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.
Annie Virnig is no stranger to tackling formidable challenges. Whether she’s hiking through the dense tropical forests of Colombia in search of rare plant species, noting her findings in the laboratory, or blocking a header on the soccer field, she employs the same diligence and problem-solving tactics to ensure the best possible result.
As a grad student at NYBG, Virnig’s work focuses on the neotropical blueberries that so often cause a stir in our Haupt Conservatory. The exotic shapes and colors of the Conservatory’s collection are only a small sample of their incredible diversity in South America, where the wealth of species goes well beyond the common blueberries, cranberries, and huckleberries that we associate with this plant tribe in the U.S. Zoning in on the historic and cultural uses of these plants, as well as the antioxidants and other health benefits provided by them, Virnig has found herself drawn to the town of El Queremal in Colombia, where an eponymous flower has captured imaginations for centuries.
Whether it’s a thousand-piece jigsaw puzzle or the phylogenetic reconstruction of the Carex laxiflorae complex, Jenna Dorey has a knack for piecing things together. Her work as a first-year Ph.D. student here at the Garden takes her through long stretches spent poring over morphology and molecular data, yet each piece of information is, like a jumble of shaped cut-outs, only a series of tenons and mortises waiting to be made whole. And from the field to the lab, this student rarely backs down from a good challenge.
We spoke with Dorey in late fall about her work in the NYBG labs, and the botanical inspirations that push her to continue her studies in the plant world. Among them, she tells us the love of a good frolic in a verdant field sits high on the list (though stomping around on a spongy moor with a vasculum in tow has a charm all its own).
For as much time as our scientists spend surrounded by centrifuges, microscopes, and the minutiae of scientific investigation, botanical inspiration can just as easily begin with something as simple as admiring a plant’s stunning good looks—a fact NYBG grad student Gwynne Lim will happily confirm. Her muse came in the form of the Tacca genus, more specifically the bat flower, a “gothic and macabre” plant which captured her imagination and led her down the path of exploration.
As a specialist in the systematics and reproductive biology of Tacca, Lim’s knowledge extends well into the current research being done to determine the genus’ medicinal uses, as well as its potential viability as a famine crop. But she certainly hasn’t lost that sense of wonder and discovery; of seeing the bat flower for the first time in the wild, or roughing it through miles of challenging terrain for the singular reward of witnessing something no other botanist has seen before. Watch the video below for an interview with Lim—it should help you understand how, so very often, discovery begins with a living muse.
The New York Botanical Garden may be a hub of environmental conservation and a botanical museum, but it’s also an institution of growth—and I’m not just referencing our plant collections. Here in our laboratories we host an international body of students whose enthusiasm for botany and its related disciplines fires a passion for learning, with many of them pursuing graduate degrees through research at the NYBG. Of these, a handful were more than happy to sit down and tell us about their chosen fields and the motivations that brought them here, as well as the tools and techniques they employ in their day-to-day studies.
As a first-year grad student with a specialization in freshwater green algae, Robin Sleith spends plenty of time around lakes and rivers, often trawling for algal species with an improvised tool that Dr. Kenneth Karol and his post-doc, Dr. John Hall, dreamed up from an egg whisk. But while the collection methods may be simplistic, the science behind Sleith’s studies is anything but. Check out the video below to see how a childhood spent exploring the wilderness of New Hampshire led Robin to the cusp of a career as a scientist and conservationist.