Interview with a Scientist: BIA Fellow Jessi Turner

by Melissa Harding

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If there is one segment of society that is often misunderstood, it is people who work in science fields. Public perception of scientists tends to lean towards lab coats, crazy hair and beakers full of chemicals, especially in the eyes of children.  In reality, most scientists are just regular people who want to make the world a better place through scientific discovery. The best way to dispel the myth that scientists are boring or crazy is to get to know them; the purpose of this segment is to talk with real scientists to ask them what they love about their jobs and why they think their work is fun and important.

It’s a new year with new scientists! For our next installment in this series, we sat down with BIA Fellow Jessica Turner. The Botany in Action Fellowship program at Phipps fosters the development of the next generation of plant-based scientists who are committed, first, to excellent research, and second, to educational outreach. The BIA program provides Fellows with funding for use towards field research in the US or abroad and a trip to Phipps, to engage in science outreach training and opportunities to share his or her research to public audiences. Jessi is in her second year as a BIA Fellow, researching the American Ginseng plant in West Virginia.

We interviewed Jessi about her passion for her work, her childhood playing outdoors and why studying plants is so great.

1. Introduce yourself and your work in 5 sentences or less. 

My name is Jessica B. Turner and I am a passionate outdoor-enthusiast, who loves creating art and traveling. I am also a scientist at West Virginia University, and I study THE most interesting plant in the world: American ginseng. Ginseng is harvested in Appalachia and then sold to China to be used for medicine, so this amazing plant is medicinally, culturally, and economically important on a global scale! Ginseng may not be around in the future…people overharvest it and surface mining is reducing the amount of forest where ginseng grows. As a scientist, I study how we can keep ginseng around for the future, so people can keep using and enjoying this beautiful plant!

2. Why did you become a scientist? 

As a kid, I was always in the mud, catching frogs, looking at insects, pressing wildflowers, and memorizing facts about animals. My parents had a big influence on my future occupation, as well. For every Christmas and birthday I received something science related, such as a microscope, chemistry kit, or a field guide. As a family, we would go to parks, zoos, conservatories, and arboretums together. My folks helped foster a curiosity in the world around me, and I knew that they considered no question to be stupid or silly… so I asked a lot of questions. And now, my job is to ask questions and answer them!

3. What part do plants play in your research? 

YES!!! Plants are great to study for many reasons. Plants are everywhere in every ecosystem! They are the bottom of the food chain, and they provide us with oxygen (pretty important stuff!). I study American ginseng, which is a fantastic plant that people all over the world care about. Since plants don’t move, you can study them over time (this is a GREAT reason to study plants). I study my plants by tagging them with an ID number, and measuring them every year. If the plants are growing, and producing a lot of seed, we know that is a good environment for the plant. If a plant is getting smaller over time, then the plant is probably not growing in the best area. With this simple scientific process, we are able to answer a lot of questions. I have hundreds of plants I visit and measure each year, this is how I collect my data!

4. What is the most exciting thing you have ever done at work?           

Being a scientist has given me so many extraordinary experiences. I have been able to pet rhinos, giraffes, and cheetahs, count tropical fish while doing reef surveys in Hawaii, and I have seen isolated parts of the Appalachian forest that are so beautiful it takes your breath away.  One of the coolest moments in field research happened when I was doing climate change work in Alaska.  I was dropped off at a field site to measure plants on the tundra.  As I looked around at the Brooks Range, felt the wind rushing over me, I realized this was the most isolated I had ever been in my entire life.  I was there with the plants, the mountains, and whatever large wildlife was lurking around in the willows.  It was a profound moment in my life, which I would not have experienced if it were not for my career path.

5. What skills do you use in your job? 

My job requires a whole bunch of skills, such as attention to detail, organization, etc. But my job also requires a healthy does of creativity, curiosity, and an excitement about learning. This job also requires an understanding that fieldwork is not always comfortable. We work long days in the summer, dealing with  a lot of insects and, often, less than ideal weather. I am not always outdoors, I also get to work with some cool computer programs… everything from web design, to photo editing, to statistical analysis. I feel like I have the best job, because I get paid to learn about the world, and in turn, teach others about how things work!

6. What is your favorite part of your job? 

I love working with people, and I love getting people excited about the world around them. One of the greatest perks is when I get to teach different age groups about science.   With kids, it is a blast coming up with different games or activities to teach certain concepts about biology. With the elderly, they are excited to learn, and they relate what they learn to their own personal experiences.   I have met some amazing people from all walks of life, and the natural world gives us a million ways to connect with anyone. I love sharing my passion and excitement about nature.

7. If you weren’t a scientist, what job would you choose? 

I would probably be an artist or a naturalist. As for being a naturalist, I love working with people and getting them interested in the complexities of nature. As for being an artist, I love creating and making things. There is something that is so satisfying about seeing the final product of something you created. That is one of the reasons I love science. I can ask a question, figure out how to answer that question, and then I get to answer it and explain it! At the end of it all, I can look at all of the work I did, and I can see the journey I took to get there. Science is like art, because you need to be flexible and creative.

8. Why is science education important?

Science explains how the world works. Learning about how to ask and answer questions logically can be an important framework for making educated decisions. Appreciating the natural world can connect people. For example, I could talk about ginseng to someone in Appalachia- who has never left his or her home county- or someone in Hong Kong who takes ginseng medicinally. This plant provides ‘common ground’ to two very different people with very different experiences. Science can help show us our similarities and bridge communities.

 

Jessi is an example of someone who loved being outside as a child and was inspired to a career in science because it. She has a passion for her work and telling everyone about what a great and important plant American Ginseng is!

To learn more about the importance of science communication, check out this post.

To learn more about Jessi’s work, check out her Follow the Fellows page on the Botany in Action Website.

The above photo was taken by Amanda Joy.

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