Careers in Botany - An adventure, this is my job!!
David M. Spooner - BOTANIST, USDA Agricultural Research Service; Vegetable Crops Research Unit, Professor,
Department of Horticulture, University of Wisconsin, Madison, Wisconsin
Ever since I could remember all I ever wanted to be was a botanist. As a child
I pretty much lived in the various woods near our home in southwestern Ohio,
and knew every trail and creek bed by heart. I spent hours climbing trees, turning
over rocks looking for snakes and salamanders, and fishing. I was always curious
about what the plants were called. Another dream was to be a traveler, and I
still remember our first-grade reader that showed a guy who parked his convertible
on a hilltop, overlooking far away vistas. I am still searching for that book,
but my grade school has no record of their 1954 first grade readers.
I experienced my first "botany class" in fourth grade, when our teacher
gave us an assignment to
make a leaf collection and identify the trees. My parents helped me find a tree
book in the local library and I was hooked on taxonomy for life. My teachers
Peterson's Field Guide to the Eastern Wildflowers, and I eventually used illustrated
Weishaup and Braun's floras of Ohio, Stausbaugh and Core's Flora of West Virginia,
Flora of Michigan.
I was lucky enough to go to Miami University in Ohio, and signed up for Hardy
dendrology course as soon as I could, and took all the botany classes offered.
After graduation I
spent three years stationed in Washington DC in the Army, and spent weekends
Chesapeake and Ohio Canal towpath, Rock Creek Park, and the eastern seaboard.
By that time I
was using Gleason and Cronquist's Manual of Vascular Plants of the US and Adjacent
and had a goal of knowing every plant in the flora area.
After the Army I received a Master's degree at Ohio University, and was first
upset at my advisor
Robert Lloyd for not letting me do research on Athens County floristics (doing
surveys of plants
in an area). At his insistence I delved into plant evolution books by Verne
Stebbins, and Davis and Heywood. Stebbins's Evolution Above the Species Level
and his theories
on apomixis and its effect on difficult species complexes became my new passion.
I did my
Master's research on an embryological study of a potentially apomictic plant,
the wild mustard
Dentaria laciniata. After graduation I bought a cabin in the southern Ohio hills,
microscope, and for two years lived alone identifying plants and thoroughly
enjoying nature. It
was a wonderful time I will never forget, and I lived the dream of a lifetime.
After that, I got a job as a field botanist for the Ohio Department of Natural
Areas and Preserves
and was able to put my plant identification skills and love of roaming to good
use. It was a dream
job, spending five months a year walking throughout much of southeastern Ohio
looking for rare
plants and potential new nature preserves. I never thought I would tire of that
job, but I had to
stop exploring southward at the Ohio River boundary. I always wanted to explore
This dream was fulfilled by getting admitted to Tod Stuessy's research program
at Ohio State
University. Stuessy treated his students as professionals from the first day
and always addressed
us as "The world's expert on whatever your study group was." It was
a heady time, and I spent
seven months collecting the genus Simsia throughout Central and South America.
systematists Daniel Crawford and Ronald Stuckey, Ohio State University was a
for systematics research. The best training I had there, to prepare me for the
demands of a
professional career, was mandatory attendance to the departmental seminar series,
meeting the speakers afterwards, presentation of my research on a yearly basis
at state and
national meetings, and evening journal club. It was frightening to present my
work in front of a
critical audience but it gave me confidence in my work and myself. Giving talks
is now one of
the favorite parts of my job.
After graduation I got my present job as a Research Botanist with the USDA Agricultural
Research Service in the Vegetable Crops Research Unit in Madison Wisconsin.
at this location are given faculty appointments at the University of Wisconsin
and have to work
through the tenure process to stay at this location. This truly is a dream job.
The USDA hires and
retains scientists to be leaders in their research areas, and productive scientists
are given freedom
to direct their own programs within the context of their job assignment.
An active research program depends on funds. A recent NSF grant with Lynn Bohs,
Nee, and Sandra Knapp is focused on writing a world-wide monograph of Solanum
(http://www.nhm.ac.uk/botany/databases/solanum/). Much of my time is spent writing
papers, and much of the productivity of the lab is due to Sarah Stephenson,
the USDA lab
technician (upper left) and graduate students, such as Flor Rodríguez
and Francisco Villamon
who perform lab and field work (below).
Wild and cultivated potatoes (botanically classified as the genus Solanum,
section Petota) grow
entirely in the Americas. About 30 species grow in North and Central America,
and about 150
species in South America. They grow from the southwestern United States to southern
(beginning at upper left and going clockwise) dry deciduous forests (here in
high upland grassland "punas" (western Venezuela), sea level (one
of the hundreds of islands in
the Chonos Archipelago in southern Chile), and rainforests (Bolivia near the
My USDA job assignment is to collect these species on yearly expeditions of
two months each
throughout the Americas. How cool is that? I then use these collections to study
boundaries and relationships with modern morphological and molecular methods,
such as marker
data (as AFLPs), and DNA sequences of chloroplast and single-copy nuclear genes.
Collecting has been one of the most satisfying parts of my work, but requires
a lot of preparation.
One of the most important aspects of a collecting mission is to know all the
from an area, so knowledge of your group through literature searches is critical.
Once in a
country, I also go to local herbaria to find additional localities for wild
potatoes. These are then
compared against genebank holdings to plan collection of the most important
I have collected potatoes every year for 14 years from 1988-2000 in Mexico (two
Guatemala, Honduras, Costa Rica, Panama, Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru
expeditions), Bolivia (two expeditions), Argentina, and Chile (two expeditions),
and I spent six
weeks in Nepal studying germplasm in other plant groups. Ideally, there is a
collector who has spent a lifetime collecting in an area, such as Alberto Salas
International Potato Center (CIP; upper left, Peru). Other memorable collecting
in Bolivia (with Maria Ugarte and Ronald van den Berg), Colombia (Raul Castillo,
Luis López), and Ecuador (showing an Andean village). The Convention
on Biological Diversity
has made many countries reconsider their collection regulations and has delayed
many countries until they can reestablish their collecting guidelines.
The USDA, and genebanks worldwide, fund these potato collecting trips and taxonomic
because the wild and native cultivated species have resistances to many of the
diseases and pests
that plague our potato crop, including (clockwise from upper left) late blight
(the disease causing
the Irish potato famine), scab, nematodes, and Erwinia tuber rot. Wild species
conferring resistance to a host of other pests such as Colorado potato beetle,
environmental stresses such as frost, and improved agronomic and quality traits
improved yield, colors, the ability to produce appealing light-colored potato
chips, and better
Traditionally, potatoes, as all plants, were classified mainly by their overall
(morphology). In potatoes, the corolla colors and shapes vary tremendously and
important to classify these plants.
Fruits also vary and have been used taxonomically:
A tremendous advantage to working on crop plants is the availability of germplasm
parts such as seeds) from germplasm "banks." Some my investigations,
in collaboration with
others, uses these germplasm collections for morphological studies of difficult
complexes, in replicated field trials, to test prior ideas of what constitutes
a species. The photo
below is one such study of the "Solanum brevicaule complex," conducted
in a field plot in
Wisconsin. The collaborators are Marie Ugarte (foreground, from Bolivia), my
Joseph Miller, Julie Villand and I, and Dutch colleagues Ronald van den Berg
and his former
student Jouke Kardolus.
We conduct these studies together with various research programs worldwide,
in order to test the
effects of different environments, gain access to germplasm from different germplasm
to enjoy the benefits of collaboration with different potato researchers. Below
is a replicated field
trial of the Solanum brevicaule complex in Mendoza, conducted in Argentina in
2005, with my
former student Iris Peralta (standing, far right), a student on the NSF Solanum
Alvarez (sitting, far right), and Iris's other students from the National University
Argentina, and me.
Similarly, another study was conducted of two other wild potato complexes in
a field station of
the International Potato Center in Huancayo Peru in central Andes, in collaboration
Willy Roca and Alberto Salas, and two other students of mine on the NSF Solanum
What an adventure this career has been! As you travel you are exposed to a
wide variety of
different things including foods:
Cultures are very different. One of the most fascinating things about traveling
in the Americas is
to see different styles of dress; some villages have characteristic patterns
in their clothes such as
this little girl from Chiapas Mexico (left) or this woman from Tarabuco Bolivia.
get lucky and collect during interesting times such as passing through this
during holiday time. You forge lifetime friendships and collaborations as with
Salas, one of the most knowledgeable potato taxonomists and collectors in the
Do you want to follow a career in botany? As with any career, success depends
productivity, and productivity follows hard work. But if you love what you do
and are driven by
it the hard work is fun work. I cannot imagine any other career being this much
fun or rewarding.
I have loved plants ever since I can remember and love to come to work every
day. My advice?
Get admitted to an active program, read as much as you can, present your work
in front of
journal club and local and national meetings, and become active in your professional
You would be surprised how many opportunities await motivated volunteers, how
much you can
change things, and how many new opportunities volunteering opens up to you.
Does this seem like an interesting life to you? If so, don't look back and dive
into this wonderful
career. You will never regret it.