit organizations, and government agencies.
To ensure that we continue to offer a broad range of opportunities to graduate students in the plant sciences, we have responded to this demand by providing Master’s thesis opportunities to students through our affiliated universities. Yale University’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies offers four Master’s degrees, as does New York University, including one focused on bioinformatics and systems biology, which is very relevant for students who want to gain expertise in biodiversity-related data management. Lehman College and City College of New York—both part of the City University of New York system—offer Master’s programs in biology. Columbia University confers a Master’s in conservation biology, while Fordham University has a Master’s in ecology.
Lawrence M. Kelly, Ph.D., is Director of Graduate Studies at The New York Botanical Garden. His research focuses on the evolution and classification of flowering plants.
Despite the year-round availability of most produce, few things say summer like a juicy, vine-ripened tomato from the garden or a produce stand. You can slice them, dice them, and use them in stews, sauces, and salads. They’re one of the most versatile of vegetables. Or are they?
Is a tomato a vegetable, as most people think it is, or is it really a fruit? In general terms, fruits are usually sweet and vegetables are savory. Fruits are usually eaten as dessert, and vegetables as a main course. Fruits are often succulent and edible when raw. More technical dictionary definitions recognize a fruit as an edible reproductive body of a plant. In contrast, vegetables are usually defined much more broadly, for example as an edible part of a plant, or they are defined by example, such as in Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary, which cites cabbages, beans, and potatoes.
Plants produce 98 percent of atmospheric oxygen through photosynthesis. Everything we eat comes directly or indirectly from plants. One quarter of prescription drugs come directly from plants or are plant derivatives. Fossilized plants provide energy in the form of fossil fuels such as oil and coal.
Given the importance of plants in every aspect of our lives, humans study plants to understand processes that are critical to our own survival and to the health of the planet. Beyond their obvious importance, plants have played key roles in a broad range of biological discoveries that have helped us understand some of the most fascinating mysteries of life.
The series of events by which flowering plants reproduce themselves is amazingly complicated and precise. One of the most critical processes occurs just after pollination, when pollen grains land on or are delivered by a bee or another pollinator to the surface of the stigma, one of the female reproductive organs within the flower.
The pollen grains begin to grow, or germinate. These germinating pollen grains produce tubes that grow through the tissue of the style and into the plant’s ovary. The sperm cells within the tubes will be delivered into the ovule—the plant equivalent of an unfertilized egg—so that fertilization and sexual reproduction can occur. That leads to seeds, the basis for the next generation of a plant species.
Fluorescence microscopy, one of the research techniques available to scientists at The New York Botanical Garden, allows us to see the path of the pollen tubes as they grow through the surface of the stigma and into the style, where the ovule awaits. In this species of Symplocos—a genus of of about 250 related plant species native to Asia, Australia, and the Americas—we can see the germinating pollen grains growing from the lobes below the top of the style.