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Career Spotlight: What I Do as a Botanist?

Career Spotlight: What I Do as a Botanist?
Photo Credit: Jester Alcaraz

Plants are such a ubiquitous aspect of life—its very foundation, really—that you may rarely think about their scientific research. Botany has the potential to bear fruit in so many fields that affect our day to day lives, from medicine to agriculture to environmental sciences.

To learn a little about what it’s like to work in botany, we spoke with research assistant and science writer Heather Stone. Interestingly, Heather didn’t pursue a purely academic career; she ended up in botany despite being initially discouraged by the daunting nature of science academia. But opportunities arose that literally lead her to a rain forest, where she assisted with field work before ending up at her current role in botany lab.

Tell us about your current position, and how long you’ve been at it.

I am a full-time research assistant in a botany lab and a part-time science writer. I’ve been in botany for about 2.5 years and have been doing science writing for a little over a year.

What drove you to choose your career path? Why botany?

Because plants are the best, obviously! Really, though, I’ve always been obsessed with them. I was that weird kid pulling apart the flowers in my friends’ parents’ backyard anytime they had me over (I was a delightful guest, I’m sure). Plants support almost all life on earth—even if you’re pure carnivore, your diet is only possible through plants. They are the earth’s lungs, they provide most of our medicine (or their chemistry inspires lab-made medicines), they are one of the primary ways people connect with the natural world, and they’re beautiful.

Science writing seemed natural for me as well. Again, I was always that weird kid who was filling up notebooks (when I wasn’t lurking in my friends’ gardens, anyway). I love research and learning about new things, and I really like to get lost in a subject. There’s so much to learn. I enjoy synthesizing what I’ve learned and sharing it with a wider audience of people who may not know much about the topic, or aren’t into reading tons of articles on the same thing like I am.

How did you go about getting your job? What kind of education and experience did you need?

Honestly, I got really lucky. I’ve always been interested in biology (botany in particular) but unfortunately, I didn’t have anything resembling a career plan when I went to college—I was young, naive, and unmotivated. I ended up getting my degree in Spanish, because when I tried to major in biology, the first science class I took was gigantic, tough, and discouraging (partially my fault for not studying harder, but the professor actually apologized to the class for how difficult the tests were, so I feel okay not taking full credit on that one). It was enough to convince me that I was stupid and shouldn’t do science at all, which felt horrible. I consoled myself with majoring in Spanish because languages are fun for me and I already had some credits from high school.

Then, the second semester of my junior year, I took a Gen Bio class and got WAY too into it. I was the girl pacing outside of the 8AM lab with my notebook primed and ready. I was the one who got really pumped about collecting leaf samples. I saw a poster in the biology building on campus about a meeting for undergrads who wanted to get involved in research, and I figured I had nothing to lose by attending it. (Also there was pizza.) By that point I had decided to study abroad in Costa Rica to help with my Spanish, and one of the women who was hiring an assistant did field work in... Costa Rica! It seemed too good to be true. I applied, got a travel grant, and did a month of work in the tropical rain forest. It was the best, most magical summer of my life, and after that I was hooked. When I got back, I basically badgered people into giving me jobs—I showed up at my current boss’ office after I graduated college and literally begged her to let me sweep her floors. She took a chance on me and as I learned more, my responsibilities increased, and now I’m doing some really cool research.

How I got into science writing was another somewhat convoluted path. One day I was looking around for ways to get involved with bee research. You probably know that bee populations are declining worldwide and how important they are to almost every ecosystem, so for that reason I wanted to dedicate some of my time to helping them. Besides, plants and pollinators are closely intertwined. They coevolve and depend on each other, so it makes sense that my favorite animals would be pollinators! I saw a poster about doing some part time work on bees, so I met with the guy who was hiring to ask about opportunities. It turned out that our schedules didn’t align, but he gave my name to two women who run a citizen science organization that makes a census of native bees. I started writing for their blog and have kept my ears perked up ever since—I’ve written a sustainability column for a couple of newspapers and I run an art/science website where I am the primary science writer.

Did you need any licenses or certifications?

Whenever my current job ends I’ll almost certainly have to go to grad school, but I managed to get three research gigs without a master’s, so it can be done. I would prefer to put that off as long as possible, to be honest. Writing and editing experience are a plus when it comes to being hired as a writer, but my lack of a science or journalism degree hasn’t really hindered me yet.

What kinds of things do you do beyond what most people see? What do you actually spend the majority of your time doing?

I do a lot of computer work. Most of my time is spent processing samples in the lab, analyzing them with different software, reading up on preexisting research, and drawing conclusions based on what I see. Spreadsheets aren’t very glamorous, but Excel and I are best friends. My favorite parts besides field work are the actual lab procedures. Nothing like carrying around a jug of acid or liquid nitrogen to make you feel tough. Often you can actually see chemistry in action with your naked eye depending on what you’re doing—it’s a very concrete, satisfying way to understand things I’d only read about in school.

What misconceptions do people often have about your job?

Almost everyone I’ve ever talked to thinks that I grow or study Cannabis. There is indeed a guy in our department who is sequencing the Cannabis genome, but there’s a lot more to his work than just that. Many people also think that I grow gardens for a living, which is horticulture, not botany. I do a lot of lab work and sometimes field work, but my primary focus is research rather than designing and growing gardens.

How does being a lab technician in botany differ from working in labs in other fields? I’m guessing the answer is... plants.

You are correct! Also, every lab has a different research focus, so even those with similar interests each bring something unique to the table. I don’t have a particular focus when I write, but I like sustainability a lot. I basically write whatever topic I’m interested in and whatever seems like it could benefit from a little more clarification.

Does your work entail going out in the field to collect samples?

Yes! That’s actually why I got into botany and biology in general. Traveling is also common and a big plus for me. I’m hoping to go to Bolivia in January to collect some samples, and maybe Mexico in a couple of months to poke around in the D.F. herbarium (basically a plant museum).

What are your average work hours?

If I’m not traveling or at a conference, I do 40 hours per week. Field work is more demanding, since it depends entirely on what’s out there in nature. You may have to put in a 12 or 14 hour day just to get the job done, especially if you can’t find what you’re looking for.

What personal tips and shortcuts have made your job easier?

Keep an open mind always. Both my full time job and my part time job involve looking at data or phenomena honestly and as subjectively as possible. Sometimes what I find is disappointing, but sometimes I don’t find what I’m looking for because I’ve found something unexpected that’s even more interesting.

What do you do differently from your coworkers or peers in the same profession? What do they do instead?

Although I work for an academic lab, I am not a grad student. That means my job is to be a jack of all trades. Some days I will be analyzing the biochemical pathways in a plant, and other days I will be sampling lichens or doing plant CPR on a sad greenhouse specimen. I feel very lucky that I can learn so many different things from others, especially because many of them have to really focus on their own specific projects. My peers probably have a more in depth understanding of their project than I can expect to have for any/all of mine however, so there are tradeoffs.

What’s the worst part of the job and how do you deal with it?

Research can be very tedious. Small mistakes can take less than a second but cost you an entire day. Some days you feel like you’re going to rip your hair out if you have to even look at what you’re doing one more time. Redundancy is just part of the job (and arguably the strength of science in the first place), so I usually put on some music or a podcast and accept that the process is what it is. It’s what will take me to some interesting and cool conclusions.

Finding places to publish can be very frustrating. Writing is unfortunately not a big moneymaker for the vast majority of people, which is why I’ll only ever do it part time. The last column I wrote paid me $10 per week, which was actually pretty good considering that many sites won’t pay you at all. That seems to be just the nature of the beast, so I accept it for what it is, enjoy the process, and keep my eyes peeled for more opportunities.

What’s the most enjoyable part of the job?

I love to learn, and I really love learning about plants. I like having the freedom to extensively research basically anything I want and to share it with both the scientific community and the public at large. Encountering rare or exotic plants never loses its luster for me, and in science, truth is often much more bizarre and fascinating than fiction.

How do you “move up” in your field?

Generally, I think publications are the go-to indicator of success. This has pros and cons, like everything else: more publications means more research is being done and more knowledge about our world is being released. But it also means that sometimes the pressure is too much and sloppy, rushed work is released, or that genuinely good scientists who are slow writers are unfairly punished.

What do people under/over value about what you do?

I think people have this idea of science as something totally divorced from their lives, like scientists are in the ivory tower and research doesn’t apply to their lives in any way. They undervalue the real impact it has. You may not personally be interested in some areas of study, but the beauty of research is the sheer volume of it. There is so much work being done all around the world on every topic imaginable. Chances are, a good portion of that work will end up affecting your life in some way, even if indirectly—especially as we learn more about climate change.

On the flip side, I think people also tend to take scientists’ or science journalists’ word as gospel. Just because someone said it doesn’t mean it’s true! Scientists are human too and we have biases or make mistakes. When you read something (ESPECIALLY science journalism geared to the public) take absolutely everything with a grain of salt and check more than one source before even starting to believe it. Remember that study on chocolate that recently went viral and everyone swallowed whole? It was a total fake. Use caution and good judgment when reading science news, and don’t be afraid to be skeptical. Everyone has some capacity to think scientifically, so use it!

What advice would you give to those aspiring to join your profession?

Science is for everyone! (Yes, even you!) Don’t be intimidated if you didn’t do as well in science classes as you would have liked, and don’t feel like you are exceptionally stupid. Everyone is secretly pretending like they’re smarter than they are. Don’t worry if you have to frantically google things. I do it every day and so does my boss. Ask questions. You will never regret it.

Look for opportunities in unexpected places, keep an open mind, and remember that in the beginning you’ll be doing a lot of grunt work. Most importantly, there is so much to be excited about, and if you genuinely love to learn, any challenges you meet along the way will be completely worth it.