Do you know that bats are important pollinators? Or that plants use chemicals to communicate? More than 1,300 visitors of the U.S. Botanic Garden (USBG) do, thanks to a first-of-its-kind partnership between USBG and the STPF Alumni Network.
This summer, five alumni served as scientific experts in the garden’s “Expert Is In” visitor program on topics such as: diversity of food plants; acoustic ecology; plant breeding and genetics; chemical ecology; and pollinators, seed dispersal, and healthy ecosystems.
The alumni experts helped visitors understand these global topics on a local scale. Take Elizabeth Stulberg (2013-14 Congressional Science & Engineering Fellow), who got garden visitors thinking more deeply about what they see in the grocery store. Her time at the garden focused on biodiversity at the Botanic Garden’s “Corn Wall,” which showcases ears of different varieties from across the Americas and around the world.
Stulberg explained, “Grocery stores often showcase all the different kinds of apples, pears, or cherries you can buy, like Honey Crisp, Bosc, or Bing, but corn is rarely marketed by name. This leads many to think there's just one kind and that it's the same everywhere. But farmers grow corn in every state in the country, and you can bet that the variety grown in Florida is not the same as what's grown in Nebraska.” For visitors wondering why this crop diversity matters, she explained, “Protecting the biodiversity of wild crops ensures our ability to provide farmers with seeds that will survive more of what nature, and climate change, throws our way.”
Susan Tsang (2016-18 fellow at the Department of the Interior) surprised visitors with the fact that bats help with pollination and seed dispersal. She noted, “When people think of animals that fill these roles, they think of birds, bees, and other insects. A lot of times people forget that bats also fill in this role since they are nocturnal and not as obviously visible.” She also had a chance to interact with visitors from more than ten countries: “It was great talking to folks…and helping them understand the bats in their own countries better.”
Bats weren’t the only backyard surprise that garden visitors learned about. Melissa Whitaker (2017-18 fellow at the Department of State) enjoyed the chance to geek out with garden guests about plant chemical ecology. “Plants make many chemicals that are useful for humans in terms of medicines, perfumes, and antibacterials, but it's not every day that we take the time to contemplate the many ways in which plants use chemicals for their own purposes: to communicate with and manipulate the world around them. Chemicals are the language of nature!”
Collectively, these alumni hoped that visitors would think differently about the world around them, starting with what they see every day. All of this was in service to the garden’s mission, to inspire people to appreciate, study, and conserve plants to enrich society locally and globally.
The collaboration between USBG and the STPF Alumni Network will continue in 2023-24, offering more opportunities for STPF alumni to serve as scientific experts at the garden.