Beauty of Botany

By Mark, Steven | Honolulu Star - Advertiser, October 5, 2014 | Go to article overview

Beauty of Botany


Mark, Steven, Honolulu Star - Advertiser


It's not often that botanists get rock-star treatment. After all, to most people their work probably seems as exciting as watching moss grow.

But Tom Ranker, head of the University of Hawaii at Manoa's Botany Department, and his colleagues were greeted like celebrities when they recently visited Tanna, an island that is part of the South Pacific nation of Vanu­atu, to collect samples for his research.

"When we showed up at a village, we had to come to their gathering place in the village, and they had to formally welcome us,"?he said. "The chief was there and he gave a speech, and then the guy who was in charge of our party gave a speech, and it was very formal. And they had to formally give us permission."

On another visit, villagers even performed a dance for them.

Ranker, one of the world's foremost experts in ferns, is working to get colleagues similar acclaim. As the new president of the Botanical Society of America, he's become the poster boy, or more accurately, the selfie of the group's "Reclaim the Name" campaign, which has botanists coming out of the woodwork to announce what they do and how they do it.

The campaign started a few weeks ago at a Botanical Society meeting when one of the members asked, "How many of you describe yourself as a botanist when somebody asks what you do?"

"Just a few people out of 30 or 40 people in the room raised their hands," Ranker said. "We got to talking about that:?Why do so many botanists not call themselves botanists anymore? Maybe we need to call more attention to that, that hey, it's OK?to call yourself a botanist."

The group started an online campaign on Facebook and Twitter asking botanists to post pictures of themselves holding a sign declaring "I am a botanist" and describing their work. Ranker, as president of the society, got things rolling by posting his own picture, which struck a nerve, or rather, a root.

"There have been many hundreds, in a very short time, from around the world, too, not just the BSA,"?Ranker said.

A recent Twitter search via #Iamabotanist -- the hashtag created by Ranker --revealed tweets from botanists working in Portugal, Peru, Colombia, even a photo from Panama with a large group of people standing under a sign that says "Somos bota­ni­cos -- We are botanists." The tweets included inspirational messages such as "Botany is the foundational science for a sustainable future" and "Save global botany!"

"We were all a little surprised at how big it got,"?Ranker said, "especially when people from around the world started posting and also a lot of people who are not members of the Botanical Society of America, just other botanists from around the world and from America who are not members."

Botany has become the poor stepchild of science in recent decades, according to Ranker. At many colleges and universities, botany departments have been merged into biology departments, and when botany professors have retired, they aren't replaced by botanists, Ranker said.

A report by Botanic Garden Conservation International, a group devoted to supporting issues related to botany, said that since 1988 the number of undergraduate botany degrees has declined by half, and the number of graduate degrees is down 41 percent, while degrees in general biology increased 17 percent. More than half of the top 50 U.S. universities, rated according to funding, have dropped botany programs, and many have eliminated related courses, the report said.

"You can get a B.A. or B.S. in biology and never take a class that's devoted to plants," Ranker said. "So you can have a degree in so-called biology, which is the study of life, and know nothing about plants. Whereas our focus is plants."

UH is now one of only a handful of major research universities left in the country with an independent botany department, Ranker said. …

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