Jordan Teisher still vividly remembers visiting the Missouri Botanical Garden when he was exploring graduate school opportunities in plant research. He started his visit in the Lehmann Building, which holds part of the Garden’s herbarium, and then took a walk around Garden grounds. He was in awe.
“You have this combination of world-class, unbelievable collection in an absolutely beautiful, peaceful, serene setting,” he said. “It’s difficult to imagine a better gig. If you like plants, I don’t think you could do a lot better.”
At the time, he never imagined he would someday oversee a portion of that world-class collection. But in 2021, it all came full circle when he was offered the position of Director of the Garden’s Herbarium.
“All I wanted in life was a job at the Missouri Botanical Garden,” he said. “It was just sort of a surreal feeling, ‘This is happening.’”
Putting St. Louis on the map
The Garden’s herbarium is something that puts St. Louis on an international map, Teisher explained, even if many people don’t know what an herbarium is.
For those not familiar, an herbarium is a collection of preserved plants that plays a crucial role in research and conservation. Scientists use specimens to identify new species – a critical first step in conservation – and to gather essential data, like a species’ native range or when it flowers.
The Garden’s herbarium is one of the largest in the world, containing more than 7.5 million specimens.
“You can find material in this herbarium for almost anything you want to study. Botanists come from all over the world because of these collections,” Teisher said.
While he’s hooked on the herbarium now, Teisher didn’t always anticipate it as a career.
He always knew he liked science. He fondly remembers attending a Saturday Science program in the small town in central Pennsylvania where he grew up and recalls the excitement of his AP biology teacher that piqued his own interest.
Teisher thought he would be a biomedical engineer and started his college career majoring in biomedical engineering. After his freshman year, he decided to study biology at Moravian College in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, where he knew there were botanists on staff. He took a field botany course and fell in love with plant systematics, or the classification of plants. He was fascinated by the fact that tens of thousands of plants are still unnamed. Plus, it incorporated elements of several different sciences, making it the perfect fit for Teisher, who was struggling to narrow down his many scientific interests.
“It lets you dabble in all the areas I thought were most interesting,” he said.
He decided to pursue graduate school. His advisor told him if he wanted to study systematics, St. Louis – where he could attend Washington University and work with the Garden – was the place to be. After his first visit, he knew it was the place for him.
“I just thought, ‘People work here, this is unbelievable. Instead of gathering around the water cooler, you can walk around the Japanese Garden,’” Teisher recalled of that first visit.
Teisher spent 2009-2016 in St. Louis as he pursued his PhD. Throughout that time, the Garden was his respite from the stresses of graduate school. He found solace not just in the Japanese Garden, but in spending as much time as he could in the herbarium. He was taken aback by the depth and diversity of the collection.
“Seeing the labels, they’re collected from all over the world, over 200 plus years, by all these names you recognize,” he said.
As he soaked in the collection, Teisher decided to spend his career managing herbaria, attracted to the idea of overseeing a diverse collection rather than concentrating more narrowly on studying a specific plant.
“In an herbarium you’re managing requests from researchers from all over the world working with all kinds of plants and doing new and interesting things with herbarium specimens,” he explained.
The career path did come with one challenge: jobs can be hard to come by. Fortunately, just as Teisher was finishing his dissertation work, the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University in Philadelphia posted a job for a collections manager of their herbarium. Teisher spent five happy years managing the oldest institutional herbarium in the western hemisphere.
Then, he heard about the opening at the Garden. He knew he had to apply.
“This is just a dream come true if you love herbaria,” he said. “There is a very small handful of institutions that do systematics research on a scale that Missouri Botanical Garden does.”
Facing the future
The Garden’s reach continues to grow as the herbarium takes on collections from other institutions. Recently, the Garden adopted collections from the University of Missouri and Powell Garden. The herbarium adds at least tens of thousands of specimens to the collection every year.
That will create a challenge in the next few years as the Garden tries to determine out where to house these irreplaceable collections – already they are spread across three buildings. But finding space is essential. Scientists are nowhere near finished documenting the plant diversity of the planet, and herbaria like this one will continue to play a crucial role in that work.
The Garden is also moving its collection into the virtual world. One of Teisher’s goals is to digitize the Garden’s herbarium collection. Right now, some of that work is being done through four National Science Foundation grant projects aimed at obtaining high resolution images of specimens and pairing them with standardized information – where it was collected and when – to make them easily searchable. This will make the collection more accessible to global researchers, including those without big travel budgets.
Public Information Officer