The future takes root at the crossroads of classic field research and new technology. Michael Balick, vice president for botanical science research and training at the Garden, said in an interview that accoutrements for field studies can include global positioning satellite receivers, satellite phones, laptop computers, DNA sampling vials, digital video cameras, and, of course, portable solar panels to charge all these gizmos. As he told a collaborator, "Boy, this sure is different from how I started in the Amazon 30 years ago." Time-tested taxonomic techniques dating back beyond Darwin's days are increasingly being augmented by molecular genetics and information technology.
Field Research Makeover
At the symposium Claudio Pinheiro, a professor at the Federal University of Maranhão, talked about his ethnobotanical research in Northern Brazil. His work applies sociology and economics to field studies, thus providing insight into a culture's interdependence with a biodiverse environment. By mingling new scientific findings with the traditional insights of indigenous people, groups such as his are working to establish programs for sustainable use of plant resources, which many now see as an attractive path toward conservation.
A Few Thorns
Young researchers expressed anxiety, including graduate student Janet White, who said she worries about a shift in focus among her peers away from natural history and toward the skills that will land good jobs. Yet she did express gratitude to her fellow grad students for forging ties between the botanical garden and numerous universities. She presented results from an ad hoc survey of 29 fellow grad students who had in the past year produced 71 publications; earned 124 awards, fellowships, and grants; and discovered 15 new species.
"Of all the things an institution can do like ours," says Stevenson, White's adviser, "one of the most important things we do is train people for the future. There needs to be a lineage." Harvard's Wilson expressed both pessimism and unbounded hope in his speech. He extols scientists to do the impossible: create an encyclopedic inventory of life on Earth. "With new technologies coupled with more aggressive field work, we can complete the remaining 90 percent in 10 percent of the time," Wilson said in an electrifying close to the symposium.
1. M. Goodman et al., "Molecular systematics of Macaques," American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 33: 131, 1970.
2. A.C. Revkin, "Biologists sought a treaty; now they fault it," The New York Times, May 7, 2002, page F1.
Five years of work and $100 million helped bring about the New York Botanical Garden's new International Plant Science Center, which embodies the juncture of old and new. The century-old LuEsther T. Mertz Library was refurbished to more elegantly house rare botany books dating as far back as the 12th century. The newly built William and Lynda Steere Herbarium now flanks the library. The wing is designed to house the nearly 7 million pressed specimens collected from as early as 1690, plus 25 years' worth of future contributions. Another chunk of the $100 million from private, state, and federal sources went to electronically filing the contents in a Virtual Herbarium for easy reference on the Internet.
Virtual Herbarium: www.nybg.org/bsci/cass/