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 persicum.

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 ripen.

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).

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