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.