Archive for ‘botany’

March 6, 2015

Talking about Plant Science at SciTech Days

by Melissa Harding

FullSizeRender (5)

Yesterday, we spent the day with the future scientists of Pittsburgh at the Carnegie Science Center’s SciTech Days! This twice yearly event is a chance for both middle and high school students to meet with science professionals to learn more about their careers in the growth areas of Pittsburgh –  robotics, biotechnology, eco-technology and health. The day also features a variety of workshops and educational programs, as well as a chance to explore the exhibits, all of which is linked to the Next Generation Science Standards. We were there to represent the importance of biology and the natural world in our lives, as well as to talk about careers in the environmental field.

Kate and Melissa manned a table focusing on clean air plants, which are plants that help to clean toxins out of the air. They spoke with students about indoor air quality, including some of the products that bring chemicals into their homes. Students are always surprised that the air in their home can be 2-10% worse than the air outside! They also talked about the process by which some plants are able to increase the cleanliness of indoor air. Finally, they planted philodendron plugs with students to take home with them.


Dr. Emily Kalnicky also led a workshop entitled “Biophilia: Connecting with the Environment“, in which she spoke about how a strong connection with nature leads to an increase in conservation attitudes. In addition to talking about why people choose to behave in environmentally responsible ways, she also discussed the concept of biophilia and the growing proliferation of biophilic design in the built environment. She particularly highlighted our new CSL building, including some of the natural design elements within, and how it takes a holistic and integrative approach to human and ecological wellness.

While yesterday’s bad weather did keep some schools at home, we still had a great turn-out and enjoyed our time with the students. We can’t wait until the next SciTech Days this fall!

The above photos were taken by Science Education and Research staff.





March 3, 2015

Interview with a Scientist: BIA Fellow Aurélie 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 next 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 has been a BIA Fellow for three years, researching ethnobotany and traditional herbal medicines.

We interviewed Aurélie about how she combines her love of nature, people and plants into her research:

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

My name is Aurélie, and I am working on a Ph.D in the department of Medicinal Chemistry and Molecular Pharmacology at Purdue University. I study traditional herbal medicines and their potential protective effects on Parkinson’s disease. I traveled to Nepal and I work with Native Americans to learn about the medicinal plants they use, and now I have selected a few to study in the lab.

2. Why did you become a scientist? 

I became a scientist because I realized that I could help others with my work. At an early age, I knew that I wanted to work with medicinal plants and find a way to help people by turning these plants into medicine. Science was the best answer to achieve this goal!

3. What part do plants play in your research?

Plants are the basis of my work. Everything I do involves plant and plant extracts. For example, when I go to the field to interview people, I ask how plants are used as medicine. I also collect herbarium specimens to deposit in herbarium for future references. After collecting plants, I make extracts. I basically make a tea, dry it and use the remaining powder for my studies. I also have small plants in my office, just to keep me grounded!

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

The most exciting thing for me is to meet indigenous people and learn their traditions. Last year, I had the honor to be offered to smoke the sacred pipe! I witnessed the ceremony, the central importance of plants, and I am very grateful to have experienced it. It is a real gift that I will never forget.

Jacquet field photo-001

5. What skills do you use in your job? 

Because I have an interdisciplinary project, I need to use a variety of skills. During the fieldwork, I need to be able to communicate with healers and local people. Often, my questions about the uses of plants need to be handled carefully so that people don’t misunderstand my goal, which is to help find medicines and not steal knowledge. I also need to be able to write for multiple audiences. For example, I write differently if I return my research results to my participants or if I publish in a scientific journal. During my time in the lab, I need another set of skills. More than anything, I need patience and precision because I want to be able to reproduce my results several times. I couldn’t forget to mention analysis skills, because when I look at my results I need to be able to understand what they mean, find explanations and design the next experiments to be done.

6. What is your favorite part of your job? 

My favorite part of the job is without doubt to be in the field, feeling the plants in my hands, listening to stories and being remembered how precious Nature is!

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

If I wasn’t a scientist, I would be a photographer or a reporter. I would still want to learn about people, just in a different way!

8. Why is science education important? 

Science education is important because everybody need to be educated about how our world work and what need to be done to preserve it. Science is not worth much if people don’t have access to the new knowledge. I believe an educated population will be able to make the best decision for itself.

Aurélie is not only an exceptional scientist, but also an incredibly accomplished photographer who has won numerous awards for her work. She is an example of someone who combines a love of both art and science into one career. Check out this blog post to learn more about the connection between art and science!

To follow Aurélie’s adventures in research at, check out her website!

The above photos are used courtesy of Aurélie Jacquet and Phipps Science Education.

February 16, 2015

Home Connections: Flower Pigment Art

by Melissa Harding


“The earth laughs in flowers.”  – Ralph Waldo Emerson

Have some extra Valentine’s Day flowers laying around? We have the perfect use for them! There are many different crafts that we make with flowers – gluing them to crowns, making flower petal butterflies, or using them as paint brushes. In fact, flowers are a wonderful part of just about any nature craft; they add pops of color to nature weavings, mobiles and nature journals. One of the new ways that we have been using them recently is for their pigments. The most common plant pigment is chlorophyll, which is used primarily for photosynthesis. Other colors found in leaves, like reds and yellows, are secondary colors that also help absorb light energy. Flower pigments, the colors in the petals and sepals, are used to attract pollinators. Plant pigments are made out of a variety of molecules, including anthocyanins and carotenoids. While the biology of plant pigments is fascinating, it is also really easy to get them out of the plants themselves. So easy, in fact, that kids do it all the time (think grass stains). All you need to do is rub the plant against some fabric or paper and the pigments come right off onto the surface. With this in mind, we have being creating some fun crafts that use flower pigments as color.

Flower Pounding
A really fun way to get the pigments onto paper or fabric is by pounding. This can be accomplished in any manner of ways, but we like to use small stones. While a wooden mallet or small hammer will do the best job of evenly flattening the flowers, small stones are more kid-friendly. Specifically, we use flat, decorative driveway stones that are about 3 inches square or less in size. There is no need to hit the flowers hard; a gently tap will do it. Lay your flowers flat on the surface of your choice and place a small piece of white paper or fabric over the flower, then gently tap the flower all over with the flat of the stone. Remove the cover and peel off the flower; you should see the flower’s shape echoed in the pigment print.

The best paper to use for this project is watercolor paper. Unlike office or drawing paper, watercolor paper is thick and has dimples that will readily hold on to the flower pigments. We like to make bookmarks and picture frames out of our flower pounding projects, but the sky is the limit. If using fabric, unbleached linens and muslins will work best. Ideas for fabric include lavender sachets, cloth napkins and table runners. You will want to start with a white or cream base, as the pigments will not always be dark enough to show up on colored fabric or paper.

Flower Rubbing
Pounding is a technique that can sometimes be difficult for younger children. In lieu of pounding with a small stone, flowers can be rubbed across the surface to produce a color. In this case, it is much more difficult to recreate the shape of your plant on the base. Rather, you will end up with smears of color. However, the sensory experience of rubbing flowers to produce colored pigment is a wonderful activity for small children. The scent, color and texture of a variety of flowers will be a worthwhile nature exploration activity, even if the results are not as polished.

Not all flower are pigmented equally…
While all flowers have some pigment in them, not all of them work equally well in this activity. Some petals are too watery or too thin and will not produce a good image. Test all your flowers on scrap material or paper before you put them on your finished product. We recommend pansies, chrysanthemums, goldenrod, colored daisies, and marigolds to start out. Additionally, leaves will add a lovely pop of green to your project. Like with flowers, stay away from thick, watery leaves. Explore your yard and local green-spaces to find a variety of colors and textures from your project. Or simply buy a bouquet of grocery store flowers – any flower and leaf has the potential to make beautiful art!

Other crafts using plant pigments from around the web:
Nature Colors by Fakin’ It
“A Day with No Crayons” Flower Pounding Craft by The Crafty Crow
Flower Pounding Prints by Rhythm of the Home

The above photos were taken by Science Education staff.


February 12, 2015

Our Newest CSL Art Exhibit: From the Ground Up!

by Melissa Harding


New year, new photos! Our newest art exhibit in the Center for Sustainable Landscapes just opened last week and we couldn’t be more excited. Focusing on last year’s From the Ground Up program, this exhibit is the story of how a core group of high school students worked together to learn about the importance of food in their lives. As part of the Museums Connect program, made possible by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and administered by the American Alliance of Museums, Phipps partnered with the Gidan Makama Museums in Kano, Nigeria to provide an immersive experience for local high school students in each city. Participating students learned about nutrition, cooking and cultural food traditions by following local food from farm to table and communicated with students at their partner institutions.

This project lasted September to June 2014, resulting in the creation of a community cookbook that was designed and created by participating students. Students also met each month for a Saturday workshop involving activities designed to get them thinking critically about their food system and food culture. Through this project, it is our hope that the students have developed a deeper understanding of food and nutrition in their own and their partner’s country, and cultivated the skills to grow and cook their own food. The photos displayed represent the project from start to finish and all the fun times that our students had!

Check out the slideshow below to see all of the photos from the show:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

To learn more about the From the Ground Up program, check out these blog posts.

Each group’s cookbook is currently on display in the new Tropical Forest Congo exhibit! Learn more HERE.

The above photos were taken by Phipps and Gidan Makama staff and participating students.

February 5, 2015

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 next 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 has been a BIA Fellow for two years, researching urban ecology.

We interviewed Anna about her passion for the urban environment, why she loves planting flowers in vacant lots, and how practicing science can expand our world.

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

I grew up in rural Pennsylvania but when I moved to Pittsburgh, PA after college, I fell in love with the city. Now, I split my time between my home in Pittsburgh and where I work on my graduate degree, in Baltimore, MD. I am an urban ecologist, which means I study ecosystems that contain a combination of things you would expect to find in any terrestrial ecosystem (water, soil, plants, insects) but also built infrastructure (things like buildings, roads or bridges). One of the things I think about in my own life is what the role of humans should be in our world, and I try to study that too as a scientist, by studying what types of plants make their home in cities and how humans influence where they grow.

2. Why did you become a scientist?

I have always loved the natural world but didn’t really think about being a scientist until I worked as an environmental educator for a summer during college. I quickly began to realize how much I didn’t know about the natural world, and in the process of educating myself to better teach lessons, I realized that I actually had an aptitude for science, and that asking and answering questions was what I loved to do best (and bonus points if those questions were about our natural ecosystems!).

3. What part do plants play in your research?

I like to think of plants as a “habitat template”—in terrestrial ecosystems (that is, on land), plants really form the basis of ecosystems, and they are a big part of how we define habitats (what makes the forest the forest? The trees!). I study the plants that grow in vacant lots because I want to learn what species are able to survive in these tough relatively “new” habitats, and also (eventually—I haven’t gotten there yet with my research!) I’d like to study how their diversity affects other organisms such as pollinators or herbivores and the quality of the soils in vacant lots.


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

This is such a hard question! I find so much of what I do exciting because I love doing and trying new things, and my research always involves something new. Probably the most exciting thing that I have done recently is to help plant 25 vacant lots in Baltimore with wildflower seeds in April of this year, and then return to them in July to discover that they were beautiful and covered in flowers! I really didn’t think our plantings would work, but they did! I watched a family walk by one of the vacant lots and show the flowers to their child, and that made me so happy—that there was something they enjoyed looking at in a vacant lot that used to be mostly just viewed as a problem in their neighborhood.

5. What skills do you use in your job?

I love my job because I get to do different things almost every day, so I have to use lots of different skills. For example, I get to use/hone my organizational skills all the time (usually early in the morning, on my way to a day of field work as I write lists in my head of what tools I need to bring into the field with me…), but also I get to use my imagination when I write research proposals for new projects, my leadership skills when I have to convince my field crew that we should work all day in the cold or the heat or the rain and also some physical strength when I’m carrying heavy fence poles or digging holes in dry, compact soil.

 6. What is your favorite part of your job?

I love sharing my work with other people. Science can be lonely sometimes, so I jump at any opportunity to work in groups on projects or to start new collaborations with people who might have new ideas about ways to do/think about things.

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

I would probably work in an environmental non-profit of some sort—I really like working with groups of people on projects and I hate being in an office all day or talking about things I can’t see. I’d want to be out planting gardens or pruning trees or showing people how to care for/restore natural landscapes. Also, at the end of the day I would want to feel like I had done something useful that made people happier and healthier.

8. Why is science education important?

Science is all about asking and answering questions. To learn to do science is to learn how to collect data and then decide what it tells you (and be able to defend why you think that!). Science education is important because doing science is one of the only ways we can learn about things we don’t already know—otherwise, our world is very small because we are not able to add new knowledge to it, only revisit the same ideas and thoughts over and over. Science teaches us to explore new possibilities and gives us hope for the future.

Anna is a great example of someone who uses her work to help others; scientists contribute important information to our collective body of knowledge all the time by asking good questions and seeking out the answers. To read more about asking good questions, check out this blog post!

Follow Anna’s adventures in research at her blog!

The above photos are used courtesy of Anna Johnson and Phipps Science Education.

February 4, 2015

Challenge #3 of the Fairchild Challenge at Phipps: Plants and Pollinators

by Melissa Harding


Pollination is a magical process. A plant, through seemingly no will of its own and often with the help of a whole host of unwitting accomplices, is able to orchestrate the ritual by which its pollen is mixed and spread around to make reproduction possible. Not only is this complex plan catalyzed by an organism without an actual brain, but it has been doing so for millions of years. All things considered, the fact that pollination works so well is kind of a miracle. While much of the credit should go to plants, they really couldn’t do it without their pollination pals: bees, butterflies, bats, birds and a number of less famous plant friends like flies and wasps. The most recent challenge for middle and high school students in the Fairchild Challenge at Phipps honors those pairings of critters and plants and the   pivotal roles that they play in the ecosystem. Participating students were tasked with creating drawings that depict one such relationship and to explain the value that it provides in a short caption.

Not only was this challenge offered at Phipps, but it is a global challenge as well. The Global Competition is being offered by The Fairchild Challenge, in partnership with all of the Fairchild Challenge Partners. For the first time, ten international and national institutions will be invited to participate in the same challenge. Top 10 drawings from each individual institution, Phipps Conservatory being one, will share their entries and compete in this global challenge. Online voting will be open from Wednesday, April 1 through Thursday, April 30 and winning entries of the Global Challenge will be published in Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden’s magazine!


In addition, a selection of drawings will be matted, framed and displayed at the Phipps Center for Sustainable Landscapes gallery from May through summer 2015.

In the middle school category, the winning entries are:

1st Place: Tie: Shaler Area Middle School and Shaler Area Middle School
2nd Place: Shaffer Elementary 6th Grade
3rd Place: Carson Middle School

Special Merit Awards:
Carson Middle School for flowers
The Ellis School for originality
David E. Williams Middle School

In the high school category, the winning entries are: 

1st Place: Pittsburgh Science and Technology Academy
2nd Place: Hampton High School
3rd Place: Woodland Hills High School

Special Merit Awards:
Hampton High School for an amazing bee
Gateway High School for creativity and skill
Shaler Area High School for exquisite detail
Shaler Area High School for pen and ink artistry
Shaler Area High School for composition

To see the winning entries in both the middle and high school challenges, check out the slideshow below:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The first place winners of all middle school challenges will be invited to appear on the Saturday Light Brigade radio program. The Saturday Light Brigade can be heard every Saturday morning on WRCT 88.3 FM. It also streams live at where the interview will be archived under Neighborhood Voices. Join area middle school students on Saturday, February 21 at 10:35 a.m. Check out the broadcast here. 

The above photos were taken by Science Education and Research staff.

February 3, 2015

Say “Hello” to Free Choice Learning in the New Tropical Forest Congo!

by Melissa Harding


While we have many rooms and plants that change over time at Phipps, including our numerous seasonal shows, perhaps our most extensive and exciting new exhibit comes with the changing of our Tropical Forest Conservatory. Every three years, the entire room gets a serious face-lift; this winter, over 60 percent of the plant life will be removed to make room for plants from our newly highlighted region – the African Congo.  This new forest is the culmination of years of research by Phipps staff, including a trip to Cameroon, and will highlight some of Africa’s lushest landscapes.

In addition to being filled with unique and interesting plant species, this new forest also has an exciting interpretive plan designed to help visitors make the connection between the many different cultures of the region and their own relationships to nature. Focusing on how the people of the Congo region rely on the natural world for their food, culture, housing, economy, art, and architecture, the Tropical Forest Congo exhibit hopes to remind visitors of the power of plants in their own lives.


Even more exciting is the redoubled focus on science education within the Tropical Forest Congo. With their high diversity of plants and animals, tropical forests provide many excellent opportunities for scientific research; this makes the Tropical Forest Conservatory the perfect place to connect our visitors with what science (and scientists) really look and act like. Meant as a way to give visitors a hands-on look at the world of botanical research, both in the field and in the lab, the new exhibit puts guests into the shoes of real scientists. Each part of the exhibit invites visitors to learn about the scientific process through stories, activities, and sensory exploration. As they walk through the Forest, participants will encounter a research field station (starring BIA Fellow Jessi Turner as our example scientist!), several research kiosks with real scientific tools they can use to collect data, and a lab space.

Congo4Not only does this exhibit enable visitors to experience a bit of the life of a scientist throughout the whole research process, but it encourages them to make a personal connection with botanical research and the importance of plants. It also connects them to the field of science in general and helps to  increase overall scientific literacy. These types of exhibits and activities are important for increasing scientific literacy because most Americans learn the majority of their science knowledge through free choice learning opportunities like those found at Phipps. According to “The 95 Percent Solution”,  a rather infamous 2010 report published by the journal American Scientist, non-school resources, like museums, are where most science learning occurs.

This is particularly important for children. A 2009 report from the National Research Council found that not only do these kinds of experiences start a child’s long-term interest in science, but they can significantly increase scientific literacy in populations that are typically under-represented in science. Museum learning not only reinforce topics taught in school, but has the potential to create a vibrant spark in a student that lasts his whole life. Effective science communication through exhibits like the Tropical Forest Congo inspires students to pursue STEM careers and develop a passion for life-long learning.

People learn throughout their entire lives – both as children and as adults. Finding new ways to get them interested in science, especially through a multi-disciplinary approach, is essential to creating new avenues of learning. We are proud that our new interpretive exhibits within the Tropical Forest Congo will contribute to creating a spark of science learning in our visitors for the next three years!

Come celebrate the opening of our new exhibit with a special opening festival – February 7, 11:00-4:00pm! There will be a variety of fun, family-friendly activities such as storytelling, pot-a-plant, cultural crafts, food sampling and visits from real botanical researchers – all free with Phipps admission! Learn more on our website.

Learn more about the importance of free choice learning in museum settings here.

What does a scientist look like? Check out this blog post about how children’s perception of scientists influences their engagement in science.

Photos © Tim Hammill; Paul g. Wiegman; Denmarsh Photography, Inc.



Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 199 other followers

%d bloggers like this: