Careers in Botany - Reflections of a Happy Botanist
Dr. Harry T. (Jack) Horner, Ph.D., University Professor & Director Department of Genetics, Development and Cell Biology
& Microscopy and Nanoimaging Facility, Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa
Life is not always easy when you are young. And in today’s world adult
life seems to be very complicated because of the plethora of job and life opportunities,
the ever-changing world situation and economy, and the notion that making lots
of money and/or becoming famous are the two most important steps to having a
wonderful, happy life. For some this may work; however, for the vast majority
of us, we have to be realistic and take less dramatic steps to happiness.
In fact, I had a very happy, normal childhood growing up in Chicago, and then
in the suburb Oak Park. At the time I finished high school I had little understanding
of what I wanted to be, so I began my college career in petroleum refining engineering
at Colorado School of Mines, in Golden, thinking this would be a great life
direction. After two years, I came to realize that my heart was saying, “go
in another direction.” I transferred to Northwestern University, north
of Chicago, and completed my B.A. degree in biology. It was during my senior
year I developed an interest in teaching biology, chemistry, and general science
at the high school level. This required I take a fifth year to pick up the courses
for teacher certification. During that year I also took two advanced botany
courses in plant morphology and vascular plant anatomy, along with student teaching
at a suburban high school. The ‘plant’ courses and Professor Howard
Arnott who was teaching them, literally ‘turned me on’ to the study
of plants. Besides the student teaching which was truly a wonderful experience,
I registered for independent research credits to work on a project which was
an outgrowth of the plant morphology course. Professor Arnott immediately detected
my interest and commitment, and with his encouragement and help, I realized
that I wanted to teach and do research as a profession.
With Professor Arnott’s support I carried out my M.S. program with him,
completing it in one year, and then I worked with him for my Ph.D., which took
another three years. By the end of that time I knew my future was to join a
university faculty somewhere and continue teaching and doing research. Since
electron microscopy was becoming a powerful tool at that time, and an extension
of the light microscope, I applied for a National Institutes of Health two-year
postdoctoral fellowship to work on my own designed project and gain more research
experience. I was also awarded a Sigma Xi grant. I had to decide whether I would
go the University of Texas at Austin or to Iowa State University at Ames, two
schools with fine botanical microscopy labs and excellent staffs. I chose the
latter and spent two years learning how to prepare plant and animal tissues
for observation with both light and electron microscopes.
Being able to explore the unknown ‘micro-world’ using sophisticated,
high-resolution microscopes is much like taking a pack trip into the uncharted
depths of the Amazon, or exploring the deepest oceanic ravines, or traveling
through our universe in a spaceship destined to land on a newly discovered planet.
Can you imagine being able to look inside cells of a plant or animal, magnified
to the size of a building, that no one has ever looked at before? And learn
about new subcellular structures and molecules that are involved in the activity
of that cell or organ that it is related to? Research became an integral part
of my life. At the end of my two-year fellowship, I had several job offers from
different universities. Iowa State University was the most attractive of them
and I joined its faculty. Since then I have taught courses in general and advanced
botany, and specifically courses in microscopy (www.public.iastate.edu/~botany/horner.html).
In addition, I have had grant support from several private companies, NSF and
USDA to use my expertise in microscopy and to do research on many basic and
applied problems (I have published more than 125 research articles in 45 different
journals, and several book chapters). Presently, I direct a life sciences and
biotechnology microscopy center (www.biotech.iastate.edu/facilities/BMF/)
which is used by over 120 researchers a year. These researchers are faculty
members, graduate students, and individuals from private industry who work on
a diversity of basic and applied problems spanning plant, animal, microbial,
and viral systems. Each day is a new adventure since the projects are often
unique and challenging: looking at food extracts, ice cream, nanotubes, polymers,
stem cells, secretory glands, and an almost infinite list of other objects.
I literally come to work to play!
Yes, there are some so-so days, writing research manuscripts, doing library
work, serving on committees, helping students learn how to put research papers
together, and keeping my office organized and clean. However, these routine
duties are necessary and contribute to my overall well being.
All of these involvements have unexpected rewards. I communicate with students
and professionals on campus and from around the world interested in my research,
and some have come to my lab for short periods to work with me. I attend national
and international meetings, give talks in the USA and abroad (now 7 different
countries) and I am involved in both state and national science societies where
I have served in various capacities, including being president of two of them.
My university faculty position not only involves teaching, research, directing
a microscopy center, and serving on committees, but it also includes advising
graduate and undergraduate students. This latter task is very important and
allows me to help them make decisions about their futures (I missed having a
good advisor during most of my undergraduate days). The advising also presented
a unique opportunity earlier in my career. One of my undergraduate transfer
advisees wanted to be a medical illustrator. ISU had no such program but the
Liberal Arts and Sciences College had developed an Individual Major Program
whereby students could create their own course of study. Together, we prepared
a program that incorporated biology, math and other science courses, and art.
This program was approved by the College. In a short time this student’s
word-of-mouth surprisingly led other students to my office who wanted to do
the same thing. To make a long story short, the number of students increased
dramatically, and I was asked to create a major in this area. With the help
of an art faculty colleague, the administration, and the Board of Regents, an
undergraduate major called Biological/Premedical Illustration (BPMI) was born
(www.bpmi.iastate.edu/). I directed
the program for a number of years. Now the Program serves about 50 majors, is
nationally recognized for its excellent training, and has a history for preparing
students to enter certified graduate programs elsewhere in illustration. In
addition, a recent master’s degree student of mine completed a botanical
project involving a walking tour of a 100 trees and shrubs of the Iowa State
University campus in which she combined botany, art and English (http://project.bio.iastate.edu/trees/campustrees/ISU_trees.html)
for the benefit and pleasure of others.
Personally, I am happily married, and have three adult married children. I
took my family to Europe for a year, earlier in my career while on sabbatical
leave. This experience by itself gave the entire family a new dimension for
wanting to understand and interact with people from different cultures and life
styles. It also opened up my mind to how important the sciences and technology,
and particularly the plant sciences, are to the world. The phrase that ‘plants
feed the world’ is very true. Without plants, we as humans would not exist.
The oxygen we breathe, the food we eat directly or indirectly, the materials
we use, and the fuels that are critical to our sustenance – all come from
plants. Studying them in a variety of ways has been and will continue to be
an enjoyment for me and maybe for you.