Careers in Botany - Why study Botany?
Marshall D. Sundberg, Professor of Botany, Emporia State University, Emporia, Kansas
I entered college knowing that I wanted to be a high school biology teacher
and was particularly fascinated with animal anatomy and physiology. This, I
thought, is what biology is all about - - dissection, microscopy, contracting
leg muscles and beating hearts! My first college biology courses seemed to confirm
my decision. In Biology of Vertebrates we got to dissect a number of different
animals and I was introduced to primary literature: the structure of glands
and organs, the actions of hormones, and of course all the medical applications.
In developmental biology we cultured frog and chick embryos and attempted to
reproduce transplant experiments described in the literature. This was exciting!
Then, in the first term of my sophomore year, I took the Biology of Vascular
Plants course that was required for all biology majors. I was not looking forward
to this. Boy, was I in for a surprise!
We were using the textbook, Introductory Botany, by Authur Cronquist,
and I still have my copy of that text. Cronquist, a world renowned researcher
at the New York Botanical Garden, was one of the most well-known botanists of
the day and a world authority on the evolution of flowering plants. But every
week my professor handed us a 2-5 page mimeographed (this was before photocopies)
handout of “ERRORS AND POINTS OF CONTENTION RELATIVE TO (the topic of
the week). What?? Errors and points of contention in a textbook written by a
world-famous author?? I still have a few of those sheets folded and tucked into
the text, but the pages of that book (and every text I used in subsequent courses
with professor Muir) are filled with penciled-in annotations based on his comments,
criticisms, and supplements. This was my introduction to real science –
not a collection of facts to be memorized but rather a process of continual
questioning, testing, and revision of our understanding.
Muir had many more surprises for us. We were invited over to his house to collect
some fungus specimens from tomato leaves in his garden. Those tomato plants
sure didn’t look like the ones in our garden back home! At the base were
huge, simple leaves, not the finely-dissected tomato leaves I was used to. The
more typical tomato leaves were growing only at the top of the plant. None of
us asked him about this and he didn’t say anything. But later in the fall,
he invited us back to help dig up his potatoes. These were growing underground
on the same “tomato” plants from which we isolated our fungi! That’s
when we were introduced to grafting. He started potato, tomato, and tobacco
plants in the spring, then used the potato for root stock and grafted tobacco
on top. Later tomato was grafted on top of the tobacco and these were the plants
set out in the garden. Three crops in one!! We had another surprise that day
- - apply pie. But to earn a piece we had to pick some more apples off his apple
tree in the back yard. What was this? Some of the apples were golden yellow,
but others were bright red. Some apples were a mottled red and green and others
almost rusty. There were a dozen different varieties of apples growing on the
same tree! More grafting we learned.
By that time, as you might expect, I was beginning to get really excited about
botany, and it wasn’t just because of the neat practical things you could
do with plants. Cutting-edge science was being done with plants that rivaled
any experiments being done with animals. For instance, today, as you know, there
is quite a controversy concerning human stem cells and cloning. In theory it
should be possible (though not likely) to take a single cell from an early human
embryo and grow an entire person from it. In Muir’s class we learned that
in 1954 he did take single cells from mature marigold and tobacco plants (not
embryonic cells – plants have embryos too) and grew them into entirely
new plants (Muir, W.H., A.C. Hildebrand, and A.J. Riker. 1954. Science 119:877-878).
One of the reasons your local florist, or even Wal-Mart, can sell so many exotic
plants so cheaply is that frequently they are mass produced by cloning plants
through cell or tissue culture - - whole plants from single cells, or small
bits of tissue, and all clones of each other! And plant scientists have been
doing this for more than 50 years!
I switched my emphasis to botany and got so excited about doing research with
plants that I decided to go on for a PhD and do research and teach botany to
college students. Maybe I could excite some of my students the same way Bill
Muir excited me.
I did go on to complete a master’s and doctorate in botany with special
emphasis on the structure, development, and evolution of various crop plants.
My graduate work and early professional career in Wisconsin concentrated on
understanding the basic growth of the ornamental floricultural crop, Cyclamen
You may be familiar
with Cyclamen as a potted plant available at Christmas. It used to
take more than a year to produce flowering plants from seed, but now, after
much research, including some of mine, a florist can produce a crop in less
than 9 months.
It was an exciting cultural change when we moved to Louisiana. Today most of
us are at least somewhat familiar with the music and good times for which New
Orleans is famous, but there is a lot more to south Louisiana than the Crescent
City. Drive an hour west from Baton Rouge and you’re in Lafayette, the
capital of Cajun Louisiana. Listen to people on the street and you’ll
be more likely to hear spoken French than spoken English. Drive another hour
south and you’ll be in New Iberia, the home of the McIlhenny Company and
the firey Tabasco pepper sauce. One of my friends in Horticulture at LSU was
working with McIlhenny because some Tabasco peppers remain firmly attached to
the plants even when they are bright red and fully ripe like the pepper second
from the left in the photo below. Because Tabasco peppers are picked by hand
and workers are paid by how much they pick, hard-pick plants are passed over
in the field and as much as 10% of the crop is not harvested. I became interested
in what are the structural differences in easy and hard-to-pick fruits as they
My real research passion, however, has focused on how the ear of corn evolved
from a structure that looked more like a head of oats or wheat into the morphological
monstrosity we call corn on the cob. This is a problem that has been puzzling
botanists for more than 100 years. My colleagues and I have examined ear development
in of all the close relatives of corn as well as many primitive varieties of
corn. The image below is a young developing ear of teosinte, a close relative
of corn, that will be no more than 3 inches long when it is mature.
Thanks to Bill Muir
I’ve been able to pursue a career that allows me to study a variety of
biological questions that have important theoretical and practical applications.
But what about the other half of my career? Have I had a significant impact
on some of my students, and what’s become of them? Some of my former students
are teaching in high school, others now teach in college. Quite a few are working
for states or the federal government in the park service, forest service, wildlife
and parks, Corps of Engineers, or similar agencies. A few work in agriculture
and a couple are in biotechnology industries. One former student runs a microscopy
facility at a major research university. But these are the kinds of jobs you
might expect someone to get with an undergraduate degree in botany.
Some of my students
have used their botany training to go into very different professions.
The student in the plaid shirt in the photo to the left is now
a surgeon. He was a junior with a botany emphasis when this picture
was taken on a field trip to Vancouver Island. We were visiting
the site of what 100 years ago was the Minnesota Seaside Station.
Another former student is a doctor in a small town in rural southwestern
Minnesota and a third is on the faculty of the Medical College
of Wisconsin. All three of these physicians published some of
their undergraduate botany research in scientific journals, including
the American Journal of Botany.
The student shown on the right turned his presentation skills into a successful
business career in marketing. In this photo he was describing preliminary results
of a scanning electron microscope study of ear development in a primitive popcorn
to fellow students. His research results also were included in a paper published
in the American Journal of Botany.
One student’s project involved quantitative growth measurements of young
corn seedlings. His data is still sitting in a notebook in my lab, unpublished
because we never finished the project and no other student was interested in
taking it up. But after two years of growing plants at Epcot Center, he put
his quantitative skills to work as a system designer for IBM.
I hope it’s clear to you that studying botany not only can be challenging
and a lot of fun, but it can prepare you for a wide variety of careers (and
give you the skills to pursue many hobbies and leisure interests).