Careers in Botany - Botany as a career: Still having fun
Joseph E. Armstrong, Professor of Botany, Illinois State University
My botanical blog - http://phytophactor.blogspot.com
I can fairly easily mark the point in time when my botanical career officially
began. I earned my master of science degree in 1972, and I thought of myself
as a botanist ever since. It is much harder to decide when I decided to pursue
botany as a career, but it happened some time during my final two years of undergraduate
work after I fell under the influence of three botanists at SUNY Oswego (Jim
Seago, Lee Marsh, and Hank Spang). If these three guys could make a living with
botany, and enjoy it so much, then it sounded good idea to me too.
I grew up surrounded by gardens, old fields, and forests. I learned what any
rural kid learns about recognizing important plants (butternuts-good; poison
ivy-bad). So it came as no surprise to learn that plants were fascinating organisms
to study. I must point out that the general biology core courses for my biology
major did little to foster this interest as they basically ignored plant biology.
This is a little something you might want to look into when selecting an institution
of higher learning.
Presently I am a professor of botany, and considered something of an expert
on one or two little topics, an accomplished and creative teacher, and someone
who works to better his institution and profession. The absolutely best thing
about all of this is that I still find it fun! I’m working on the ecology
of hemiparasitic plants, which are both green and parasites. Basically I want
to understand how being both is a strategy for success in prairies. I’m
studying the leafy organs of a whisk fern, a well studied, but not well understood
little group of plants. Nothing but pure curiosity motivates this study. I’m
known best for studies of flowers: their development, their adaptations, and
their interactions with insects. Whenever time and money allow I spend time
in the tropics figuring out how petals shaped like little bananas function in
beetle pollination. I’ve figured out why the petals of an aquatic plant
have a fringed margin, and this resulted in my best publication title ever (“Fringe
science” – American Journal of Botany, 2002). I’ve figured
out why the wishbone flower has anthers of two different sizes with large levers
on their sides (“Lever-action anthers and the forcible shedding of pollen
in Torenia” - American Journal of Botany, 1992). And I’ve figured
out why male nutmeg trees have so many more flowers than female nutmeg trees,
why so many female nutmeg flowers abort even after being pollinated, and how
female nutmeg flowers get away with not providing their beetle pollinators with
any reward resulting in several publications. Oh, that was easy to say, but
it took countless hours of field work over nearly a decade, and my field work
took me to Queensland Australia, India, Singapore, and Central America. Botany
has taken me to more than a dozen other countries as well.
It’s a great feeling to figure out something that no one ever knew before.
And this feeling is one of the reasons being a botanist is so much fun. The
other reason is that I really enjoy teaching people about plants. I derive great
satisfaction from “curing plant blindness” and opening people’s
eyes to the fascinating array of plants that surround us; plants that keep us
from being naked, miserable, and hungry. Plants only have roots, stems, and
leaves, yet using nothing but these same basic components they display many
nifty adapations for different ways of life, different environments, and different
interactions with other organisms, e.g., epiphytes, ant plants, carnivorous
plants, succulents, and so on. And plants have an interesting history that we
can trace back nearly 4 billion years to the appearance of green bacteria. To
introduce you to all these plants, I need a big conservatory greenhouse and
botanical garden. If any administrators at Illinois State University happen
to read this essay, that’s a hint. My present greenhouse is full! I need
room to expand!
Let me reiterate the main points. I’ve spent the better part of a career
that isn’t over yet studying, learning, and teaching about plants because
they interest me. I have fun doing botany, and I have traveled to many exotic
places. My profession is filled with interesting and truly great people studying
a myriad of fascinating topics. And lastly a university is paying me to do this.
I can hardly believe it. I actually feel sorry for people who just have jobs.
Complete honesty compels me to say that probably all jobs have components you
won’t like. I have had my disappointments, my failures, my difficult times,
but why dwell upon the negative. Never has a plant treated me badly, although
when my favorite research organism failed to flower after I organized three
months of field research in the tropics I was a little ticked off, but it only
took me 3 days to stumble upon an equally interesting tree in flower.
Let me close by urging you to action. If you are reading this, then it may
be because you like plants and are curious about the people who learn, study,
and teach about them. Well, what’s stopping you? Just walk right up to
the next botanist you meet and ask to be part of the fun. You are likely to
find them at any botanical garden, any arboretum, any conservatory, and at many
colleges and universities. Is it childish to want your job to be fun? Well,
here’s what one of my colleagues has to say about that. “Great scientists
are Peter Pans, still anxious to classify and explain at an age when most people
are concerned with money, power, and sex.” (D. Knight, 1981).