Spotlight on Science: Matthew Albrecht

Dr. Matthew Albrecht, Associate Scientist Center for Conservation and Sustainable Development

Growing up in St. Louis, the Missouri Botanical Garden was, of course, a destination for Matthew Albrecht on family outings. He always thought it was a great institution in his hometown, but it wasn’t until later that he grasped the impressive scope of its research program.

“It wasn’t until I actually moved away and became a serious student of botany that I really realized the Garden is an international powerhouse,” says Albrecht, Associate Scientist at the Garden’s Center for Conservation and Sustainable Development, or CCSD.

Even after he earned his PhD in Botany and Ecology from Ohio University, he didn’t necessarily have his sights set on a job in the Garden’s research department. He was actually trained for academia. Then he saw a job opening at the Garden for a position developing a local and regional native plant conservation research program. It was exactly what he had studied during his PhD. Albrecht couldn’t pass up the opportunity.

“I could do things here that I couldn’t do at a typical university, because I could actually do the application of my work and help save plants.”

Dr. Matthew Albrecht

Albrecht joined CCSD in 2007. Since then, he’s built a program working with local, state, and federal agencies on researching methods to reintroduced the world’s most endangered species back into the wild. “It’s really exciting to do research I know is making an impact of helping conserve and recover species in the wild I know are on the brink of extinction.”

Botanical gardens are uniquely positioned to do this work, Albrecht explains, because gardens have rare plant specimens in their living collections and in seedbanks that can be used to reestablish species in the wild. For instance, the Garden has maintained a seedbank of Pyne’s ground plum, an endangered species of flowering plant endemic to Tennessee, for 30 years. Albrecht’s team has used that seed to design genetically diverse populations and determine the ideal environment for the species. All of it is being done in a research framework with real-world applications reintroducing the plant into the wild. It has become a model for working with a species with few wild populations remaining.

“It’s great to be able to do research that actually makes a difference in the world.”

Dr. Matthew Albrecht

Albrecht is also developing international guidelines for reintroducing species back into the wild in collaboration with the Center for Plant Conservation. CPC has a network of 57 participating institutions, but the framework can be used by anyone. Already, it has a global reach. Albrecht and a colleague gave a three-day Rare Plant Reintroduction workshop in South Korea last year sharing the guidelines with more than 100 participants. He has also been asked to serve on the committee for the first international conference for endangered plant reintroduction. “I’m proud to be part of that work,” Albrecht says. “It’s exciting to advance the field to share that information with conservationists, scientists, and botanists throughout the world performing this activity.”

Albrecht’s work has also had a positive effect on native plants near home at Shaw Nature Reserve. His team is collaborating with the Reserve on a project restoring degraded woodland that was “full of honeysuckle and other invasive species.” Already, they’re seeing huge increases in native species in the woodland area.

“That’s been a really rewarding project because it’s a great collaboration, and it’s rewarding to see a positive change and impact at the Nature Reserve that the general public can see.”

Behind the scenes, Albrecht also does significant work in the seedbank, preserving endemic species from biodiversity hotspots in the South-Central U.S. Most people associate the term “biodiversity hotspot” with more exotic locations like Madagascar and Australia. But temperate grasslands, prairies, savannahs, and open woodlands in the Midwest are some of the most imperiled ecosystems on Earth because they most have been converted to agricultural land use. What little remains must be protected and managed appropriately. “The goal is to conserve as much as we can.”

Recently, Albrecht’s conservation efforts earned him the Star Award from the Center for Plant Conservation. The Star Award has only been given to one other Garden scientist—president emeritus Peter Raven. The prestigious award and the worldwide implications of Albrecht’s work make for an impressive portfolio, but Albrecht is quick to point out that he couldn’t do any of it without the help of a team that includes students, volunteers, fellow researchers, and the Missouri Botanical Garden.

The Garden’s name itself carries significant weight, which is helpful for grants, he explained. The institution has also been more than willing to accommodate his research needs, like moving him from a cubicle to fully-equipped lab. “Having the Garden’s support for my research has been instrumental in helping to advance conservation of plant diversity.”

Catherine Martin
Public Information Officer

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