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

Personalities in Science

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

Posted in Books: Past and Present, Personalities in Science on April 26, 2016 by Barbara Thiers

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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Cary Fowler Protects Biodiversity in “Seeds of Time” Documentary

Posted in Personalities in Science on April 14, 2016 by Jenifer Willis

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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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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Garden Scientists Pay Tribute to Dr. Oliver Sacks

Posted in Personalities in Science on September 4, 2015 by Stevenson Swanson

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


Dr. Oliver Sacks with the Garden’s Patricia Holmgren, Ph.D.
Dr. Oliver Sacks with the Garden’s Patricia Holmgren, Ph.D.

Since his death on August 30, Dr. Oliver Sacks has been described as a latter-day Renaissance man who took a learned delight in many things—neurology, certainly, but also minerals, squids, and other cephalopods such as cuttlefish, and, most definitely, plants.

Dr. Sacks, who was a Board Member of The New York Botanical Garden and a 2011 recipient of the Botanical Garden’s Gold Medal, was especially fascinated with cycads and ferns, and the Garden scientists who specialize in those plants were among those at the Garden who knew him well.

Cycad expert Dennis Stevenson, Ph.D., the Garden’s Vice President for Botanical Research and Cullman Curator, recalled that Dr. Sacks, who for many years paid regular Wednesday visits to the Garden, enjoyed bringing together people from the various fields that appealed to his eclectic nature so they could learn from each other. Botanists learned about cephalopods from marine biologists; geologists learned about plant science from botanists.

“Oliver was always in a most subtle way teaching all of us about the world around us,” Dr. Stevenson said.

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Taking Conservation to a New Level: A Talk with the Garden’s Vice President for Conservation Strategy

Posted in Personalities in Science on April 8, 2015 by Stevenson Swanson

Stevenson Swanson is the Garden’s Science Media Manager.


Brian Boom New York Botanical Garden ConservationThe New York Botanical Garden recently established a new Conservation Program to increase its effectiveness as a global leader in conservation. Heading up this new initiative is Brian M. Boom, Ph.D., Bassett Maguire Curator of Botany and Director of the NYBG Press and Science Outreach.

Dr. Boom, who now has the additional title of Vice President for Conservation Strategy, has been at the Garden for nearly three decades. A specialist in the Rubiaceae (the coffee family), he was previously the Director of the Botanical Garden’s Caribbean Biodiversity Program, with overall responsibility for the creation, operation, and management of the institution’s botanical research and conservation initiatives in the Caribbean.

I sat down with Dr. Boom in his office on the fourth floor of the Garden’s Library Building to ask him about the new Conservation Program’s goals and initiatives.

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A Salute to Scott Mori

Posted in Personalities in Science on March 26, 2015 by Brian Boom

Brian M. Boom, Ph.D., is Vice President for Conservation Strategy, Director of NYBG Press and Science Outreach, and Bassett Maguire Curator of Botany at The New York Botanical Garden.


Scott A. Mori, Ph.D., spent the vast majority of his long, distinguished career at The New York Botanical Garden, having arrived here in 1975 as Research Associate working with Dr. Ghillean Prance on the systematics and ecology of the Brazil nut family, Lecythidaceae. Last fall, some four decades later, he retired as Nathaniel Lord Britton Curator of Botany in the Garden’s Institute of Systematic Botany.

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A Salute to Jackie Kallunki

Posted in Personalities in Science on February 19, 2015 by Barbara Thiers

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.


Jacquelyn A. Kallunki, Ph.D.
Jacquelyn A. Kallunki, Ph.D.

Jackie Kallunki, Ph.D., first came to The New York Botanical Garden in late 1975 and worked for a while identifying neotropical plant specimens and gathering data for an ethnobotanical project. At that time, she was still working on her Ph.D. dissertation at the University of Wisconsin. After she completed her dissertation, she came back to the Botanical Garden as a full-time employee. And now, I’m sad to say, she has retired.

Over the years, as Jackie rose through the ranks to become Assistant Director of the William and Lynda Steere Herbarium, she worked closely with Patricia K. Holmgren, Ph.D., who was then Director of the Herbarium. This was a very active period in the Herbarium’s history in terms of acquisitions, loans, visitors, and special projects such as the incorporation of orphaned herbaria and expansion of the collection.

The crowning achievement of this period was the planning of the new Steere Herbarium and then moving the multi-million-specimen collection into it. Jackie was the one who figured out how much space each group of plants should receive and where it should go, and she supervised the highly complicated process of moving the specimens to the Herbarium. It took 58 Garden staff, interns, and volunteers a total of about 3,300 hours to accomplish this move. The fact that the process went smoothly and according to schedule is a testament to Jackie’s planning abilities, determination and powers of intimidation!

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Emerald Planet: Honoring the Work of Dr. Thomas E. Lovejoy

Posted in Personalities in Science on December 24, 2014 by Matt Newman

Left to Right: Gregory Long, Lewis Cullman, Thomas E. Lovejoy, Ph.D., E.O. Wilson, Ph.D., Sir Ghillean Prance FRS VMH, Patricia Holmgren, Ph.D., Noel Holmgren, Ph.D., and Ed Bass at the 123rd Annual Meeting.
Left to Right: Gregory Long, Lewis Cullman, Thomas E. Lovejoy, Ph.D., E.O. Wilson, Ph.D., Sir Ghillean Prance FRS VMH, Patricia Holmgren, Ph.D., Noel Holmgren, Ph.D., and Ed Bass at the 123rd Annual Meeting.

This past November, some of the most influential botanists and conservationists in modern science gathered together for The New York Botanical Garden’s 123rd Annual Meeting, joining CEO and The William C. Steere Sr. President Gregory Long and the NYBG’s Board Members for a recap of the past year’s successes—as well as the Garden’s plans to come. But top billing during this event went to a person who has not only served as an integral member of the NYBG Board since 1986, but proven an enormously significant figure in global ecology initiatives and conservation efforts.

For many, the highlight of the evening was Thomas E. Lovejoy, Ph.D., who received the NYBG’s Gold Medal—our highest honor—for his accomplishments within and dedication to biodiversity and plant science.

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Ackerman’s Orchids: Studying—and Sometimes Growing—Some Stars of the Plant World

Posted in Personalities in Science on April 15, 2014 by Stevenson Swanson

Stevenson Swanson is The New York Botanical Garden’s Science Media Manager.


JDA in SabaFrom the crowds that attend The New York Botanical Garden’s annual orchid exhibition, it’s clear that this family of flowering plants exerts a fascination on gardeners and plant lovers almost without equal in the horticultural world.

Count Prof. James D. Ackerman among the devotees. From his days as a graduate student in northern California, he’s devoted his scientific career to the study of Orchidaceae. Prof. Ackerman, who teaches biology at the University of Puerto Rico, is the lead author of Orchid Flora of the Greater Antilles, recently published by NYBG Press.

With full scientific treatments of 594 orchid species, the book covers the largest islands in the West Indies, including Cuba, Jamaica, Puerto Rico, and Hispaniola, the island that comprises the Dominican Republic and Haiti.

I had a chance to chat with Prof. Ackerman during his recent visit to the Botanical Garden, where he gave a talk about his time in the field cataloging the orchids of the Greater Antilles. He was also planning to see The Orchid Show: Key West Contemporary, which closes next Monday, April 21.

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From Intern To Leader: A Talk With The Garden’s New Head of Science

Posted in Personalities in Science on April 1, 2014 by Stevenson Swanson

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. Stevenson Swanson is the Botanical Garden’s Science Media Manager.


Barbara ThiersAs the longtime Director of the William and Lynda Steere Herbarium, Barbara M. Thiers, Ph.D., already had a demanding job as the head of one of the world’s four largest collections of preserved plant specimens. But recently she added a new title—and new responsibilities—when she was named Vice President for Science Administration at The New York Botanical Garden.

In that role, she oversees all staff, programmatic initiatives, and operations in the Botanical Garden’s Science Division, one of the leading centers for studying plants at all levels, from the whole organism down to its DNA.

The promotion has made her one of the few women ever to lead scientific research at a major botanical institution.

I recently sat down with Dr. Thiers in her office on the fourth floor of the Garden’s Library building for a conversation about her life and career, including how she spent many of her weekends as a child and how long it took her to decide she wanted to stay at the Garden after her arrival as a postdoctoral intern in 1981.

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