Remote Research: Close, But Still Out of Reach

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.”

Aaron Floden didn’t have plans to travel overseas, or even out of the Midwest, for his research. He studies Erythronium, or fawn lilies, in Missouri and Arkansas. 

The plants are spring ephemerals, meaning they only last a brief time. They go dormant and disappear very shortly after they stop flowering. In Arkansas, they flowered last month, and now, they’re flowering in Missouri. Floden had planned to start near Hot Springs, Arkansas in March and work his way back to St. Louis, sampling Erythronium for a molecular project. Now, field work will have to wait next spring. Herbarium specimens of the plant don’t provide usable DNA, meaning any molecular study is on hold for a year, too.

Floden planned to go back to Arkansas to survey two species of Trillium for a molecular study. The “stay at home” order overlaps with the days fieldwork is possible on the plant, meaning that study, too, will have to wait another year.

The study is part of Floden’s larger research project on Trillium, a genus of about fifty flowering plant species native to the southeastern United States. Researchers did their first sampling for the project last spring, obtaining molecular data, and spent the winter planning where to collect, and which species, to complete the sampling protocol. The delays make it impossible to meet the deadline of wrapping up the project later this year. 

Floden had a final project that involved sampling this spring, this one studying Minuartia or “sandworts,” which have already started to bloom and will likely finish flowering by May. Floden was particularly interested in finding the species in the southwestern part of Missouri, where it is apparently undescribed. Like the others, that quest will have to wait until next spring.

At home, Floden is able to work on manuscripts and analyze data he’s already collected, including molecular data for the trillium project. 
“Fortunately I have a home computer I built for molecular analyses,” he says, “or otherwise I’d be stuck focusing on just manuscripts.”

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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