Dr. Armand Randrianasolo
Curator at the William L. Brown Center
Many botanists’ careers are the realization of a lifelong goal, born in a childhood exploring the natural world and followed by a series of carefully-planned steps to attain that goal.
Armand Randrianasolo did spend much of his time outdoors during his childhood in Vatomandry, Madagascar, but he was more interested in soccer than plants. He traces his botany career back to a split second decision he made decades ago.
In 1989, Randrianasolo, now a Curator at the Garden’s William L. Brown Center, had finished his undergraduate degree in biochemistry at the University of Antananarivo, which at the time was the only university in Madagascar. His father, who ran a butcher shop, had pushed him to pursue higher education rather than go into the family business.
Randrianasolo had started a graduate program in the same field, but two months in the university cut funding, forcing him to find a new path.
In came Jim Miller, now the Garden’s Senior Vice President of Science and Conservation but then a young botanist working with Pete Lowry, coordinator of the Garden’s Madagascar program, to launch the new program. Randriansolo met Miller through an acquaintance and Miller asked Randrianasolo to join their upcoming field trip. They planned to leave at 4 a.m. the next day.
“There was no chance to analyze,” Randrianasolo says. “I just had to accept everything.”
The decision shaped a full career that’s included a 22-year tenure at the Garden.
But at that time, Randrianasolo knew little more than the basics of botany from a general studies class he’d taken as an undergraduate student and he didn’t yet speak English. He and Miller communicated in French as they made their way through Marojejy National Park, where Miller pointed out different characteristics of plants and taught Randrianasolo how to distinguish species. “That was my first real class in botany,” Randrianasolo says.
Randrianasolo worked some magic, or charm, during the journey, too, promising Miller they wouldn’t see one drop of rain, even though it was Madagascar’s rainy season. “I said…listen to the winds. It’s not going to rain,” Randrianasolo recalls. “I was just making things up to make people happy.”
But somehow, it worked, and it didn’t rain any of the 15 days in the rainforest.
After the trip, Miller became a mentor as Randrianasolo pursued a career in botany. Randrianasolo started English classes, continued joining collecting trips and began working in a herbarium. He brought home copies of the Garden’s Bulletin and learned more about the Garden’s mission. Lowry, another mentor, told him of the plans for the Madagascar program, which was focused on doing research in partnership with local institutions.
Eventually, the Garden brought him to St. Louis. He remembers looking out the window as his plane landed and being impressed by all the cars he saw — no one in his family owned a car and he spent his childhood traveling by foot anywhere he needed to go. He recalls that everything seemed huge. When he first saw the Garden, he was blown away.
“My eyes were so big. Everything was so big…the herbarium…the staff…you cannot comprehend or imagine,” he says. “It was an amazing sight.”
Randrianasolo earned his masters’ and PhD in biology from the University of Missouri St. Louis. Throughout his studies, Randriansolo returned to Madagascar once a year for fieldwork and to see his family, which included a wife and two kids. In 1995, his family moved to St. Louis, and his third son was born here.
In 1998, Randrianasolo officially joined the Garden’s staff in the Applied Research department, which later became the William L. Brown Center. He continues to visit Madagascar annually. His research focuses on Anacardiaceae, or the Malagasy cashew family.
The Garden is a unique research institution, he explains, because it gives researchers the freedom to choose what they study, as long as it is within the scope of the Garden’s mission “to discover and share knowledge about plants and their environment in order to preserve and enrich life.”
Randrianasolo is also an adjunct professor at Washington University, where he co-teaches a class focused on sustainability in Madagascar. The class examines sustainable development and teaches students to understand underlying issues in developing countries at the intersection of climate change, environmental biodiversity “hot spots,” sustainable development, and poverty.
Students in the class, which is run through the Olin Business School but open to any students, develop projects that matter to the community in Mahabo, Madagascar. The projects should improve the lives of the subsistence farming families in tangible ways. The class culminates with a trip to Madagascar, where they can see Mahabo up close and the people they have been working with.
The class fits in well with the community-based research program the Garden has now been running in Madagascar for three decades. That program has grown to more than 150 staff members, nearly all of whom are Malagasy, and all decisions are still made with local communities. “That’s why our approach, having Garden staff living in the community, is very successful,” he explains. “We don’t do anything unless they agree.”
The program has expanded its focus from discovery to also include conservation and now manages 12 newly-established conservation areas. Randrianasolo also works on two of those sites.
“That is unique at the Missouri Botanical Garden. I can work in the country where I came from in a big way and contribute to all of that.”
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