The Academic Decline: How to Train the Next Generation of Botanists

The number of undergraduate degrees earned in botany has decreased by 50 percent since the late 1980s.

Becky Tonietto, a Ph.D. student in plant biology and conservation at Northwestern University, studies the decline of native bee species, such as bumble bees.

That's a problem, Mueller says, because in many fields there are not enough scientists with the foundational, basic botany and plant identification skills not only to do their job, but to educate the next generation of botanists.

"It's this idea that even though intellectually people get it that plants are important ... emotionally, it's been harder to get people attached to plants," Mueller says. "We see ads on TV for any of our conservation efforts, and it's always animals, animals animals. People don't even think of plants as in need of attention."

But in the United States, Mueller says, more than half of all threatened and endangered species are plants.

"To proceed as a species, we need to address this issue of botanical capacity," Mueller says.

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One way to do that, Mueller says, is for non-governmental agencies such as botanical gardens and museums, to step up to fill the gap. These organizations partner with universities and federal agencies to share their resources. Universities need the scientific expertise, professional plant scientists recognize a need to train new botanists, and federal agencies (which have been hit the hardest due to the shortage, Mueller says) need educated workers to fill positions.

The Chicago Botanic Garden created two programs to address the shortage. For recent college graduates looking for career experience, the garden offers a Conservation Land Management internship program in which recent graduates are matched with a position in the Bureau of Land Management for a five-month program. And on the academic side, the garden partnered with Northwestern University to maintain a botany department offering master's and Ph.D. degrees.

Charlotte Darling, who currently works with the Bureau of Land Management in Wyoming, began her career as an intern in the CLM program in the summer of 2008.

"I picked up a lot of plant identification skills that were really learned on the job, rather than during college," Darling says. "It was really a broad range of experience, and I got to learn about a lot of different programs, as well as get a better idea of my career goals."

Darling, who now supervises interns coming through the CLM program, says having basic botany skills help with important data collection tasks, such as surveying the land for sensitive plant species and monitoring vegetation growth.

"A lot of our day-to-day work is not pure botany, but it certainly informs all the vegetation identification we need to do when we're doing our monitoring," Darling says. "It's been nice to have a new generation of these bright young people to come in and help us accomplish our goals."

Charlotte Darling, a former Conservation Land Management intern who now works with the Bureau of Land Management, supervises two current interns in Wyoming. (Chicago Botanic Garden)

Many interns, Mueller says, go on to pursue careers in federal land agencies immediately following their internships, such as Darling. But other times, interns decide they want to pursue a path that requires more education, such as becoming a professor or an applied scientist.

Becky Tonietto is a Ph.D. student in Northwestern's plant biology and conservation program, studying how plant restoration projects (installing native plants, controlling invasive species and prescribed burns) have an effect on bee communities.

Although Tonietto says she hopes to continue her research as a professor in the future, she says it's important to expose students to plant science at an early age, before they reach college.

"I think a lot of students who are interested in science and math in high school ... think if you're good at science or math when you're a kid, that you're supposed to be an engineer, you're supposed to be a medical doctor," Tonietto says. "I think the earlier you can try to expose people to some of this stuff, any way you can expose students to this at a young age helps."

With that in mind, the Chicago Botanic Garden and several other botany organizations, such as the Botanical Society of America, have begun developing outreach programs to expose younger students to plant biology.