Remote Research: Mad Dash from Madagascar

Throughout the world, closures and lockdowns aimed to stop the spread of COVID-19 have disrupted many people’s lives and work. As a global institution, the Missouri Botanical Garden does research around the world, making travel restrictions a major hindrance. The “stay at home” order means staff has lost access to the Garden’s herbarium and labs, too.

But of course, they’ve adapted. Some are using the time to catch up on data analysis. Others are completing manuscripts, which communicate the findings of their work, and floras, a descriptive list of plants in a particular region. And in more remote locations, like protected sites in Madagascar, conservation efforts go on.

“None of us are running out of stuff we can do,” says Jim Miller , Senior Vice President of Science and Conservation.  “Everybody’s got a laptop, we’re all able to work.”

Just a couple weeks ago, Jim Miller was in “the middle of nowhere” in Madagascar. He’d had a particularly good day in the field, finding a rare plant that hadn’t been seen in the wild for decades. He had three more days of field work ahead. At the time, Madagascar didn’t have any reported cases of COVID-19, but Miller saw the writing on the wall for international travel. At dinner that night, he decided to cut the trip short.

He flew into Antananarivo, Madagascar’s capital,  right as President Trump announced the plan to shut down flights from Europe. Miller hopped a plane to Paris that night, and headed to the U.S. the next day. He flew into Atlanta, where he was worried he’d get stuck due to his tight layover, but he breezed through customs in the normally bustling airport and still had plenty of time to grab dinner before his flight for St. Louis left.

Baobabs in southwestern Madagascar. Photo taken by Jim Miller in March 2020.

“I feel really lucky. My trip home was very smooth and easy,” Miller says. “I  wasn’t terribly worried about getting stuck in Madagascar for a month, but it would have been more expensive, complicated, and riskier” to get back home if he stuck with his original schedule.

Per Garden policy, and now St. Louis City and County orders, Miller has been quarantined at home since his return. On his first days back, much time was spent helping reconfigure the department to be set up for remote work. Now, he’s catching up on deskwork, including working on a significant manuscript, and writing grant proposals.

“I could work 24 hours a day, and probably do so for several months, before I finished all my work.”

While the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted every facet of our lives, the Garden’s critical work conserving plant life goes on. These efforts would not be possible without your support. Consider helping us continue our mission in these uncertain times by becoming a member or making a donation.

Catherine Martin
Public Information Officer

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