Learning by Doing | Research Experiences for Undergraduates

When Kelli Schowalter first visited the Missouri Botanical Garden after moving to St. Louis from Virginia for college, she was not aware of the institution’s vast science and research work. 

“It’s fascinating,” Schowalter says of the Garden’s internationally renowned research program. A Washington University senior, Schowalter first learned about the science side of the Garden through a mentorship, and this summer she is getting to see it firsthand as part of the Research Experiences for Undergraduates.

The REU program is organized by the National Science Foundation and hosted at sites throughout the country, including the Garden. This summer’s session launched at the Garden on June 4 and within the first week students got to try their hand at research. They spent a day in the Climatron, scouring the lush tropical vegetation for plants whose names matched those on a list. Once they found a specimen that hadn’t been collected by other students, they carefully cut off a sample under the guidance of Monica Carlsen, assistant scientist and education coordinator at the Garden.

 

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The Climatron allows undergraduate research students to experience botany field work firsthand. | Photo by Asueleni Deloney

 

Carlsen, who oversees the program, then showed students how to preserve plant samples through pressing or using liquid nitrogen to deep freeze the leaves. The frozen leaves were sent to the Smithsonian for its Global Genome Initiative. Dried specimens were kept for the Garden’s Herbarium, which is one of the largest in the world. The students also learned how to file dried plant specimens in the Herbarium, watching closely as Sally Bommarito, plant mounter team lead, explained the best techniques to use. “Make sure you can see a little bit of everything,” Bommarito explained to students, stressing they should include stem, leaf, and flower in each sample before adhering it to the paper. After the demonstration, students got to work, carefully unwrapping specimens from newspaper and gluing samples to numbered cardboard papers to be filed in the Herbarium. 

“Most of them have never taken a plant class before,” Carlsen says of the students in the program. “It’s an introduction to what a botanist does.” The idea of the REU program is to get undergraduate students interested in pursuing science careers, going beyond the traditional engineering and medical fields that attract many students. Even if students don’t necessarily have an interest in becoming botanists, the experience exposes them to a different area of science, and the program can be adapted to fit different interests, like ethnobotany, or the study of how people use plants, and wildlife, like birds. “The Garden has so many departments, we can accommodate almost anything anyone wants to do,” Carlsen adds. 

Eleven students are participating in the program this year, carefully chosen from 130 applicants. The selected students have the best grades and were also picked based on a personal essay they submitted, previous experience and recommendations from a professor. The program administrators also value diversity and aim to include students from schools with limited infrastructure.

 

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Plant specimen samples from the Garden’s Herbarium | Photo by Marissa Billmeyer

 

Only Showalter and one other student, from Harris Stowe State University, come from St. Louis colleges. The rest hail from across the U.S. David Bellangue, a rising junior at Warren Wilson College in North Carolina, found the program on NFS’ website. He was specifically looking for an internship opportunity that focused on plant science. “I thought I could get a lot of experience meeting people in the field.”

Bellangue was particularly interested in the Missouri Botanical Garden because of its Plant Finder, a resource that allows users to look up more than 7,500 plants to learn more about them. He’s enjoyed collecting specimens and learning more about what botanists do. He eventually hopes to get his master’s degree or PhD in botany or forestry, and would like to work in environmental research at a botanical garden.

If the opportunity arose, he’d love that position to be at the Garden. “I’m very interested in the Missouri Botanical Garden.”

For more information on the REU program, contact Monica Carlsen.

Catherine Martin
Public Information Officer

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