Remote Research: Flora at Home

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.”

Field trips to South America and studying specimens at the Garden are off the table for Carmen Ulloa, but she can still work on one of her largest projects, Flora Mesoamericana, at home. The flora is one of the Garden’s major international floristic projects, documenting the rich diversity of plants that occur from the isthmus of Yucatan in Mexico south to Panama. At home, she has access to online databases including the Biodiversity Heritage Library and the Garden’s Tropicos, which contain amazing quantities of information that are indispensable in Ulloa’s work. 

There are still some hindrances, however. A key component of a flora is verifying source information from a library, which Ulloa can’t do until the doors to the Peter H. Raven Library reopen. And, even though a recent volume was printed, the Garden being closed means that volume will remain in Michigan at the printer.  Until the book, which includes descriptions of new species, is physically distributed, it technically hasn’t been “published.” 

While the hold ups can be frustrating, Ulloa tries to see the bright side.

“Takes me back to past centuries when date of publication had to be figured out going deep into records, letters, etc!” she says.

Outside of the flora, her planned trip to Bogotá to discuss issues of the Amazon region with international colleagues became a virtual meeting. 

“Amazing technology, yes, with some 100 participants, but interaction was extremely limited and although we kicked-off the project, most of the agenda items will be moved to online collaborations,” Ulloa explains. “ Not even seeing the face of all of your group participants was strange.”

And at home, she’s gotten creative with her work space. Missing her ergonomic office setup, she came up with her own version at home using an ironing board that allows her to adjust the height.

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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