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On Becoming an Economic Botanist


My high school biology, which was pre-Sputnik, was dreadful and it's a little hard to pinpoint why I took a freshman botany course in college to satisfy the science requirement. I found it interesting, especially the parts about the genetic basis of population variation and the concepts of succession in plant communities.

Sugar cane, Saccharum officionale, and betel nuts, Areca catechu, in a native market of Southeast Asia. The betel nut is one of the world's most widely chewed plants; it produces mild stimulation and is a weak narcotic.
Photo courtesy of Marsh Sundberg.

My junior year I took a course in the History of Cultivated Plants: Their Origin and Evolution and I changed my career direction from forestry to economic botany. I did a graduate thesis on Teosinte, the closest relative of maize, which took me the length and breadth of Mexico and Guatemala, where I got to meet a lot of indigenous people and their maize, beans and squash. I've been to India twice on Fulbright Fellowships and developed an understanding of crop plants in South Asia. Most of my research has centered in Mexico and Central America.

I have a teaching appointment at the University of Massachusetts, Boston and my research has been with the origin of maize and its relatives. This primary research took me about twenty years ago into genetic conservation of the wild relatives of crop plants. Subsequently, I have written on plant genetic resources policy issues, reorganized the world maize gene bank and tried to assess the role of crop plants in the expanding human population and the exploitation of environments for food. My advice for someone interested in becoming an economic botanists is: 1) travel to see plants, plant products, and people in as many places as possible; 2) get to know one region of the world, a specific group of plant products and/or the evolutionary history of one of the major crops in depth; and then 3) think about the implications of how we are now using the plant resources of the planet and the consequences for the future.

Garrison Wilkes, University of Massachusetts - Boston


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