Working in the Field with Botanists from Kew Royal Botanic Garden

I distinctly remember developing a passion for scientific discovery when I was twelve years old. I looked forward to every Wednesday in Mr. Miller’s science class when we would perform a new experiment. At the completion of the course, my future had never been clearer. I was going to be a scientist, separating water into oxygen and hydrogen and testing different antacids in vinegar every day.

I began my undergraduate degree at the University of Maryland with more uncertainty about my future than I once had in seventh grade, but I did have two personal truths to guide me. First, I had a strong affinity for biology and secondly, I knew I would never be happy working a job that required 40 hours a week in a small cramped cubicle. I discovered my niche in the sciences when I began my ecology course work.

Inflorescence of Dorstenia ciliata

All of my courses in ecology were extremely rewarding. While stimulating my interest in the classroom these courses also solidified my desire to participate in, and develop my own research projects. Thanks to the attentiveness and enthusiasm of my plant ecology teaching assistant and then graduate student, Gary Dodge, I soon developed a love for plants. I graduated with a fair amount of certainty that botany was the field for me but not being one to settle on a decision without thoroughly exploring all of my options I decided to gain more extensive research experience in other non-plant related areas.

Following my graduation, I worked as a research assistant on two very different studies. My first experience was on a herpetology research project in Lincoln National Forest, New Mexico and the second was a small mammal research project at the Danum Valley Research Center in Sabah, Malaysia. Both of these studies gave me the opportunity to experience the reality of working on long-term research projects. I assisted in the field and laboratory, saw how the projects evolved and grew, and helped to solve the unexpected and inevitable problems that arise in any field study. I became familiar with personal challenges such as working long hours in remote locations and often in inclement weather as well as the pleasure of having some of the most beautiful places in the world as my “cubicle." I was able to experience different cultures both in the United States and around the world as well as (as any field biologist can attest to) the sense of camaraderie enjoyed by sharing such experiences with your colleagues. I was sure now that after such wonderful experiences working on animal research projects my continued affinity for plants above all other organisms was no passing whim. When I came home to Maryland I knew that there was nothing that I would rather do than apply the real world experience I had gained to my own plant biology research project.

One of the Twin Lakes in Cameroon

Being eager to continue my education and begin working on my own research project, I began graduate school in the Master’s Plant Biology and Conservation program at Northwestern University and the Chicago Botanic Garden. I am currently enrolled in my second year and loving it. I am enthralled not only with my course work but also with the opportunity I have to work on my own research project. My current research focuses on the genus Dorstenia, which is the second largest group within the Moraceae (Mulberry) family. Dorstenia species have traditionally been used by indigenous peoples for medical purposes ranging from the treatment of colds to snakebites. Recent medical studies have ushered a host of Dorstenia species into the realm of modern medicine due to the discovery of important chemical compounds. Anti-HIV peptides, anti-inflammatory properties, anti-tumor compounds, and high concentrations of antioxidants have been found in a multitude of species (1,2,3,4 ). Dorstenia species are not only important because of their role in human health but also for the unique part they play in a variety of diverse ecosystems. Many of these species have evolved to inhabit very specific niches, a few of which include riparian areas of the Amazon, cracks in the limestone cliffs of the Caribbean and the rainforest and savannahs of Africa. While the evolution of characters that allows this plant to adapt to such specialized environments results in a large amount of diversity between species it also puts many of the species at a great risk for survival. In fact due to the fragility of their habitats and human destruction within these areas many species are considered threatened and some are already thought to be extinct (5). Currently the genus Dorstenia is so understudied that virtually nothing is known about its reproductive ecology or evolutionary history. Research in these areas are important not only for its intrinsic value but also to aid in the conservation of species that may prove to be an important resource for human beings and the rare ecosystems they exist in. My research in particular aims to examine the distribution of species within the genus across continents as well as determine the mode of pollination.

My research assistant (and sister) with new friends

With one exception, Dorstenia species are restricted to the Neotropics (South and Central America) and Africa. This ‘Gondwanan’ distribution has lead to the hypothesis that the genus originated when South America and Africa were still part of the large southern supercontinent Gondwana. However, a recent study of the Moraceae family suggested that Dorstenia is less than 20 million years old and proposed that the genus originated on one continent and was then dispersed long distance to the other. My research aims to more thoroughly examine the biogeographical distribution of the genus and trace the evolution of specific morphological characters by sequencing portions of the chloroplast and nuclear genome. I began learning and applying techniques in the molecular lab at the Chicago Botanic Garden as soon as I started my first year of graduate school. However, while I found my time in the lab quite rewarding I still felt the need to satiate my desire to work in the field.

A view of the village Ngomboku, where we stayed while working in Cameroon

I was able to conduct a field portion of my study by applying for a multitude of grants to cover the costs of my research and travel costs and with the help of my most awesome advisor, Nyree Zerega, developed experiments to describe the reproductive ecology (of which virtually nothing is known) of some species within the genus. I traveled to the Cloud Montane Forest in the Kupe-Bakossi region of Cameroon, Africa where Dorstenia species are abundant. My work there consisted of finding and labeling 214 Dorstenia cilliata plants on which I captured insects that might be pollinating the tiny flowers. I also conducted bagging experiments where mesh bags were placed over the inflorescence to exclude insects of various sizes. By looking at the number of seeds set by the flowers with bagging treatment I hope to determine the size of the pollinator if it is an insect and to test the possibility of wind pollination or self pollination.

My research assistant (and twin sister), Tara and I not only enjoyed the beauty of the rain forest while working everyday but also developed a deep understanding of the Bakossi culture. We became proficient in navigating the streams and rivers that snake through the forests. We learned how to cook Cameroonian dishes, and how to dance to African music. Every week we went shopping at the market, and cheered on the village soccer team at their games. Most importantly we made some amazing friendships with the people of Ngomboku.

I have been back at the Chicago Botanic Garden for about a month now and am focusing on the analysis of the data I collected in the field (identifying about 2,100 insects down to order) and continuing my molecular work. In the future I look forward to continuing my education in a Ph.D. program and building a career in a setting that affords me the ability to explore, and inspire others to explore, the field of plant biology that I find so fascinating .

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