Archive for ‘Botany In Action’

October 1, 2014

Botany in Action Science Engagement Weekend

by Melissa Harding


This past weekend was our Botany in Action Science Engagement, a four-day event that brings our Botany in Action Fellows to Phipps for a series of workshops and public engagement opportunities. The goal of the Science Engagement is to help the Fellows become more skilled at interpreting their work for a public audience, including children, and to give museum visitors a chance to learn more about their research. Fellows spent their time at Phipps developing skills in public speaking, radio, field photography, photo editing, multimedia, and popular and creative writing for a public audience.

In addition to working with Phipps educators and polishing their skills, they also spent some time doing public outreach to students. Last Friday, the Fellows worked with local high school students as part of the Eco-Challenge. They shared their experiences in the field, as well as their love of science, with groups of students. Both students and teachers came away excited about the enthusiasm each Fellow has for his or her work. Many described it as the highlight of their day at Phipps!

 The Fellows also had a chance to work with family and adult audiences. Saturday morning, the Fellows set up informational tables throughout the Conservatory to display tools they use in the field and to talk more informally to visitors about their research. That night, they presented at “Peek Behind the Petals”, a lecture series for members to talk about their research and why science matters.

Check out images from both public events in the slideshow below!

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Additionally, the Fellows were interviewed by the Saturday Light Brigade, a family radio show, to talk about their work as a scientists and a significant plant they each encounter during their work. This will be complied into a short segment called “Herbs in Action” and will be aired throughout the fall.

Check out this space throughout the coming year to see profiles of each Fellow and their research. Read about past year’s Fellows at “Follow the Fellows”.

If you missed any of the public events this weekend or would like to learn more about the Fellows and their work, you can check out the Botany In Action blog!

The above photos were taken by Science Education Staff and volunteers.

September 29, 2014

High School Eco-Challenge Matches Students with Scientists

by Melissa Harding


Last week, over 150 middle and high school students from local schools came to Phipps to participate in the Eco-Challenge, a multidisciplinary environmental outreach event co-run by Phipps and the Allegheny Intermediate Unit 3. Students worked in teams of four to learn about sustainability over the course of three challenges. In the first, students learned about the benefits of upcycling, or reusing materials to create a product of higher value or quality than the original materials. Students used “trash”, donated by local salvage non-profit Construction Junction, to create temporary mosaics. In the next, they took a scavenger hunt around the Conservatory with the help of our wonderful, volunteer docents to learn about the ecology of the landscape and greenhouses. Finally, students got the chance to work with our visiting Botany in Action Fellows, interviewing them on their work and career paths.

This challenge is always a favorite every year; students love meeting real scientists and are always affected by the passion and excitement that our Fellows exude when they talk about their work.

See more photos from the day in the slideshow below:

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This event also serves as a kick-off for the Fairchild Challenge, a year-long environmental education program for both middle and high school students sponsored through the Fairchild Tropical and Botanic Gardens in Miami, Florida. In this multidisciplinary program, older students participate in a variety of sustainability-based “challenges” that focus on art, writing, music, and more. Schools choose to participate in one or all of seven challenges that take place over the course of the school year. At the end of the spring, monetary awards are given to the winning schools for use in their environmental science departments.

The above photos were taken by Science Education Staff and volunteers.

September 24, 2014

Save the Dates: Meet Botany in Action Research Fellows at Phipps this Month!

by Melissa Harding


Meet Phipps’ Botany in Action (BIA) Fellows and enjoy presentations about their adventures as global field scientists studying the relationships between people, plants, health and the planet at this special one-day event, free with Conservatory admission.

Members Only: Peek Behind the Petals
Saturday, Sept. 27:  9:30-10:15 a.m.
 The upcoming installment of Peek Behind the Petals will highlight the work of our Botany in Action Fellows, emerging scientists who are conducting plant-focused field research around the globe and sharing their findings with the public through educational outreach efforts.

Meet the Scientists
Saturday, Sept. 27:  1 – 2:30 p.m.
Tropical Forest Conservatory
BIA Fellows will be stationed throughout Tropical Forest India to display their research tools, answer your questions and offer intriguing details about the work of field scientists.

Visiting Botany in Action Fellows:

aurelie jacquet  Phipps Botany in Action science education researchAurélie de Rus Jacquet
Purdue University, Indiana
Geographic Focus: Nepal
Research Focus: Neuroprotective effects of Nepalese traditional medicine on Parkinson’s disease models

anna johnson  Phipps Botany in Action science education researchAnna Johnson
University of Maryland Baltimore County, Maryland
Geographic Focus: Maryland
Research Focus: Novel urban plant communities: causes and consequences of diversity

jessica turner  Phipps Botany in Action science education researchJessica Turner
West Virginia University, West Virginia
Geographic Focus: West Virginia
Research Focus: The root of sustainability: Understanding and implementing medicinal plant conservation strategies in the face of land-use change in Appalachia


Chelsie Romulo
George Mason University, Virginia
Geographic Focus: Peru
Research Focus: Working to conserve and sustainably manage the ecologically, culturally, and economically important palm tree Mauritia flexuosa (aguaje) in the Peruvian Amazon (Peru).


Stephen J. Murphy
Ohio State University, Ohio
Geographic Focus: Pennsylvania
Research Focus: Forest landscape change in southwestern Pennsylvania

Read previous posts about BIA Fellows’ research and science outreach work here.

To follow the fellows as their adventures continue, visit

The above photos were provided by Aurelie de Rus Jacquet, Anna Johnson, Stephen J. Murphy, Jessica Turner and Chelsie Romulo.

September 3, 2014

Amanda and Melissa Attend Portal to the Public Workshop in Seattle!

by Melissa Harding


This week, Amanda Joy and Melissa Harding will be heading to Seattle, WA to attend a Portal to the Public Dissemination Workshop. Portal to the Public  was created to develop a model for informal science education sites to build programs that would allow for face-to-face interactions between scientists and public audiences. Instead of a prescriptive model, the guiding framework is a structured set of concepts designed to be flexible to suit the needs of any institution.  Goals of the Portal to the Public include supporting local adoption of the framework at each dissemination site, building a community of practice, and  increasing the ability of individual museum professionals to confidently design appropriate programs, partner with scientists, facilitate professional development, and execute public programs featuring scientists.

Melissa and Amanda will attend a three-day workshop that will take place at the Pacific Science Center, where teams from a variety of informal learning institutions will create plans to implement Portal to the Public at their institutions.

The above photo was taken by Phipps Science Education and Research staff.

April 18, 2014

Interview with a Scientist: BIA Fellow, Aurelie Jacquet

by Melissa Harding


 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.

For our fifth installment in this series, we sat down with BIA Fellow Aurélie Jacquet. 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. Aurélie is in her second year as a BIA Fellow, studying the effects of medicinal plants on Parkinson’s Disease.

We interviewed Aurélie about her interests in medicinal plants and why studying science is important:

1. Describe your work.
My name is Aurélie Jacquet and I am a Ph.D student at Purdue University. I come from France and I have decided to do my research in the USA to discover a new culture and get the opportunity to make an impact in our world. As a kid I used to travel and spend a lot of time exploring outside, so my interest in bringing plant, people and science together may come from this period. I study the medicinal plants used in Nepalese and Native American traditional medicine to cure Parkinson’s disease. I visited various areas in Nepal as well as the Blackfeet (Montana) and Lumbee (North Carolina) tribes in the USA. In Nepal and in the USA, I interviewed  traditional healers as well as local people and collected plant samples. These samples are then analyzed in my lab to identify therapeutic activities. Parkinson’s disease is an age-related disorder and no therapies are currently available to cure this disease. This work aims at discovering plant-based therapeutics that would be easily available for people in Nepal and developing countries. Today, 80% of the people in the world use medicinal plants as primary source of health care and don’t have access to modern medicine. Discovering new plant-based therapies would critically impact people’s life by providing cost effective and sustainable medicines. On the other hand, this work could lead to the formulation of more modern drugs and impact our own lives and our families. We are all inhabitants of this world and we all have a role to play to make it better for now and the future.
2. Why did you become a scientist?
I became a scientist because since I was a teenager I was interested in studying how people use medicinal plants in traditional medicine. I believed we could study these herbs and make medicines for all.
3. What is your favorite part about being a scientist?
I like to be able to meet general audiences and explain why traditional medicine and herbs are important and need to be protected.
4. What is the most important quality in a scientist?
Be passionate and relentless. Science is not an easy and smooth path. There is always a lot of time spent in optimizing experiments and it takes a lot of time to obtain results, especially in biology and pharmacology.
5. What is the coolest thing you have ever done at work?
Last summer, I traveled to Montana to meet the Blackfeet tribe. As part of my ‘education’ and spiritual experience with the tribe, I was offered to smoke the sacred pipe! During this time, I was able to learn about the meaning of the plants used during ceremonies and rituals.
6. If you weren’t a scientist, what other job would you want to do?
I would be a nature photographer or reporter in developing countries.
7. What are your hobbies outside of your research?
Photography and hiking
8. Why is science important?
Science is important because it helps us understand the world around us, protect endangered species, preserve knowledge but also help design medicines to cure terrible diseases such as Parkinson’s disease or malaria.
9. Why is it important for kids to learn science?
It is important for kids to learn science for various reasons. First, it helps build a “scientific mind”, which is critical to be able to analyze information rationally. Secondly, science helps understand how the world functions around us. It can be learning about the various families of plants, butterflies or why the planets turn around the sun! Finally, I have been judge for the Lafayette Regional Science and Engineering fair for 2 years, and I listen to kids’ presentation about a scientific project they build and conducted. I believe that they enjoy being able to independently create and lead a project, present their results and draw conclusions. It helps them thinking independently and increases their self-confidence.

Aurélie is an example of a scientists drawn to their field by their desire to help others. Science for its own sake is great, but learning more about the world for the purpose of making it better is the very best use of scientific research.

To learn more about Aurélie’s work, check out her Follow the Fellows page on the Botany in Action Website.
To see more of Aurélie’s photography, check out her website!

The above photo was taken by Amanda Joy.

April 9, 2014

2014 Botany in Action Fellows Announced!

by Melissa Harding


The 2014 Botany in Action Fellows have been selected!

The Botany in Action Fellowship program at Phipps fosters the development of the next generation of plant-based scientists who are committed both to excellent research and educational outreach. Open to PhD students enrolled at US graduate institutions and conducting plant-based scientific field research, 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 with a broad range of public audiences.

Here are the 2014 Fellows; some are returning and some are brand new:

Jacquet head photoAURELIE JACQUET, Purdue University (IN).  Neuroprotective activities of Nepalese and Native American traditional medicines in Parkinson’s disease. (Nepal and United States). related symptoms. We overall documented more than 300 uses, but we need to spend more time with the Lumbee people to provide a more complete overview of their medicine. Because herbal medicine is sacred and secret among people of the tribe, information about these practices is only shared after a trust relationship is established between the healer and the researcher. Our central hypothesis is that the plants used in Nepalese and Native American traditional medicines have a high potential to alleviate neuron death and changes in brain cells associated with PD. We collected medicinal plants and are conducting controlled tests to determine the safety and therapeutic efficacy of the samples.
Our research contributes to meet the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goal #1 “Eradicate poverty and hunger” through generation of knowledge capable of initiating new discussions in the field of public health policy, and the preservation of traditional practices.
Research Advisor: Jean-Christophe Rochet, Associate Professor of Medicinal Chemistry and Molecular Pharmacology, Purdue University.

Learn more about Aurelie and her research here.

Johnson_HeadshotANNA JOHNSON, University of Maryland Baltimore County (MD), Biodiversity in the City: the Interactive Effects of Land-Use Legacies and Environmental Gradients on the Diversity of Fragmented Urban Plant Communities (MD). While most of the global human population lives in cities, our urban ecosystems remain one of the more understudied environments from the perspective of ecological science. We rely on the plants that grow in cities to provide services to the human population such as cooling and cleaning the air and making our neighborhoods more beautiful. We know relatively little, however, about what factors are most important for creating the patterns of urban plant diversity that we observe. This project explores how history of land-use in vacant lots affects the plants that grow there today and tests a restoration strategy for increasing urban plant diversity. I previously have conducted surveys of existing plant diversity in vacant lots in Baltimore, MD, USA. I found that in these vacant lots, there was more variation in plant diversity within areas that were remnant backyards than within the areas of the lots where buildings previously stood. I plan to expand these results to study whether the effects of different legacies of land-use on plant diversity change predictably over time, by collecting property records and reconstructing the history of when each house was abandoned and demolished. This will result in a description of what happens to abandoned urban land without human intervention. I will also collect data from a two-year long field experiment that experimentally increased the diversity of native wildflowers in “weedy” plant communities. I will use what is learned from this smaller experiment to guide a similar experimental restoration plan for entire vacant lots.
Research Advisor: Christopher M. Swan, Ph.D. Associate Professor, Department of Geography & Environmental Systems University of Maryland Baltimore County.

Learn more about Anna and her research here.


OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAKELLY KSIAZEK, Northwestern University and the Chicago Botanic Garden (IL). The influence of seed and pollen movement on the diversity of green roof plant populations(IL). The conversion of natural land to cities means that more plants and animals need to live alongside people. Special rooftop gardens, called green roofs, could include plant species that have lost their normal living spaces on the ground. If plants are able to live successfully on green roofs, they could provide resources like food and nesting materials to many insects and birds. However, green roofs, like other urban gardens, tend to be located far away from each other. Spaces between the roofs might not be good places for plants and animals to live, causing green roofs to act like isolated islands throughout a city. If plants on green roofs are not connected to other plant populations, inbreeding can occur between a few closely related individuals. Over time, this could mean that all individuals on a green roof were related and would share the same inability to respond to stressful situations like droughts.
However, if green roofs received seeds and pollen from other locations, the plants could have a greater ability to adapt to changes in the environment. To date, little is known about how green roof plant populations are connected with plants in other habitats throughout cities. My research will determine the characteristics of plants that allow them to get to new green roofs and will compare the movement of pollen on green roofs to a typical natural habitat. Results of this research will allow future green roofs to be designed to support diverse and resilient groups of plants.
Research Advisor: Krissa Skogen, PhD Conservation Scientist at the Chicago Botanic Garden and Adjunct Professor at Northwestern University.

Learn more about Kelly and her research here.

Murphy_headshotSTEPHEN J MURPHY, The Ohio State University (OH). Forest landscape change in southwestern Pennsylvania (PA). A common misconception is that forests are static entities, remaining relatively unchanged through time unless subjected to a severe disturbance such as fire or logging. In reality, forests are constantly changing as certain species increase in abundance, others decrease, and yet others remain stable over time. Understanding this dynamic nature of forests is extremely important for predicting how they will look in the future, because changes in species composition can influence the types and values of services that these ecosystems provide. For example, the availability of suitable habitat for wildlife could be impacted, the types of nutrient input from litter could shift, or the types of timber that will be available for commercial purposes could change.
An existing series of forest plots established at Powdermill Nature Reserve offers a unique opportunity to study such changes in the forested landscape of southwestern Pennsylvania. I propose to resample a subset of these existing plots to determine how the number of species, the abundances of those species, and their overall sizes, has changed over a period of six years. Because significant changes in other forests throughout the eastern United States have been documented previously, I expect that the forests of southwestern Pennsylvania will also experience similar dynamism. Specifically, I expect to observe a decrease in drought-tolerant individuals, and an increase in moisture loving species. And because areas of the reserve are still recovering from past human land-use impacts, I expect to see an increase in the overall biomass of the forest.
Research Advisor: Liza S Comita, Assistant Professor, Department of Evolution, Ecology, and Organismal Biology, The Ohio State University.

cromulo_headshot2CHELSIE ROMULO, George Mason University (VA). Working to conserve and sustainably manage the ecologically, culturally, and economically important palm tree Mauritia flexuosa (aguaje) in the Peruvian Amazon (Peru). The aguaje palm tree (Mauritia flexuosa) covers approximately 10% of the Peruvian Amazon. Its fruit supports many different animal species in the Amazon rainforest, including tapirs, primates, peccaries, birds, turtles and fish. The fruit of this tree is harvested from the wild and sold in the city of Iquitos, which is the largest city and commercial center of the Peruvian Amazon. The most common harvest method is cutting down the tree, even though alternative climbing methods are available. Despite the long-term benefits of using sustainable harvesting techniques, future paybacks can seem irrelevant to people who have difficulty meeting their daily survival needs. My dissertation research proposes to combine an evaluation of tree distribution with interviews of people along the market chain to better understand the current conservation challenges surrounding aguaje. I want to understand the motivation of people who harvest and sell the fruit of this palm and review how the distribution of the tree has changed over the past 25 years. The changes in tree distribution over time will be evaluated using satellite images from the NASA Landsat program, which go back to 1972. With a better understanding of the consequences of current harvest and the perspectives of the people involved in the market I will produce recommendations for the conservation and sustainable management of this threatened palm and the forest.
Research Advisor: Dr. Michael Gilmore, Assistant Professor of Life Sciences/Integrative Studies. New Century College, George Mason University.

 Turner_headshotJESSICA B. TURNER, West Virginia University (WV),  The Root of Sustainability: Understanding and implementing medicinal plant conservation strategies in the face of land-use change in Appalachia (WV). American ginseng is a valuable medicinal plant that is culturally important worldwide. Ginseng is harvested by people in Appalachia and sold on the international market. Through human activity, ginseng’s habitat is being reduced; much of this land-use change is due to surface mining. How land was used historically can influence how well a plant grows and reproduces. My research studies the relationship between ginseng and surface mining, both from the ecosystem and social science perspective: (1) Can ginseng, and another medicinal plant, goldenseal, grow just as well on land that was previously surface-mined, as compared to forests with other types of land-use history? Through this reintroduction study, I will understand, depending on how well these plants grow, if previously mined-lands are lost as potential medicinal plant habitat, or if people could grow medicinal plants on previously mined lands. (2) How do people in Appalachia view surface mining and ginseng conservation? Through surveys, I will learn if people in both the Appalachian and ginseng harvester communities prioritize the forest and practice conservation. I will also be able to assess if attitudes toward surface mining effects might be different if restoration of medicinal plants was possible. By researching how people think about ginseng and surface mining, I can develop environmental education based on the community’s perspective of ginseng conservation. Understanding the impacts of surface mining on the role of ginseng in the forests, as well as the culture in Appalachia, will provide a basis for how people can conserve medicinal plants. Research Advisor: James B. McGraw, PhD, Eberly Professor of Biology, West Virginia University.

Learn more about Jessica and her research here.

Please join us in welcoming these wonderful Fellows and their exciting research to the Botany in Action program!

The above photos are courtesy of the 2014 BIA Fellows.

March 13, 2014

Interview with a Scientist: BIA Fellow, Anna Johnson

by Melissa Harding


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.

For our forth installment in this series, we sat down with BIA Fellow Anna Johnson. 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. Anna is in her first year as a BIA Fellow, studying urban biodiversity.

We interviewed Anna about her love of teaching science, her time working with inmates, and why learning science helps kids to feel empowered.

1. Describe your work:
I study the ecological processes that drive patterns of urban biodiversity. I am particularly interested in connecting ecological research results to urban sustainability initiatives, and engaging underserved populations in the practice and outcomes of research. My research advisor and I are currently working on a long-term project with other academic, non-profit and governmental collaborators to set up and maintain experimental restorations of native plant communities in vacant lots found in low-income neighborhoods in Baltimore City.
2. Why did you become a scientist?
I went to college for a general liberal arts degree (a bachelor of arts), but fell in love with the natural history component of my freshman introductory biology lab. This inspired me to intern during a following summer as an environmental educator at a nature center on the Chesapeake Bay. But, I quickly became frustrated by all the things I didn’t know about the ecosystems I was showing to the children I worked with. In the process of educating myself to teach lessons, I realized that being a scientist involved thinking creatively and asking the sorts of questions I was most interested in already, and that it wasn’t “too hard” or “boring” at all. So I worked in an evolutionary ecology research lab for a few years after college, and then applied to get my PhD in ecology.
3. What is your favorite part about being a scientist?
I love getting to spend time with other scientists who are passionate about systems that I don’t study and don’t know much about. I am a plant ecologist but I go to school in a geography department with a wide range of researchers–I never thought I would find meteorology, hydrology or geology interesting (I like things that are alive!), but watching friends get really excited about stream flow models or hurricane trajectories helps me keep an open mind and notice connections I wouldn’t think about on my own.
4. What is the most important quality in a scientist?
Being able to think creatively and independently
5. What is the coolest thing you have ever done at work?
Well, the coolest thing lately is that I got to spend a day last week at the Maryland Transition Center in Baltimore City, building a greenhouse and planting seeds with a group of inmates—something I never imagined I would be doing when I went back to school. Also, I’m responding to these survey questions from Germany, where I’m attending an international ecology conference—science is a great excuse to travel.
6. If you weren’t a scientist, what other job would you want to do?
For a while I thought I wanted to be a botanical illustrator but I realized that I don’t have the patience or consistent attention to fine detail       that this requires. I would probably either want to teach middle school or work in local government; anything that is hands-on and involves some story-telling and arguing.
7. What are your hobbies outside of  your research?
I read a lot of novels, garden/do battle with roving herds of urban deer and spend time with family and friends. I also love exploring my two       favorite cities, Baltimore and Pittsburgh.
8. Why is science important?
Science is a system for understanding the world around us, not just a collection of facts. Thinking scientifically helps us to ask meaningful questions and productively explore the causes and consequences of our actions as a society.
9. Why is it important for kids to learn science?
Science is empowering! We live in a complex world and science is about problem-solving. It helps kids to put together the pieces and start to make “educated guesses” about what will happen next and why things are the way they are. Science makes really little things not so insignificant and really big things not so overwhelming because it places them all in the context of human concerns.

Anna is an example of someone who loved learning about science so much that she quit her job as a teacher to pursue it full-time. She not only gets to spend her days researching her passions, but she also has an appreciation for the research of others. Life-long learning is something that we all strive for, whether or not we are scientists. To learn more about how science communication creates life-long learners, check out this post.

To learn more about Anna’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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