Spotlight on Science: Dr. Pete Lowry

Dr. Pete Lowry
Senior Curator and Director of the Africa & Madagascar Program

 

When Pete Lowry thinks about the beginnings of the Missouri Botanical Garden’s work in Madagascar, he is still taken aback by what the program has become. Lowry was among the first Garden scientists who traveled to Madagascar decades ago to collect plants and learn about the country’s native flora.  Now, Madagascar is home to the Garden’s largest research program with more than 150 local staff members, nearly all of whom are Malagasy. The program, which focuses on research as well as conservation efforts done in partnership with local communities, has shaped how other institutions around the world go about conservation.

 

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Madagascar is home to the Missouri Botanical Garden’s largest international research and conservation presence.

 

“I don’t think we could have ever dreamed that our program would have diversified into what it is today,” says Lowry, Senior Curator and Director of the Africa and Madagascar Program. Lowry’s work in Africa started in the 1980s, but he’d known he wanted to be a botanist since he was 15 years old, when he was already enrolled in college. The community college he attended offered a 3-week summer plant ecology program in the mountains in Oregon. Having grown up with a love of the outdoors, Lowry jumped at the opportunity.

But the class was more than just a chance to appreciate the nature. It was his first taste of field experience, and Lowry was hooked. “The camaraderie is great—sharing, discovering and learning together.”

The next summer he signed up for a vascular plant taxonomy course—he’d always been more interested in flora than fauna. He eventually decided he wanted to be a taxonomist, initially studying temperate plants, and earned his undergraduate and master’s degrees in botany from the University of Illinois.

Later, Lowry enrolled at Washington University to work on his PhD, where Peter Raven, then Director of the Garden, was his thesis advisor.  His thesis focused on a tropical plant group that he studied in New Caledonia. Before he had even finished his thesis, Raven offered him a job heading the Madagascar program, as the Garden had just received a grant to expand the work. It was an opportunity that shaped Lowry’s entire career. 

“I knew I wanted to do botany early and I got lucky. I came to the right institution at the right time.” Lowry and other Garden scientists spent the next 10 years building the Madagascar program, obtaining grants and contracts, adding staff, and providing support and training for botanical gardens in Madagascar. After a decade, the scientists developed a great understanding of Malagasy plants and started doing more in-depth research looking at endemic plant families. As the scientists worked to document the flora, they also started to realize how many were rare or close to extinction.

The work began to expand to focus more on conservation in Madagascar, which is one of the world’s hottest hotspots for biodiversity. Scientists started with an assessment of priority areas for plant conservation. The work continues to expand,  but now includes ex situ conservation efforts, saving species that would otherwise be lost by collecting and growing live specimens, and significant in situ conservation work, preserving species in their natural habitat. The Garden maintains 13 newly-established protected sites in Madagascar. “It’s fair to say that if the Missouri Botanical Garden hadn’t become involved in those 13 sites, all of them would have been lost, sooner rather than later.”

 

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Dr. Pete Lowry (third from right) consulting with Garden staff and community partners in Analalava, Madagascar

 

The Garden does the conservation work hand-in-hand with local communities, working toward creating more sustainable management of land inside and outside of those protected areas. In the past, agriculture was being practiced in largely unsustainable ways at the sites.  Malagasy staff play a significant role in the work, decision making, and representation of the program. Conservation is done as part of a holistic approach that focuses on improving livelihoods, education opportunities, and the health of the people in the community, while at the same time working to conserve biodiversity. “It’s safe to say all the communities are better off now than they were before we got there,” Lowry explains. “At the same time, they’re closer to having a more sustainable use of their natural resources than they were before.”

While that type of conservation approach is more common now, when the Garden started getting involved in conservation work in Madagascar, it was novel. Other institutions took notice, and began to shape their programs in similar ways, which expanded the impact of the program beyond Madagascar and enhanced the Garden’s reputation. “It’s strengthened our science, but also shown that our science is critically linked to informing conservation, making sound decisions about where to do effective conservation, and having good conservation outcomes.”

All of that is possible because the Garden gives its researchers the autonomy necessary to be innovative in their work, Lowry said. That flexibility has also allowed him to continue his own research studying the mostly tropical ivy and ginseng family, Araliaceae, in addition to managing the Madagascar and Africa programs. Lowry has collected 7,500 specimens from 28 countries and territories and has discovered and named 304 species. He has published more than 200 papers and co-authored three books.

Without question, however, he cites the Madagascar program as his proudest career achievement, pointing to “its depth and breadth, its impact and relevance, both to Madagascar and to the Garden’s mission, and the fact that we have been so successful in building a program largely run by a passionate, hard-working and dedicated team of Malagasy, nearly all of whom came up through the ranks of our own program.”

 

Catherine Martin
Public Information Officer

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