Working as a Noyce intern at the New York Botanical Garden has given me a new perspective on education. My previous education in a formal setting had created a somewhat false idea that education is a highly-structured institution with a clearly delineated relationship between teacher and pupil. Although I had fantastic mentors at the Garden, much of my learning was conducted independently. My mentors provided resources and inspiration and then I was free to problem solve and innovate as I curated sections of the herbarium collection on my own. A major source of my inspiration and motivation were the weekly internship enrichment programs.
One week, I was curating a particularly difficult section of the herbarium – the folders were overflowing, the cabinet itself was overstuffed, and many specimens were misplaced or mislabeled – and began to feel disheartened. It seemed as though despite my best efforts, I would be unable to make any sense of the specimens, thereby depriving public and research visitors of an opportunity to fully utilize the material. When I arrived at the intern enrichment program that Tuesday afternoon – a lecture on field research from a resident botanist – I was preoccupied with discontent. I felt inadequate and frustrated by my inability to accomplish even an insignificant task such as my own. Fortunately, my bout of self-deprecation was interrupted by a fully engrossing lecture not only on field research and its benefits, but on the benefit of the garden as a whole. One afternoon I was working with the Rubiaceae when my supervisor, Nicole, walked through the second floor of the herbarium with a tour group of older volunteers, she was showing them a wildflower specimen that had originated in the old world but had invaded the United States in the early 1800s. She explained that the Garden herbarium possessed the first collected specimen of the species to be found in the United States.
Since this discovery, collectors have made had effort to track the spread of this species across the country, and had been able to track its progress as far as California. Although, we have not yet figured the implications of the spread, this knowledge allows greater insight into the growth patterns of invasive species over time.
Species often begin as invasive species before becoming commonplace fixtures in an environment, and the distinction between invasive species being harmful to native species and being relatively benign is foggy at best. Beatrix Potter – renowned writer, illustrator, and botany savant – worked to conserve the Lake District of England’s flora but also contributed many new species to it through her seed exchanges. These species are considered emblems of the romantic lake district as much as the beloved Peter Rabbit himself. I have found that knowledge often works this same way. Once introduced by a teacher, knowledge spreads, prompting its own growth and colonizing pathways in the brain. Understanding the connection between the curation work I do in the herbarium and the preservation of vital species in the field allowed me not only to feel greater confidence in the immediate effect of my work but to think about the specimens I work with in a new way.
A teacher’s job – perhaps, even more so a science teacher’s job – is to provide students with an opportunity to access knowledge, and with a space to learn. This experience has allowed me to mature as a learner by forcing me to become more empathetic to the weeds, both literal and otherwise. Every piece of knowledge is a wildflower; it takes close observation to notice the clever seeds. With the knowledge I gained during this internship I hope to reenter the world as a better educator, not only in a formal setting but in life as well.
Although I enjoy the work, spending most of the last couple weeks curating the collection by myself had moments of great monotony. I received a list of assignments from my supervisor: sections of the herbarium that were overflowing, others where many specimens of one type had accumulated and I was to separate them, and a few more sporadic tasks, like organizing a group of specimens from a specific historic collector for a visitor to view. Curating overcrowded collections is more a task of problem solving than anything else. Handling such a multitude of specimens has allowed me to view a wide variety of species across many families and to compare their relative frequencies within geographic areas. Of course, this comparison must be approached with hesitation, as the collectors who form the collection influence it.
I meet with interns from other departments weekly for an internship enrichment program. The most recent intern enrichment program was to the research lab. A quiet building with walls of clear windows that filter through blue light and look out on the garden, the floor plan is open, with tables organized in the most logical progression of specimen processing, starting with the physical dissection and ending with the DNA analysis. In recent years, the tree of life, at least as far as it pertains to plants, has undergone a radical change. As DNA analysis allows botanists to see more clearly the relations between species, many families have been shifted dramatically. Often this is the work I do, relabeling and collating into the collection specimens who have been discovered to be very different from those they were thought to be closely linked to and very similar to those with which we previously saw little connection at all.
One morning my security card malfunctioned and I was locked out of the herbarium floor where I had been working. This ended up being a beneficial circumstance as it allowed me a morning to watch the mounters in process. I will begin training to mount new specimens myself on Monday, the seventh, and this opportunity made me feel much better prepared for my new task. I have worked mounting plant specimens in an herbarium before, but the method at the New York Botanical Garden is so entirely different from that which I have used before. Rather than pressing specimens on to a metal sheet of thinly spread glue, the mounters us slow-dispense bottles to pour the glue directly onto the specimens, and rather than using linen strips to secure thick stems and wobbly leaves, they sew the specimens onto the cardstock. The entire process is very clever and innovative. The mounting room has the benefit of overlooking the garden, where as the herbarium file rooms are windowless.
In addition to curation work, in the last week I have begun working on old field journals. Most botanists are experts in only one genus and only one geographically areas, so, when plant specimens arrive at the herbarium from Peru or Bolivia or Venezuela or wherever this particular scientist chooses to study, they are first pressed, separated into sheets, and a portion of the collection is sent to the expert in that genus who is then able to identify the specimen down to species. In return for identifying the specimen, the expert botanist is allowed to keep their portion of the collection. While this process is thorough, it is very slow, and often pressed specimens sit in the cold room for decades waiting to be identified before they can be mounted, labeled, and filed. My newest task has been to fill in new identifications into the field journals of a botanist who worked in South America from the nineteen sixties through the nineteen nineties.
The New York Botanical Garden is lush and green, with willow trees pouring into the walkway and sycamores filtering the light green. The herbarium, where I work, is entirely harmonious with the outside, beautiful, simple and perfectly functional.
I have spent the first week of my internship working on the first floor of the five-floor herbarium. The Borreria and Inga genera have undergone a long debated separation and renaming. I work relabeling specimens, some collected as early as 1821, and sorting them into new groupings. Three days into the Odyssey-like journey of sorting the Borreria genus, I discovered an entirely separate stack of specimens, who, although labeled with their new names, had not been collated with the rest of their genus. I spent the last two days of my first week on the third floor of the herbarium organizing a new collection of the Inga genus. In the upcoming weeks I hope to begin mounting specimens myself and to attend weekly lectures hosted on-site. I also hope to begin filing specimens so that I may gain greater understanding of the herbarium as a whole.