Remote Research: Give and Take


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.”

In some respects, the stay-at-home order has had little effect on Roy Gereau’s research. In other areas, the pandemic had profound implications on his research right away. 

Even before the order, he had to cancel a trip to Zambia due to preventive international travel restrictions. A trip to Tanzania was to follow, where a group of Africa and Madagascar Department staff would tour tree seed production facilities and discuss plans for a collaborative tree conservation project. The meeting has been rescheduled for September 2020, and the project is on hold with a tentative new date of January 2021, but even those dates are uncertain.

“The situation is causing great delays in plans that took a long time to make and is therefore a source of worry for all of us,” he says.

Still, he is able to be extremely productive at home, and he looks at it as being similar to remote work he does during international travel. He has access to email, TROPICOS and other Garden databases, and the Garden library’s electronic resources are available online. He brought home a hefty bookshelf of references that aren’t available online. But not everything is available digitally. He’s lacking access to physical resources in the library, and most importantly, to the Garden’s expansive herbarium with its great wealth of African plant specimens.

“So I’m focusing on the work that I can do with the materials that I do have at hand, which is quite a lot,” he explains.

And, with everyone at home, it’s a great time for international collaboration. “Everyone is eager for contact and communication, so we’re having a lot of productive video conferences, and e-mail traffic is way up.”

Within the first week, he’d finished revisions to two articles, started designing two new research projects with various colleagues, and he and four coauthors submitted a manuscript to Science and was making steady progress on a book project about the  plant genera of Tropical East Africa. Since then he has continued with those projects and devoted a lot of time and effort to reviewing African plant conservation assessments for the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

“So research life goes on in a modified, but reasonably functional, way.”

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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