The Fairchild Challenge

On Wednesday, some graduate students from The Feeley Lab participated as mentors in the Fairchild Challenge’s Environmental Immersion Day at Fairchild Tropical Botanical Garden. The purpose of this event was to introduce high school students to the many disciplines of biology.

The activities offered were presented under the following cathegories: Biological imagery, Environmental professionals, Functional ecology, Plant–animal ecology, Tropical biodiversity and Growing, propagating and conserving. Each group of students had the opportunity to visit three “research stations” of their interest. High schoolers got hands on experience with an array of research, from watching birds with Alex Levin to observing microscopic fungi with Johana Weremijewicz or even catching lizards with our lab’s very own James Stroud. (More about Fairchild’s Graduate Students: http://www.fairchildgarden.org/Education/Graduate-Studies/Graduate-Students).

Tim Perez, Catherine Bravo and I introduced students to climate change and its relationship with functional leaf traits. After discussing functional traits, students hypothesized which leaves would be most adversely affected by high temperature. Students then measured leaf fluorescence as an indicator of plant stress and discovered that increasing environmental temperatures will decrease photosynthetic ability. For the first time, these students got to practice making and testing hypotheses of the climate change-related research! By the end of our activity, students understood that plants must migrate in response to climate change to avoid extinction.

Another important goal was to present Biology as a possible career. We encouraged the students to explore avenues of biology through coursework, and internships that can help them figure out a path to their vocation. We gave them useful advice and support as, a few years ago (for some more than for others), we were in their same position.

With this initiative, Fairchild Tropical Botanical Garden and the graduate mentors helped to bring some new students into the biological career. We may have planted the seeds for the next generation of Biologists.

Who cares about plants?

As a botanical grad student I love to have plants around the house. I love to see them, to take photographs and share them on social media. I really enjoy showing off my plants; the more bizarre, the better. I can speak about the species natural range of distribution, and even predict how it is going to be affected by climate change. I know what kind of water they need, what nutrients, where is the best place in the house and why. However, when it comes to the nuts and bolts of horticulture, if I am honest, I don’t care! Surprisingly, I am not the only one in that situation; it seems a common pattern among botanical graduate students. We are the worst people at taking care of plants. I am not sure if it is because we are busy, because we already take care of the Amazon in our research or because we don’t have kids -having kids is highly correlated with plant caring ability.


Having plants is worse than having a pet; if you have a dog you just walk, clean and feed it, but plants require an individualistic treatment and dedication. This one needs a certain kind of water, that other one another kind, this one here can be flooded but the other one only needs to be sprayed. It can get worse if you have orchids. I know of people waking up earlier in the morning to move the plants around the house. A dog is simpler; if it doesn’t move, it is ill, but plants require constant examination for diseases, nutrient deficiencies or water stress. I am in grad school and so I do not have time for that.
That is why I make sure I always have someone around who does it for me. My mother keeps my collection of plants that I built during my undergraduate studies (althought she is now claiming them as her own!). Now that I have completed my first few months of grad school, I am hoping to look for a roommate like my mother who has enough free time (and a green thumb) to care for the new accumulation of plants that I have unintentionally started.
So what will happen with my plants next? What dark future awaits for the unfortunate plants of grad students? We are nomads. We move from one house to another one because it is cheaper, we move from one country to another because we have to do research, we travel for a week to a symposium. The true sufferers of that are our plants; they will inevitably be abandoned or dead.
We were not allowed to have dogs when we were kids because of our lack of commitment with walking, cleaning and feeding them, but now we can´t even have plants.

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On social media and the need for effective broader impacts

health science social network

image from: http://joannapenabickley.typepad.com/on/2010/11/on-social-media-icons.html

The first post by the new upwithclimate team member, Tim Perez:

If you are remotely in tune with current scientific buzz-words or lingo, you’ve probably come across this catchy binomial: broader impacts. Broader impacts are one of two ways the U.S.’s National Science Foundation critically judges a grant for merit. You can read all about it here and here. In sum, broader impacts are the effect your research will have on your scientific discipline and in society.  One way for scientists to have broader impacts is to increase engagement with the public, and social media provides easy access to large public audiences. This blog is a case in point. Of course, social media isn’t the only way for scientists get their message ‘out there’, but like the term broader impacts, it sure is popular.

Social media is at the disposal of everyone so it may not be surprising that it contains a lot of trash, and science media is no exception. One popular website, I F***ing Love Science (IFLS), with admittedly cool information, is just that: a website with cool information. IFLS is a hardly resource for new or pertinent scientific research. (Here is a hilarious tirade about why ‘liking’ IFLS does not mean you actually like science (disclaimer: lots of f-words))

I can’t help but wonder if websites like IFLS may actually detract from important research. The benefit of such websites is that they may ignite interest scientific research, which may trickle back to scientists in the form of more researchers, greater public support, funding, ideally all of the above. However, it is apparent that this scientific trickle-down effect is still not effective given the public’s stance on many important issues. Cough-climate change-Cough. This article from The Plant Press blog, discussing understaffed and underfunded herbariums, is yet another reminder of the academia-public disconnect. Maybe, social media promotes a superficial interest in science – Or maybe there is a time lag and science has yet to its benefits.

I’d wager on the latter being true. It seems unlikely that increased exposure to pseudo or pop-science would somehow decrease public interest. I would argue a superficial interest in science is better than none: Even armchair activists can still send an influential letter to administrators and politicians from the comfort of  their seats. A quick Google search turned up results that support the idea of social media improving the public scientific literacy, but I’m not aware of more convincing evidence.

Unfortunately, I think these videos are further evidence of the public’s lack of scientific exposure. Don’t get me wrong, I love the videos and I appreciate what they are trying to accomplish. I’m sure a lot of hard work went into them, and maybe a scientist or two was consulted during their production. Yet the videos explain the consequences of climate change and resource extraction in terms I would expect in a children’s book. If the American Public (to whom I assume these videos are targeted) need famous actors and actresses to tell them they are in deep doo-doo unless they change their ways, then it is obvious that there is still a large gap in scientific outreach and public interest. They should be listening to scientists, instead of being scolded by Hollywood!

This post does not suggest effective strategies to bridge this gap – perhaps in a following post – rather it aims to acknowledge the gap, and recognizes that the bridge building needs to occur faster. The urgency of such building should be clear, lest more closures in scientific institutions are needed, and the burden  of building falls on the shoulders of scientists. After all, it is in scientists’ best interest to promote their work and increase the trickle of support to science. Hopefully, our collective refocused efforts will trickle down to a constant stream of public support and funding.

When I think about it, it’s clear why broader impacts are heavily weighted in NSF grant proposals: The future of research may depend on it. Social media is a start, but scientists need to be on the lookout for new ways to not just to broaden their impacts, but to make them effectual.