A monthly look at the people behind plant science at the Missouri Botanical Garden
Dr. Monica Carlsen
Assistant Scientist, Education Coordinator, Research
Before Dr. Monica Carlsen moved from Venezuela to St. Louis for graduate school, she had never heard of St. Louis or Missouri. But she had heard of the Missouri Botanical Garden.
Carlsen had seen the institution’s name many times on specimens in the herbarium where she worked. When applying to grad school, she only applied to the University of Missouri St. Louis because she knew it had a partnership with the Garden. “It was the only thing I knew about St. Louis or the Midwest, but I knew that I wanted that connection with the Garden, and that’s why I chose St. Louis,” she says.
Carlsen worked with the Garden as a graduate student for eight years. She then joined the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History as a postdoctoral fellow for three years before coming back to the Garden as a full-time staff member in 2017. Her research focuses on tropical plant diversity and their evolutionary relationships using a multidisciplinary approach, especially focusing on aroids, heliconias, gingers, and bananas. She has already participated in collecting trips in 10 Latin American countries.
For her undergraduate thesis, Carlsen travelled to the Amazon, where she spent her days at the very tops of trees collecting plant specimens. “It was totally amazing. You could see everything. It’s a totally different perspective.” The project was collaboration between Venezuelan and German governments. The German government provided funds to put a construction crane in the middle of the rainforest for easy access to treetops. It was one of the first times a crane had been used for research purposes and while Carlsen got to the treetops by riding in the crane’s gondola, she did have to learn rappelling and tree climbing, just in case.
It wasn’t her first encounter with adventure. As a kid, Carlsen spent her summers at a camp where each day—all day—was spent outside exploring nature. Carlsen enjoyed her camp experience so much that she came back as an instructor, teaching the next generation to learn to love nature as she did.
At the Garden, Carlsen is once again reaching a younger generation. In addition to her own research, she is in charge of research and science education programs for undergraduate students. Her goal is to get as many students from local universities and universities all over country to the Garden to experience what it is to be a plant biologist. She has already created a new internship program, funded by the Smithsonian Institute for Biodiversity Genomics, which aims to gather and preserve DNA samples from gardens around the country. The internship brings students to the Garden to collect those samples and learn about plant identification.
She also brought the Living Earth Collaborative Summer Research Internship Program to the Garden. The Collaborative brings together Washington University, the Garden, and the St. Louis Zoo to create an academic center that aims to further the study of biodiversity. The Garden will get five interns through this program. Additionally, Carlsen helps coordinate the Garden’s regular summer Research Experiences for Undergraduates program that brings 10 to 12 students from all over the U.S. to the Garden for 10 weeks to do research with a mentor. The program wraps up with a symposium, which is nerve-wracking for some students who haven’t presented to an audience before, but by the end they’re confidently answering questions about their work. “It’s very nice to see that evolution in a very short-period of time,” Carlsen says.
Most students from the program have gone on to study biology or other sciences in graduate school or had successful science-related careers. For Carlsen, who was inspired to study biology by her high school teacher, it’s important to encourage more students to pursue that field. “I believe we need to train the new generation of biologists to preserve what we have.” Not enough students study biology, she says, but it’s essential because many researchers today, like Carlsen, won’t be able to finish their research in their lifetimes, and someone will need to pick up the mantle.
The students Carlsen works with all conduct research in her areas of expertise, looking at tropical plants. Her research integrates field work, collection of specimens, geographic information systems and DNA sequences to better understand plant groups and geographic areas of evolutionary or conservation significance. She also uses plant molecular systematics and genomics to understand their evolution.
With one of the largest tropical plant collections in the world, the Garden is the ideal place for Carlsen to do her work, which includes a lot of DNA study. Greenhouses like the Climatron can actually provide better samples than those from the field, which can degrade during transport and shipping from remote areas. Carlsen goes to the Climatron, or other Garden greenhouses, once a week to collect samples.
“I joke to everybody, ‘I’m going on a field trip, I’m crossing the street,’” Carlsen says. “When you get into the greenhouses you definitely feel like you’re in the tropics. To me, it’s exactly the same feeling. I love it.”
Public Information Specialist