Spotlight on Science: Dr. Robbie Hart

Dr. Robbie Hart
Assistant Curator, High Elevation Ethnobotany and GLORIA

Robbie Hart has always been a mountain man.

No, he doesn’t sport a long beard and flannel apparel, but since Hart was a kid, he’s loved spending his days immersed in the unique ecosystems of the mountains. He grew up above Port Angeles, Washington, in a home “on the side of the mountain in the woods,” where he spent much of time outside and taking day hikes up into the Olympic National Park peaks.

“There’s something really special for me about the first moment in a hike up a mountain when you break through the tree-line, and leave the forest behind,” Hart explains. “Suddenly you’re able to see so much of the shape of the landscape, and where the trail’s going ahead. And, of course, the plant species composition changes completely as you enter the alpine into this strange and beautiful set of shapes, even if the genera are the same as those at lower elevation.”

8 - Towards Jomolhari
Looking toward Jomolhari in the Himalayas, where much of Hart’s work for the Garden takes place. | Photo by Robbie Hart

It might seem odd for an ardent mountain climber to settle in Missouri, where the highest elevation point is 1,772 feet, but the Missouri Botanical Garden’s offer was too good for Hart to pass up. As the Assistant Curator in High Elevation Plant Ecology and Ethnobotany at the Garden, Hart’s work combines his interest in alpine environments with his interests in indigenous people and ethnobotany, or the study of how people use plants. He travels to the Himalayas several times a year to study the impact of climate change on Himalayan alpine plants and how it affects ethnobotanical traditions of indigenous people.  

Hart’s first experience in the region took place during his undergraduate tenure at Swarthmore College, where he majored in linguistics. While studying abroad in Nepal, he became fascinated by the ways small, indigenous languages that are associated with a particular place are often packed with specific information about that place. The concept became the topic for his undergraduate thesis. After graduating, he assisted his undergraduate advisor, K. David Harrison, in preparing When Languages Die, a book that explores the knowledge lost when a language goes extinct.

9 - Relocating plot boundaries a
Hart’s work in the Himalayas involves returning to specific plots over time to assess the effects of climate change. | Photo by Robbie Hart

Hart knew he wanted to look more into the phenomenon and continue working in the Himalayas, so he began to pursue graduate programs that would allow him to do so. His search led him to Jan Salick, Senior Curator of Ethnobotany at the Garden, who was offering an interdisciplinary studentship, connecting biodiversity and livelihoods, in Himalayan China. The two came up with a project to examine how climate changes were affecting the bloom times of rhododendrons, which have dramatic flowering across Himalayas. Through the project, Salick and Hart also studied ecological calendars—one approach historically used by people to understand natural seasonal events and predict the seasonal round—and how they have been fluctuating due to climate change.

Most of the work was strictly ecology, going into the field to monitor flowering time, as part of Hart’s PhD studies in ecology. Throughout his pursuits, Salick remained deeply involved, travelling into the field with Hart frequently and devoting many hours to interpreting the results and sharing the outcomes in papers and presentations. “Seeing other labs, I realized how lucky I was to have that,” Hart says. “There are people who have dozens of students and only have a limited amount of time to spend with each one.”

Slowly, Hart began to take on the Garden’s work in the Himalayas, as Salick’s research moved to the flatter ground of New England. Hart officially became the curator leading the program in 2016, a year after he wrapped up his PhD.

In this position, he continues to promote the interdisciplinary approach that informed his earlier work. His research now focuses on climate change, mountain ecology, and ethnobotany. He hopes adding linguistics back into the mix, and is working with Harrison to design new projects together in the Himalayas.

26 - Exhausted but finished at high summit
The GLORIA (Global Observation and Research Initiative in Alpine Environment) team celebrates completing work at high summit. | Photo by Danielle Northey

Hart travels to sites in China, Bhutan, and Nepal, working with a team of international collaborators. The team uses temperature monitors to track climate data and surveys vegetation in the corresponding area, looking for changes over time. They work within the standards of the Global Observation and Research Initiative in Alpine Environment, or GLORIA, which allows them to compare results from sites across the world. Hart credits Salick for bringing together the robust international collaboration, which is somewhat unusual and makes expeditions run very smoothly. He also credits the Missouri Botanical Garden for its reputation around the world, which opens many doors for the program. Even in “quite remote places” in the Himalayas, people know the Garden.

“People really recognize this institution because of the products it creates and because of the scientists it hosts and the work that it enables. It’s really a huge benefit to be able to piggyback on that.” Some of those products, like the Flora of China, have also aided Hart immensely in his research, as has the Garden’s expansive herbarium―one of the largest in the world―and its connections to other herbaria around the globe. “Garden scientists can walk into places in London, or Paris, D.C., Harvard, and use their collection because we’re part of this group of elite institutions.”

Hart’s work is starting to garner recognition itself. This summer, he received a 2018 BioOne Ambassador Award. The award, which only goes to five individuals, recognizes early career authors working to communicate the importance and impact of their focused research to communities beyond their fields of expertise.

Follow Dr. Robbie Hart on Twitter @Oreotrephes.


Catherine Martin
Public Information Officer

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