James Wong: Plant Geeks Will Save The World!

James Wong trained as a botanist at Kew Gardens in London, UK, before embarking on a wide and varied career encompassing broadcasting, writing and garden design. He demonstrates his passion for plants in every strand of his work, and is making a significant contribution towards raising the profile of horticulture and the plant sciences within the UK. He took some time out of his busy schedule to speak to Amelia at the Global Plant Council.

james wongJames qualified with a Masters in Ethnobotany; the study of how people use plants, in 2006. This branch of the plant sciences is very relevant to tackling pressing issues such as food security and conservation.

Plants have provided humanity with essentially every aspect of our sustenance and material culture for millennia. Being a fusion of anthropology and botany, ethnobotany is vital to understanding everything we are and everything we do.

 Humanity relies on an incredibly narrow range of plants to meet its needs, with just 3 crops providing up to 50% of our sustenance. This means civilization has pinned its future on just 0.00006% of the world’s edible plants!

With threats like climate change and a growing global population, it is simply not feasible to continue to marginalise 99.99994% of our crops. Learning about how to grow, prepare and eat those other plants is where the work of ethnobotanists is vital.

 This is just one example of how ethnobotany is essential in helping combat some of the biggest threats our species are facing in the next century. Plant geeks will indeed save the world.

To meet the needs of a growing population, many resources are currently focused on grow for flavourincreasing productivity of our large scale farming systems. However, in his most recent book, Grow for Flavour, James explores how we can increase the nutritional quality of home-grown produce. Could small-scale food production such as personal allotments or gardens have any role to play in our future food production systems?

In short, no. My tiny urban garden is just 6x6m, and there is no way that it is ever going to make a significant contribution to my calorie intake.

However (and this is a big however), even in this tiny space I can get access to a range of fruit and vegetables that could make an important contribution towards certain micronutrients in my diet. Many of these, including key phytonutrients, are not found in the limited range of crops grown commercially, at least in large quantities.

Green Zebra tomatoes are a good source of tomatidine.  Photo credit: J https://www.flickr.com/photos/florence_craye/2953736794/in/photolist-5v1F3s-6Pshmn-8 Used under a CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license.

Green Zebra tomatoes are a good source of tomatidine.
Photo credit: J  Used under a CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license.

For example tomatidine, a chemical found in green tomatoes, may help improve muscle tone and reduce atrophy according to some studies. It is not really found in any supermarket produce, yet I can easily grow 10 kgs of tasty, tomatidine-rich fruit like ‘Green Zebra’ each summer. Popped in the freezer they could provide me with an important source of this phytonutrient year round that would otherwise be almost totally absent in my diet.

Home gardens can make significant financial sense too, removing cost as a barrier to nutrient availability.

The garden design studio, Amphibian Designs, was co-founded by James in 2008. I have always been fascinated by plants and I feel that designing with them helps me express that.” This fascination has led the studio to win four Royal Horticultural Society medals for its designs, including two gold medals at the Chelsea Flower Show. Gardening is perhaps something we might associate more with art and creativity than science. However, James finds that: creating spaces with plants and arranging them to express an idea allows me to better understand their botany.” Furthermore, having a scientific rather than arts background can be advantageous in design.

 I have no formal design training and find this actually allows me more creative freedom! I rarely know the design rules and conventions, so I don’t feel I need to slavishly devote my works to them. There is an awful lot of assumed knowledge and entrenched ideas in horticulture, much of which has no factual basis, and being an outsider means you get to circumvent all that.

Engaging the public with the plant sciences is becoming increasingly important yet the perception that plants are boring can be difficult to overcome. Could gardens and horticulture provide a way to approach this problem?

Absolutely. Humans instinctively find plants beautiful. Sadly, I do think UK horticulture has done a rather good job of suppressing this instinct in many people by holding up a singular, historical ideal as the dominant mode of what a ‘proper’ garden should be. Between the rustic woven willow and stately home symbolism, it can be very easy for many people (like me) to not associate themselves with gardening. Would food, fashion, music, art or film limit themselves to such as singular ideal? Of course not, and that explains their far more broad-based appeal.

 One of the most popular stands I saw at Chelsea Flower Show this year was for the European Space Agency, and represented how plants would be grown in space to feed astronauts and fuel interplanetary discovery. The look of wonder in faces of the kids (of all ages) as they wandered through spoke volumes. What an amazing way to engage kids with science.

So, we can’t leave without asking one final question: any tips for the budding gardeners amongst our readers?

Plants always grow and look best when planted to echo how they would naturally grow in the wild. Doing so means you will have less work, healthier plants and a perfectly matching aesthetic almost every time. Google image your favourite plants in their wild habitat and try your best to match them. The rest will take care of itself!

An interview with Ellen Bergfeld

EllenBergfeldThis week, New Media Fellow Amelia Frizell-Armitage has been talking to Ellen Bergfeld, CEO of the Alliance of Crop, Soil and Environmental Science Societies (ACSESS), a coalition of the American Society of Agronomy (ASA), Crop Science Society of America (CSSA) (both of which are Global Plant Council member organisations) and the Soil Science Society of America (SSSA). She spoke to us about the societies, her role as CEO, and her visions for the future.

What is the purpose of the ACSESS?

ACSESS is a nonprofit organization founded by the ASA, CSSA and SSSA to support the activities of member societies.

ACSESS has five primary goals. 1) Firstly, we help professional societies representing agronomic, crop, soil, and environmental sciences to collaborate and 2) advance the missions, visions, and activities of these societies. 3) We promote the value and image of agronomic, crop, soil and environmental resource professions, and 4) unify communication with scientists, educators, policy-makers, and the public to enhance impact. Finally, 5) we engage science-based knowledge on the challenges facing humanity.

How do the work and aims of the ACSESS coalition cross over with those of the Global Plant Council (GPC)?

The GPC’s goal to feed an ever-growing human population sustainably is of paramount interest and importance to all three of our member societies.

Additionally, all three societies advocate nationally and internationally for plant and crop sciences. They act as catalysts to generate plant-based solutions for the sustainable intensification of agriculture, whilst preserving biodiversity, protecting the environment, reducing world hunger, and improving human health and wellbeing.

In your opinion, what will be the biggest challenges over the next 50 years in terms of food production and agriculture?

Three things: climate change, degraded and decreased natural resources, and population growth.

What do you think our top priorities should be in terms of tackling these issues?

Adapting plants to climatic changes and developing crops that can be sustainably grown in the field is a top priority, and very broad in terms of the research required.

Another large gap I see is education and science literacy. By educating and empowering communities, particularly girls and women, regarding the carrying capacity of the planet, we can open up discussions and raise awareness of the need for sustainability in all aspects of our lives.

What are the key developments in agronomy required to ensure sustainable agriculture in the future?

If we continue to deplete our soil and water resources, this will have a dire impact on our ability to feed the population. We need to recognize this, and adapt our agricultural practices accordingly.

2015 is International Year of Soils. Can you sum up in one sentence why soils are so important?

 Soils Sustain Life!

What inspired you to leave academia and move into science policy, strategy and administration?

At the time I was looking to graduate, I would have had to do multiple postdocs to be competitive for an academic position. I enjoyed the teaching and working with animals, but not the lab work or grant writing.  I pursued the Congressional Science Fellowship to open new doors and took advantages of the opportunities that followed.

Day to day, what is the most rewarding part of your job as CEO?

I enjoy connecting our sciences, and scientists, to address the global challenges that we face.

Interacting with the best and brightest minds who are collectively addressing these challenges is incredibly inspiring and fulfilling.

Ellen Bergfeld received her BSc in Animal Science from Ohio State University, going on to study reproductive physiology, first at masters then PhD level, at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.  After graduating she was awarded the Federation of Animal Science Societies Congressional Science Fellowship. This Fellowship provides an opportunity for highly skilled scientists to spend a year working in congress as special assistants in legislative areas. Following the fellowship Ellen became Executive Director of the American Society of Animal Science. Ellen is now CEO of ACSESS.

An Interview with Mary Williams: Plant Teaching & Social Media

Mary Williams headshotThis week we spoke to Mary Williams about plant science education, her role as features editor of The Plant Cell, and effective use of social media for scientists.

 

 

 

What inspired you to focus your career on education in the plant sciences? 

As a biochemistry student whose friends were arts majors, I discovered that I really enjoyed the challenge of explaining things through plain language and analogy. After a postdoc I took a faculty position at a primarily undergraduate institution where professors were encouraged to explore different approaches to teaching.

By sharing ideas and resources through ASPB Teaching Tools in Plant Biology, workshops, and my blog, I try to help young scientists gain confidence and become better teachers.

How have people responded to the Teaching Tools in Plant Biology (TTPB) you have developed, and how are these being used?

The response has been really positive. I regularly hear from undergraduates, graduate students, postdocs, lab heads and educators who are using them for a multitude of purposes including lesson preparation, self-learning and outreach. The articles can be accessed through most university libraries or via ASPB membership. They are also available throughout the developing world through the AGORA program.

The teaching tools articles are quite technical, so we didn’t anticipate that high school teachers would want to read them. However, in response to their expressed interest I started posting interesting newsclips and videos onto the various social media sites that I manage. This summer we’re moving all of the content onto a new platform, Plantae.org, which will provide a centralized place for educators to connect in what I have described as a Global Plant Science Learning Community. I’m really excited about providing a space for people to share their ideas and promote discussions about effective plant science teaching.

Why do you think teaching the plant sciences in an inspirational way proves so difficult?

The biggest obstacle is the preconception that plants are not interesting, which too often is conveyed by teachers in primary and secondary education. Additionally, many students have no first-hand experience of growing or caring for a plant, and this first-hand experience is really key. We find that many of the most engaged young people have grown up in close contact with plants, perhaps through a family’s involvement in agriculture or horticulture.

In terms of status and salaries, our society places a much higher value on medical sciences and medical research than the plant sciences; the tangible rewards of working with and studying plants are not always evident.

How can we better capture student imaginations when it comes to plants?

Giving students the opportunity to physically engage and inquire about plants is critical, and this has to span from the earliest years through university education. Students need to use all of their senses when exploring plants, and being allowed to explore in an open-ended way lets students develop an interest and curiosity about plants.

This idea of exploration and open-ended inquiry should continue into university, even in large lecture classes. Give students a pea in a pot to take home and observe. Hand out Brussels sprouts, green onions and daisies for students to pull apart and examine. Use some class time to pose open-ended questions. Good ideas are plentiful!

Innovative tools and support for teachers can also be found on sites such as Wisconsin Fast Plants developed by Paul Williams, SAPS and PlantingScience.org.

You are features editor for The Plant Cell. What does this role involve? 

TTPB is published by The Plant Cell, and we made the decision early on to focus our effort on the teaching of upper-level plant biology. This is the point at which students transition from using textbooks to the primary literature.

To write each article, I read dozens of recent papers and review articles to identify the key questions and the foundational concepts a student needs. I then create both a written article and an image-rich version of the information. Images are powerful ways to explain difficult concepts, and also are useful to people who teach and learn in languages other than English. After I finish the articles I send them out to several experts for peer review. I update the articles regularly so that they continue to reflect our current understanding.

A new initiative this year has been to draw on the talents of the community to develop additional Teaching Tools topics. We’ve been running competitions to solicit pre-proposals for development into Teaching Tools – you can read more about that here.

When did you first get involved with social media? How can social media platforms such as blogging and Twitter be of benefit to researchers? 

My social media roots stretch back to the early 1990s when I was active in the usenet email-based Arabidopsis and Plant Education newsgroups. These networks were excellent sources of resources, ideas and support as I became an independent researcher and educator.

I started using Twitter, ScoopIt and Facebook in earnest in 2011 with the encouragement of Sarah Blackford (@BiosciCareers) and the Global Plant Council’s Ruth Bastow (@plantscience). Like many people, I quickly realized the power of Twitter and other social media tools as a way to connect and converse with the broader community of plant scientists, plant educators, and other plant enthusiasts. Social media not only lets me meet and learn from plant scientists from around the world, but also keep abreast of new publications and get a glimpse into what is being discussed at conferences.

Mary identifying moss in the west of Scotland

Mary identifying moss in the west of Scotland

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mary’s top tips for getting started on social media:

  1. Apply the same social rules online as you would in real life
  2. Be friendly
  3. Give credit where it’s due
  4. Avoid talking about religion and politics; be culturally sensitive
  5. Listen a lot, talk a little
  6. Don’t be discouraged if it takes a while to get noticed
  7. Be professional; swearing, gossip and slander are common in the social sphere, but when it’s being broadcast to the world and recorded for posterity, think twice