Field of Science

Really, truly, deeply depressing news

TPP finds this really, truly, deeply depressing news.  Fewer students are taking botany classes and herbaria are shuttering their doors. What this means is that fewer and fewer people have the skill and experience to identify plants. This goes far beyond taxonomy. A new graduate student, JP, has asked TPP to serve on her committee, but her background is in microbiology and she only recently "discovered" plants and the great outdoors where biology actually happens. All of TPP's recent students who had gotten their "novice" plant ID badges have gotten jobs in part because of this knowledge. The herbarium TPP curates costs our institution very little (translation: it doesn't have a budget), but it takes up space always at a premium and it needs a somebody. Right now that person is an emeritus faculty member, but one way or another his days are numbered.  Then what? Colleagues already point to low enrollments to argue against hiring another botanist. Such decisions are always a zero-sum game or viewed as such. Part of the trouble is that human biomedicine is the tail that wags the biological dog in this country, so students often get little if any decent botany in biology courses. Their teachers are not well versed in botany and so do a poor job teaching it, and you can see how this leads to a vicious cycle of dwindling botany. They enter university thinking there are only two career paths: medical professional or high school teacher. Our undergrad program produces plenty of both, but many of them needing but one more course take a botany elective out of sheer desperation or curiosity or a course df = 0. And they are surprised, even delighted, how interesting plants are, but then they say, "Gee, discovered botany too late." Well, it isn't too late, but like most undergrads, what do they really know?  JP is working hard at learning plant ID, and like anything you work at, she will develop the necessary skill and knowledge ("square stem, opposite fragrant leaves" = mint family, and so on).  Botany has always been a ill-treated stepchild in the field of biology in the USA, always in the minority, and never having the financial support of bio-medicine. Yet all the medical afflictions together are small potatoes if you find yourself miserable, naked, and hungry, those basics provided by plants.

8 comments:

JaneB said...

In the UK too. It's really depressing. I can't even get the pre-enrollment interest necessary to offer botany modules in the first place...

Jessica M. Budke said...

How about trying to get them hooked young? My students and I went to a preschool and kindergarten class and talked to the kids about plants. We talked about how plants make their food and how to tell the difference botanically between a fruit and a vegetable. It was fun developing the exercises for little folks. We were in suburban classrooms so the kids knew a bit about plants and even had a school garden, but I bet it would be even more impactful for kids in urban areas. I hope that it gave them a brief exposure to botany as an optional career path and opened their eyes to the idea that there are scientists who study plants.

If people are interested, I could post up the resources that we put together so that others can take a look at them and spread the love of plants.

The Phytophactor said...

Without question Jessica is right. More exposure to botany at an earlier age would help. Of course we do the best we can with the resources we have. The Botanical Society of America has the Planting Science program, but we need more teachers and science teachers that know enough botany to teach it in an interesting way. TPP remembers a 7th grade science teacher telling him botany just isn't interesting. She survived the interview.

Matt White said...
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Matt White said...

With 2008 still in recent memory, a lot of people feel pressured to study subjects according to economic potential. Botany is undoubtedly useful, but can you get paid to do it? What do botanists do outside of academia? I ask as someone interested in the prospect of turning an amateur passion into a career.

The Phytophactor said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
The Phytophactor said...

Botany is a basic area that provides the foundation for a wide variety of plant-related careers. Here's a link to the Botanical Society's web page on careers.

Kathy said...

It's not just research institutions. Here, as in other liberal arts colleges, we've gone all the way from a full botany major to deletion of the token required plant course -- and they still have the gall to call it a B.S. in biology. If only we could convince the Powers Ruling the MCAT that botany is significant!