Spotlight on Science: Olga Martha Montiel

Olga Martha Montiel
Vice President, Center for Conservation and Sustainable Development

Olga Martha Montiel is not a scientist by training.

In fact, Montiel, who co-authored the Flora de Nicaragua and heads the Missouri Botanical Garden’s Center for Conservation and Sustainable Development(CCSD), actually holds a master’s degree in photography. She intended to pursue a career in documentary photography, capturing images of people and documenting cultures. Instead, she ended up at the helm of one of the world’s leading conservation centers. And she wouldn’t have it any other way: “The Center is my baby.”

Montiel’s winding path to botany started soon after she met husband Doug Stevens, now Curator of Central American Botany at the Garden. He was working in Montiel’s native Nicaragua, and she started joining him on collecting trips. At first, she was just along for the ride. Eventually, they became a team.

The Start of Something Beautiful

Montiel remembers the precise moment the love of botany really came into focus for her. She and Stevens were on a collecting trip in a remote area of Nicaragua. As they were driving, a ridge came into view. It was completely covered in flowering Sobralia orchids with crisp white petals and splashes of vibrant yellow. Montiel “couldn’t get over it.”

“I was just taken by the beauty of nature in that area,” she explains. “It was then that I seriously started to get involved.”

She and Stevens took many field trips collecting and documenting plants while living in Nicaragua from 1980 to 1986 and working on the Flora de Nicaragua. In addition to helping with botany, Montiel used her photography skills to document plants.

In the late 1980s, the couple moved to St. Louis. Stevens continued to work for the Garden and Montiel began a job at the University of Missouri St. Louis helping faculty raise money for research. She continued to work on Flora de Nicaragua on the side. She eventually joined the Garden’s staff herself when then-president Peter Raven approached her about a new position working to assist him on different projects, including work on the Garden’s Latin America program. Later, Raven asked her to help him start a center for conservation. The idea was to have a center that both advances the understanding of conservation while also contributing to conservation in practice.

Conservation in Action

Before CCSD was founded, the Garden had a strong research program, but lacked a conservation-specific program. “With the creation of the Center, we moved a step forward,” Montiel explains. “We moved from trying to understand the plants to conserving them.”

CCSD officially opened in 2001. Montiel hired Ivan Jimenez as its first scientist. His work focuses on plant diversity and distribution, which means analyzing large scale data sets to understand concepts like what areas have a richness of plants. She next added Matthew Albrecht, whose research focuses on conservation of threatened plant species.

In its first 10 years, the Center swiftly became a leader in national and international efforts to conserve and promote biodiversity worldwide. It advanced programs in community-based conservation, capacity building for conservation, and biodiversity and conservation research and action.

In 2013, CCSD embarked on a new strategic plan that would expand the Center to focus on three additional areas of work – conservation genetics, global change, and restoration ecology. Christy Edwards, Adam Smith, and Leighton Reid were brought on to lead the work in those areas, respectively.

“Over the years, we’ve hired young scientists who are very good in their fields and who make serious contributions to the understanding and advancement of conservation science and to the conservation of individual plants and their habitats.”

Olga Martha Montiel

All the while, Montiel has stayed true to her vision of having a conservation center that is self-sustaining financially. In total, CCSD now has seven PhD scientists working on its various programs, as well as many well-qualified graduate and PhD students.

Olga Martha Montiel with CCSD students

The Center has continued impressive work and obtained noteworthy grants, such a recent one from National Geographic supporting Jimenez’ study on how a certain species of Espeletia is responding to climate change.  Another recent grant from the Missouri Department of Conservation allowed the genetics lab to move forward with a project looking at the effect of genetic diversity on Mead’s milkweed.

Helping the Garden Grow

According to Montiel, the Center’s work, and worldwide reputation, would not be possible without the backing of the Missouri Botanical Garden.

“The Garden has a huge prestige as an institution,” Montiel says, noting it has one of the world’s largest, and most active herbaria, and the best plant database in the world, TROPICOS, along with scientists who understand plants “at the deepest and broadest levels,” connections around the world, and a wonderful library. “Those are very important strengths that allow us to build a center for the conservation of plants because the knowledge needed for conservation is here.”

Catherine Martin
Public Information Officer

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