Spotlight on Science: Dr. Carmen Ulloa

A monthly look at the people behind plant science at the Missouri Botanical Garden

Meet Dr. Carmen Ulloa

Curator, Science & Conservation

If Dr. Carmen Ulloa could share one message about the Missouri Botanical Garden, it would be this—St. Louisans should know, and be proud, of the Garden as a global institution. “It has a very high reputation among botanical institutions all over the world,” she says.

It was that reputation that first brought Ulloa to the Garden 25 years ago. She often heard about the Missouri Botanical Garden while studying botany in Ecuador, her native country.  Ulloa met visiting Garden botanists, used their publications and even went on one of her most memorable field trips, accompanying Senior Curator Dr. Tom Croat. “I had never met someone collecting plants so enthusiastically,” Ulloa says.

She traveled from Ecuador to Denmark, where she earned her PhD at Aarhus University and then received an opportunity to join the research staff at the Missouri Botanical Garden. “I really didn’t think twice,” Ulloa explains.

Since joining the Garden, Ulloa has led or contributed to a number of significant projects, including a recent landmark study on vascular plants. Her work focuses mainly on Latin America. Her first project, “Flora de Nicaragua,” was the first modern documentation of the flora of the Central American republic. The flora, a descriptive list of plants in a particular region, was the first complete account published in Spanish for a Latin American country. The project had been stalled for a number of years, but Ulloa helped get it to publication by coordinating with colleagues and authors, editing and translating manuscripts, and putting it all in a publishable format.

Ulloa later contributed work to iPlants, a pilot project with a goal of creating a global online index of all scientific names for plants. The project, conducted in partnership with Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and The New York Botanical Garden, produced the plant list that became the backbone for the World Flora Online.

For the past 35 years, Ulloa has continued to conduct field work in her native Ecuador, where she travels at least once a year. Her research focuses on the plants of the Andes Mountains, specifically the princess flower family, or the Melastomataceae, one of the largest plant families in the American tropics. The vibrantly colored flowers are well-represented in the mountain forests where Ulloa does her research.

In Ecuador, Ulloa works in collaboration with colleagues at various herbaria, mentors students, and frequently presents lectures and conducts workshops. Her work in the country has been awarded grants from National Geographic Society and other funding agencies, as well as private support.

Flora Mesoamericana editorial
Flora Mesoamericana editorial team at Missouri Botanical Garden

She still spends most of her time in St. Louis, where she coordinates and serves as volume editor for Flora Mesoamericana, the first major regional flora ever written in Spanish. Each volume contains a certain number of seed plants growing in the southern states of Mexico and all Central American republics, which together form Mesoamerica. Ulloa works along with a team tackling the various editorial phases each volumes goes through. Three of six volumes printed have been published under Ulloa’s watch, the first in 2012 and the most recent last month. The recent volume focuses on the sunflower family Asteraceae, with 1,072 species.

The publication of each volume is a proud moment for Ulloa, who wasn’t trained to be a botanical editor. “Being an editor is not always an appreciated job, but it’s rewarding to me to think I became a good flora editor,” she says.

Ulloa points to the publication of two plant genera as another significant achievement in her career, explaining that describing a new genus “gives a special satisfaction.”

Ulloa’s latest achievement, the completion of a major listing of all of the plants of the Americas, is also especially gratifying. The recently released paper, “An Integrated Assessment of Vascular Plant Species of the Americas,” in the journal Science, has received national, and international, media attention.

In the paper, Ulloa, the lead author, and 23 co-authors created a checklist of 124,993 species, 6,227 genera and 355 families of vascular plants of the Americas. The list represents a third of all known vascular plants in the world.  Ulloa compares the project—the result of work from the past 25 years—to a census.

“For the first time, we have in a single list how many plants are in in the New World,” she explains. “That by itself is an achievement.” The information can also help scientists target conservation efforts.

Carmen Ulloa Ec 2011_2

With all of her research, the resources of the Missouri Botanical Garden have been essential. Ulloa points specifically to the enormous herbarium—the second largest in the U.S.—, the “magnificent botanical library,” and Tropicos, the largest plant database in the world, as indispensable tools in her everyday work.

The large scale of the Garden’s research work also affords many scientists, who are all working on different projects, to combine their knowledge. Additionally, the Garden’s longstanding relationship with local universities and science centers creates a unique and positive academic environment with students and faculty.

Her proximity to Garden grounds (“an oasis in the city,” according to Ulloa) is an added perk. “It’s a fascinating place for me to work. That’s probably why I stayed!”

Catherine Martin

Public Information Specialist

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