Tropical Botany student Jenny Morris taking field notes in Costa Rica. Photo by Danielle Ward.
By Jon Letman, Bulletin Editor
Among the many shortages the world faces today, one often overlooked is a lack of botanists. At a time of unprecedented crises, including a dramatic loss of biodiversity, highly trained botanists are in short supply. “Today, we need plant scientists more than ever,” says Dr. Chris Baraloto, director of the International Center for Tropical Botany (ICTB) at The Kampong in Miami, Florida.
For more than a decade, scientists have expressed concern about declining support for plant science education. As academic and funding priorities have shifted, universities have merged fields, deemphasizing botany programs. Reduced training and recruitment, along with retirement, has exacerbated the shortage. Dr. Brian Sidoti, director of The Kampong says, “A fresh influx of trained plant scientists is essential to carry forward research, innovation, and expertise. Their contributions will be pivotal in devising solutions to the global challenges we face.”
Plants not only provide oxygen, food, fiber, fuel, and medicine, they also offer habitat and safe refuge for wildlife and inspiration and recreation for humans. Plants fulfill essential ecosystem services like carbon and nutrient cycling, mitigate the impacts of climate change and storms, and perform other critical functions. But as threats to plants synergize, more plant scientists are urgently needed.
Happy botany students outside the ICTB at The Kampong. Photo by Gaby Orihuela.
That’s where the ICTB at The Kampong comes in. Chris says the new facility is uniquely equipped to train the next generation of botanists. The ICTB at The Kampong is a collaboration between the National Tropical Botanical Garden (NTBG) and Florida International University. The new facility builds upon a decades-long history of tropical plant collection and research at the home and garden of botanist David Fairchild, who purchased and named The Kampong in 1916.
As Fairchild introduced thousands of ornamental and food plants from around the world, his home and garden became a magnet for fellow scientists and plant enthusiasts. Among them was Harvard botany professor Richard A. Howard who frequently visited The Kampong beginning in the 1940s. Professor Howard first invited graduate students interested in tropical plant science to Miami and later, with Harvard botanist P. Barry Tomlinson, started an immersive course in taxonomy, anatomy, and morphology.
Catherine “Kay” Sweeney, who took ownership of The Kampong after Fairchild and later gifted it to NTBG, supported the Tropical Botany course as an ideal use of the property’s living collections consistent with Fairchild’s legacy.
The course continued under Walter Judd, a professor and curator of the herbarium at the University of Florida. A former student of Richard Howard, Judd expanded the course to four weeks. Over three decades the course trained more than 250 students who have become leaders in tropical plant sciences. When Chris Baraloto arrived in 2015, he was determined to build on that legacy.
The next chapter in tropical botany
Standing outside the ICTB’s orange and white Miami limestone (oolite) façade, Chris surveys the newly planted landscaping, an assemblage of more than 170 species
Built on a two-acre parcel, the ICTB is connected to The Kampong by physical space and a vision for the future. At the center of that vision are students like those who participated in the Tropical Botany course in May and June of this year. The 16 students, coming from ten countries, represented a range of experiences and backgrounds.
Housed in The Kampong’s dormitory, a short stroll from the ICTB, the botanists began their days with morning lectures followed by collecting plant material at The Kampong and nearby gardens, including Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden and the Montgomery Botanical Center. Afternoons were spent in the ICTB labs studying morphology and anatomy and learning how to identify more than 1,400 species from 850 genera and 200 families. Field trips took them to the Florida Keys, Everglades National Park, and other sites.
Left: Boris Llamas, a student from Guatemala, holding Fuchsia paniculata. Photo by Danielle Ward. Right: Chris Baraloto, Director of the ICTB at The Kampong inspects plant ID samples. Photo by Jon Letman
With ample space for instruction, research, lab work, and a herbarium with capacity for 120,000 specimens, Chris says the LEED-certified two-story ICTB is equipped to host a broad range of lectures, workshops, symposia, in-person and virtual classes, and meetings. The facility can accommodate graduate students and research assistants in office and multi-function spaces that allow for both collaboration and autonomy. Over time, Chris hopes the ICTB at The Kampong will become known as the preeminent research and teaching hub for scientists focused on neotropical flora.
Botany professor Dr. Lucas Majure (who took over Walter Judd’s position at UF) has joined Chris to share teaching responsibilities for the Tropical Botany course. Brian Sidoti also gave a presentation on his subject of expertise, the Bromeliaceae. Brian says the collaboration between ICTB and The Kampong creates a space where graduate and undergraduate students can excel, while maximizing use of The Kampong’s housing facilities and living collections as an outdoor laboratory.
One of the participants in this year’s Tropical Botany course was Jenny Morris, a science officer for the Bahamas National Trust. Jenny stressed the value of living and learning with fellow botanists and having time to discuss botany and science as well as culture, customs, academics, and environmental law from an international perspective. The experience, she says, is critical to becoming an effective teacher or mentor. “I feel like you cannot be an educator if you don’t explore first.”
Landscaping outside of the ICTB at The Kampong includes species native to a Florida hardwood hammock dry habitat. Photo by Jon Letman.
Studying alongside Jenny was NTBG plant records manager Kevin Houck who says the course improved his understanding of phylogenetics and taxonomy, fields which will bolster his data management and GIS mapping for the Garden. Taking the course, he believes, also enables him to more effectively coordinate with NTBG’s herbarium while strengthening curation and the assessment of collection priorities.
Into the field
Following four weeks of instruction at the ICTB at The Kampong, having built rapport and developed practical skills, the students embarked on a two-week trip to the lowland tropical moist forests of Costa Rica. Working with FUNDECOR, a local NGO, the students learned how to conduct a biodiversity inventory, assess the value of intact forest, and identify land suitable for a biodiversity corridor connecting conservation lands.
New skills gained included setting camera traps, inventorying insects and mammals, and making use of recently acquired plant identification techniques in the wild. Over eleven long days of field work, the students made several hundred herbarium vouchers comprising more than 300 species of 142 genera collected in an area not previously inventoried. This portion of the course, Chris explains, was both physically and mentally demanding, with long hours under difficult conditions, and high expectations.
“There was little ‘eco-tourism’-like about it,” he says. “We were there to collect meaningful data. The world is changing too rapidly for us to squander our time.”
Learning how measuring and identifying trees can help quantify carbon storage and sequestration potential, students met with landowners to discuss perspectives on protecting private land. Their work also demonstrated the high conservation value of a wildlife inventory in fragmented, but diversity-rich target areas. The training gave students a chance to consider Costa Rica’s ecosystem service payment model and, Chris says, “will definitely have an impact.”
Examining a strawberry poison dart frog (Oophaga pumilio). Left photo by Jenny Morris, right photo by Danielle Ward.
Danielle Ward, a PhD student at the University of California Berkeley, calls the course “intense” but “very positive” and “solutions focused.” She says it required great physical and mental stamina, but added that the ICTB at The Kampong faculty, staff, and facilities provided everything necessary to succeed. She says the highly integrated, unified program and welcoming, supportive staff will contribute to future collaborations between the network of botanists.
Another PhD student, Vanina Gabriela Salgado from Argentina, specializes in studying the large plant family Asteraceae. Coming from a temperate climate, she says the course opened her eyes to the dynamic ways in which diversity changes as it moves south. Vanina emphasized the value of the course for teaching students how to collect plant material in challenging conditions, how to orient oneself in the wild, and how to walk safely in unfamiliar surroundings. These are skills one cannot learn from a book, Vanina says. “There’s nothing like having someone mentor you on that.”
“I know this course is going to have a big impact on my career in the long term,” she adds. “Both personally and professionally it already has.”
Looking ahead, Chris emphasizes the value of this new, more international model for the Tropical Botany course. For the students, some of whom are already working for NGOs, government agencies, or as professors in their home country, the opportunity to undergo intensive training and develop relationships is priceless. Chris sees the Tropical Botany course, and the work being done at ICTB at The Kampong, as the continuation of a storied legacy of plant science education and research.
“There are very few courses like this,” Chris says. “We are unique in providing scholarship funds to those who might not receive such training. At this consequential time for the planet, he believes, opening doors and creating new opportunities couldn’t be more important. “These are the people we need to be training first,” says Chris. “They are the ones working at the forefront of the biodiversity crisis and they will have the most immediate impact.”
For more information about the Tropical Botany course, contact Dr. Chris Baraloto at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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