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Botany Careers: An Interview with BioOne Ambassador Award Winner and Botanist Robbie Hart of the Missouri Botanical Garden

April 17, 2020

Botany is the study of plants ranging from algae and fungi, to lichens and mosses, to conifers and flowering plants. But what does a botanist do and study? We caught up with 2019 BioOne Ambassador Award winner and botanist Robbie Hart to learn more about the impact of the award on his career, how he got to where he is today, and his advice for young career professionals interested in ethnobotany. The BioOne Ambassador Award program recognizes early-career researchers excelling in communicating their specialized research beyond their immediate discipline and to the public at large.

Robbie taking data in China, 2019. Photo credit: Fang Zhendong

How did you move from linguistics to botany as a field of study?

In retrospect it seems like a very natural path to me. I was studying linguistics as an undergraduate at Swarthmore College and one of the things that really spoke to me about it happened in my interactions with one professor, David Harrison, who works on small, endangered languages, in particular in trying to make a case for how some kinds of knowledge are preserved within specific place-based, often small languages. The sort of knowledge that isn’t translated when the speaker is switched to speaking and teaching their children bigger languages like Russian, Spanish, Arabic, or English.

I did some study abroad that was related to linguistic research in Nepal and was really taken by the fact that the people I was talking to—who were the people who remembered their mother tongue the best—were also people who knew the most about the natural world. After I returned, I took a seminar class with David Harrison on these issues, and after I graduated worked with him on a book on the topic called When Languages Die.

I spent several years working in the library world, but I knew when I went back to school that I wanted to keep working on these issues and ideally keep working on them in a Himalayan context. When I was applying to programs about this intersection of biodiversity and cultural diversity and language, I applied to programs that were in forestry, environmental science, anthropology, and environmental studies and ended up in this program in biology. But it could have been in any of them. It’s an interdisciplinary topic that people approach from different disciplinary standpoints.

Is there anything you took from your library position that has turned out to be useful in your research career?

Absolutely. One of the things that makes me a little different than other ecologists or biologists is that because I work out of the Missouri Botanical Gardens, we’re a collections-based institution. Much like being at a museum or a library, we’re about the science we can do with our collections and the way the collections are organized. At the Gardens part of that is our living collection—what we have planted in the gardens—but most of it is the herbarium specimens, the preserved plant specimens. At the Missouri Botanical Gardens, we have over 7 million of these preserved plant specimens that are what systematists and taxonomists use to define new species with, and reorient our understanding of evolutionary relationships among plants and higher-order groupings like plant genera and families. But specimens can also be used for other purposes.

One of the first things I did was use these old specimens to determine the effect of climate change on when different flower species tended to flower. We have these preserved specimens going back decades and in several cases more than a hundred years, which acted as a long-term record from which to study the long-term effects of climate on flowering time. So that’s something that really spoke to my library training because it’s about these huge archives and the ways in which we can use the data and metadata from it for interesting different purposes.

How much field research do you do these days?

I’m usually out in the field for about a month or two out of the year. They have to be fairly concise trips because for me they’re pretty remote trips, to mountaintops in Bhutan, Nepal, or China. One of the things I’m very excited about is a project I have with the Olympic National Park in my hometown in Washington State, which employs the same method as the monitoring I do with alpine plant responses to climate change in the Himalayas. I hope it will be a way to get out into the field much more easily without the huge international trips, and a good opportunity to incorporate more garden staff and students.

Robbie at work in China, 2019. Photo credit: Fang Zhendong

Is that a misperception people have about where your research is done?

Actually, a big part of why I chose to come back into research was because I felt the need to do something that has an outdoor element. I do very field-heavy biology and, in fact, most of the people at the Botanical Gardens do. Our researchers are not all ecologists, we have many taxonomists who do the sorting through hundreds of plant species and deciding what goes into one pile – as one species – and what goes into another pile as another species. But they’re also the ones mounting the expeditions off to collect these new plants, so they definitely aren’t spending all their time inside either. Our data collection work is usually off in a forest or a mountain top somewhere, it’s not so often in a wet lab environment or in an animal care facility as other biologists might be used to.

What are some of the projects you’re working on now?

The main thrust of my research at the moment is working with this global network of mountain-top sites where we put in permanent monitoring. We look at what plants are there, we install temperature monitors, and we come back again in 5-10 years and do the same surveys again. By doing this very simple but very well-defined method on a long-term scale on a bunch of different mountains around the world, we’re able to get a really direct idea of how climate change is affecting alpine plants. In the Himalayas, where I work, that’s especially important because alpine plants are important to people as pasture for yaks and cows, as places to collect medicinal plants, and as sacred areas of symbolic and religious importance. That’s true in other mountain areas too.

I also have a lot of other projects that I’m involved in where I’m not out in the field collecting data, but I’m helping with analysis. I really like thinking about data and ways to visualize it and quantitatively analyze it. A lot of other people who do ethnobotany are often very tied to their communities or maybe they’re a part of the community, or they really enjoy the fieldwork but don’t necessarily have all the tools they need to be able to evaluate the data. I’m able to help out with that as a part of these collaborative projects. It means I get to have my fingers in a lot of projects, more than if I was collecting all the data myself.

Team from Shangri-La Alpine Botanical Garden marking summit, with Gentiana arethusae in foreground, China 2019. Photo credit: Robbie Hart

Is data analysis a skill that you naturally had or that you needed to develop?

For me it’s mostly about data management and visualization. I’m not naturally a very quantitative person. I don’t necessarily have a lot of confidence or trust in my understanding of statistical tests themselves, but I really like being able to see data visually and like thinking about ways to ask questions of data that exist.

I spent a lot of time as a graduate student learning how to use R (a programming language) to move around data sets easily and visualize the data in them. It has a long learning curve, but for me has really been worth it in allowing me to explore my own data and datasets from others.

What’s next for your career?

I’ve actually just been appointed Director of the William L. Brown Center at the Missouri Botanical Gardens. The Center is focused on ethnobotany (any interaction of people with plants). This is really exciting for me—it’s easy for me to get enthused about other people’s projects and the work that they’re doing. We have this whole portfolio of ongoing projects that different Primary Investigators are doing. For instance, one of our researchers just led a multi-authored “Scientists’ Warning” publication, which highlights the possible impacts of climate change on plants used as medicine throughout the world. As with the other parts of the Scientists’ Warning campaign, I think this will be a valuable and timely resource.

Another set of ongoing projects connects biodiversity protection to people’s livelihoods in Madagascar, which is one of the places with the most endemic biodiversity in the world, a place that’s losing biodiversity very quickly, and a place where the Garden has a long history of community engagement.

We also work much closer to home. We have one researcher looking at the food traditions of Bosnian immigrants in the St. Louis area. It turns out, St. Louis is one of the places with the highest concentrations of Bosnians outside of Sarajevo. So, she’s working St. Louis Bosnians to talk about the food plants and food traditions that they brought with them—how they’ve changed, how they’ve helped them maintain links with their families back in Bosnia, or how they’ve substituted new foods and plants into their home gardens and into their recipes.

We have an incredible diversity of projects that we’re working on. Ethnobotany is an easy mission to get behind, and it’s a great team to work with.

Medicinal alpine plant at one of our summit monitoring sites - Swertia multicaulis - Bhutan, 2018. Photo credit: Robbie Hart

What skills do use now that you never thought you would need?

You might not think that you’re doing something that’s very academic when you’re doing field work, but that’s a very necessary skill. I’ve certainly found that that’s something that has really paid off. It lets you get out there and form relationships with other researchers and collect data and see how it’s collected, too. It’s not coming to you just as numbers, but in its context as part of the real world.

One thing that surprised me with my linguistic training was the importance of relying on fluent field assistants. Sometimes at first, I would feel like I should be fluent in all these different languages, but that’s impossible. You can spend a lifetime studying a language you weren’t born into and not be fluent in it. Especially in the specifics of emplaced knowledge we’re trying to get at as ethnobotanists. So, I’ve learned to rely on people who you might call field assistants, para-scientists, or collaborators, who are from the culture

What has been a valuable impact of winning the BioOne Ambassador Award?

There was some very nice local press interest about the award and I really appreciated BioOne’s outreach there. It presented a really good platform for talking about the importance of these themes I really care about and think are important. It’s always good to put impacts of climate change – as a fact – in front of as many eyes as possible and in as many ways as possible. I really felt grateful to have new platforms to do that and from which to talk to people about the importance of including local people and their livelihood in that conversation.

What do you wish people understood about the effects of climate change?

I like the idea (it’s not mine, I’m borrowing it from someone) of talking about “global weirding” instead of “global warming. I thought that was a really important idea. It’s not necessarily about this incredibly rapid change or immediate change or necessarily that we’ll always see things getting warmer everywhere in a consistent linear fashion. What we will see is increasing weirdness – an increasing variability, and change in ways and at rates that we haven’t experienced before. It’s going to cause great disruption.

In the best-case scenario, maybe one of the positive things that could come from the COVID-19 response is that people will see that evidence-driven, international, collaborative responses are really necessary to the challenges that we face as a species. This is as true of climate disruptions as it is of pandemics.

Alpine plant Diapensia purpurea at a summit monitoring site

Interested in the types of jobs available for botanists? Check out our frequently changing open job positions.