Spotlight on Science: Dr. Alan Graham

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

Dr. Alan Graham
Curator of Paleobotany & Palynology, Center for Conservation and Sustainable Development Consultant

When most people saw Jurassic Park in theaters 25 years ago, they walked away amazed by the towering T-rex or the cunning velociraptors brought to life on the big screen.

Alan Graham, on the other hand, was looking at the plants.

Graham, a paleobotanist at the Missouri Botanical Garden, was curious to see if the plants depicted in the film were an accurate reflection of those around when dinosaurs roamed the Earth. For the most part, he says, they were. Graham was also thrilled to see a paleobotanist, Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern) as one of the film’s main protagonists. “I couldn’t help but revel in the fact that, finally, paleobotanists were getting their due,” Graham says.

The movie also sparked a lot of general interest in geology, but for Graham, 84, that interest dates back to junior high school when his teacher, Mrs. Muller, gave a lecture on fossils. “It was the first time I ever thought about how things living today have geological pasts that go back thousands of years,” Graham explains. “That’s a fascinating concept.”

It was another teacher, this one a college professor, who pushed him to his specific areas of study, which include palynology as well as paleobotany. Palynology is the study of microfossils, like pollen grains and other spores found in geological deposits. At the time Graham was at the University of Texas, where he received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees, the field was fairly new with much potential. Oil companies, for instance, had an interest because it could help them locate where to find fossil fuels. An oil company even sponsored Graham’s master’s thesis.

Being one of the few people in the world studying palynology gave Graham other opportunities, including the chance to attend a doctoral program at the University of Michigan where he studied microfossils and macrofossils. Combining the two provides a much larger inventory of what was present in a particular place at a particular time. For his doctoral presentation, for instance, he looked at deposits from the Miocene Age in Oregon that were about 17 million years old.

Soon after, his professor got a call for a colleague at Harvard who had just started a project in the Tropics and was looking for someone studying microfossils from the Miocene Age. Graham went to Harvard for post-doc work. He’s spent the 60 years since conducting research in the Tropics, collecting samples in Panama, Guatemala, Puerto Rico, Mexico, Costa Rica, and Bolivia.

It took a lot of innovation to determine where to collect specimens, particularly at the beginning of his career, and Graham sometimes met adversity when he arrived. He recalls one trip to Mexico when several men had their guns pointed at the group of researchers—mining rights to amber had been ceded to local residents in the town and they wanted to show force in face of a potential threat. Ultimately, the research group was able to convince the men they were harmless. “That kind of thing permeates travel,” Graham says. “You’re constantly encountering situations like that.” 

In addition to research work, much of Graham’s career was spent teaching, including nearly four decades as a professor at Kent State University. He reflects fondly on time spent with students. “Working at universities, you not only do your own research, but it gives you an opportunity to share what you know, and your enthusiasm, with others and stimulate them to a higher level of intellectual activity than maybe they would have had if they had not met you.”

In 2002, Graham and his wife, Shirley Graham, who is also a scientist, moved to the Missouri Botanical Garden, which Graham considers the perfect place for them both to continue their careers. “The professional level of the people both in the administration and staff make this an unexcelled place for display, for dissemination of information to the public, and for research.”

Graham had previously worked for the Garden in other capacities, and his first contribution to a book—the introduction to Flora North America—was published by the Garden’s MBG Press. Graham later expanded that introduction into its own book on the history of vegetation in North America, which he followed up with a similar history of Latin America. In total, Graham has written more than 150 papers and books, including a 2018 publication about land bridges that connected the old world to the new world in prehistoric times.

Graham’s work has been recognized with several awards, including the Smithsonian’s José Cuatrecasas Medal for Excellence in Tropical Botany award, which recognizes a botanist or scholar of international stature. Graham has no plans to rest on such accolades, however, and continues to pursue his career endeavors. He plans to publish a follow up to Land Bridges, this one focused on migration, within the next year and half, and he still travels internationally several times a year for field trips and to present at seminars.

People sometimes ask him about retirement, but to Graham the idea of stopping makes no sense. “As long as you’re physically and mentally alert—stop for what?”

 

Catherine Martin
Public Information Specialist

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