MadSci Network: Botany

Re: What is botany like as a career (job activities, educational requirements, a typical day, etc.)?

Date: Thu Mar 13 11:00:07 2003
Posted By: Joseph E. Armstrong, Faculty, Botany, Illinois State University
Area of science: Botany
ID: 1047443060.Bt
In the first place do you know what a botanist is? A botanist is a scientist who studies the biology of plants. Studying plants is important because without them you would be cold, naked, and hungry. Also we think plants are attractive so we use them to decorate our homes, both inside and out, and use them to celebrate special events from birth to death.

People who call themselves botanists usually study basic plant biology, which can lead to work in agriculture, forestry, and horticulture. My job is at a university, so I teach students about botany and I teach students how to do research, how to study plants. That tells you a lot about how I spend my days, although it is hard to decide what is typical. I give lectures about economically important plants, plant diversity, plant taxonomy, plant identification, and fungi. So I must prepare materials and lecture notes for class. I also teach laboratories and field trips where students get hands on experience with the subjects of their studies. Laboratories and field trips take lots of preparation.

Our university has a teaching collection of plants, about 50,000 dried plants filed in an herbarium, a collection that I manage and care for. A greenhouse is filled with living plant specimens for teaching, and I must know just about everything in the collection and how to use it for teaching. We have many rare and exotic species; some I acquired from exotic places on my travels.

As a university professor I am more than a teacher, I am a scientist and an administrator. For students to learn science they must do science, and therefore, they must work with someone who does science. So I have a laboratory and field sites, and microscopes and boots. I am an expert on the floral biology of nutmegs and beetle pollination. Since these plants live in tropical rain forests, my students and I must travel to the tropics. I take a class to Costa Rica every year to study and conduct research in rain forest. Locally I study hemiparasitic (both green and parasitic) plants in prairies and the evolution of floral form. Obviously a typical day on a field trip or doing field research is very different from a day on campus. Typical midwest is different from typical tropical. To do research requires considerable knowledge about what other botanists are doing, so I must read a lot, and I have an office full of books, journals, notebooks, and scientific papers. Some I wrote to communicate to other scientists, and others were written by other scientists. I must work with students, answer their questions, and guide their studies. And now I have students who themselves are botanists at other institutions and in other countries.

As a faculty member I spend time working on committees, writing reports, and generally helping run things in my department, college, and university. Presently I serve on our institution's academic senate, a body that decides about policies and practices. I am presently an officer of the Botanical Society of America, an organization of professional botanists, which publishes a major scientific journal, holds annual meetings, and assists botanists in communicating about their teaching and research. I also do things like write popular articles about plants and answer questions of curious people, like yourself.

All of these activities get blended together in a typical day, although certainly each day is not the same. Some days demand more attention to some matters than others.

To become a professor and a professional scientist I earned a doctoral degree, a Ph.D. I can call myself doctor, which really means "teacher". A doctorate takes considerable time and effort, in my case, nine years of college and three degrees, BA, MS, and PhD, and I was fast. As a professor our pay is fair, but nothing extraordinary. However, most of us really like our jobs, our subjects, our students, and our research, so job satisfaction is very high. We have a great deal of freedom to choose and pursue interests, much more freedom than in business.

Being a professor is not an easy job because we have to be good at lots of things and keep busy at lots of activities. Nobody in our field is lazy. To advance in my job and profession required a steady record of research productivity, good teaching, and productive interactions with students. My work is known within my field both nationally and internationally. I have travelled to many countries and met many nice people in pursuit of botany. I have been in jungles, deserts, and tundra, ridden elephants, climbed mountains, and seen many wonderful things. So there certainly are benefits to this kind of work. I am an expert, and people contact me for the knowledge and understanding that I have, and some of that has been shared here at the Mad Scientists Network where I have answered many questions for many people.

There are other ways to pursue a career in botany. I have colleagues in forestry, a field I was in for a couple of years, agriculture, and horticulture. Such fields are at universities, but also at government and industrial research facilities. Some botanists work at botanical gardens and arboreta.

On the whole botany is a terrific career if you have what it takes, and mostly that is a curiousity and a desire to learn. I think your teacher is trying to show you that there are a great many more things you can do when you grow up than you have imagined.

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