Inspiring Exploration in Botany

Professor Chris Martine shares his passion for inspiring exploration and discovery in botany and the natural world. Chris connects with students at Bucknell University and beyond with humor and science-rich content through his video series “Plants are Cool, Too!”.


Chris Martine:

I want to start with a question. Show of hands. How many people have ever been to a party? Never Andy? Really? Sorry, I did that. Sorry, never, did you say? Man. All right, so I want you to imagine that you're going to a party and it's not that much of a fun party. It's a party where you don't know anybody. You walk in the door, you don't recognize a face. You don't know anybody's names. They don't know your name. This is a party where you feel really uncomfortable. It's hard to imagine that this is a place where you want to spend much time. You don't feel invested. You feel awkward, maybe even intimidated, maybe even a little bit afraid. It's not a place that you feel like you belong to.


I want you to imagine another party that's kind of the opposite. Maybe you go down the street or something. You walk into that party and when you come in the door everybody yells your name. They all know you. You know all of them. You recognize all the faces. You feel immediately like this is a place where you belong. This is your place. You might be invested in it immediately. It's the place where you want to hang out, spend some time. You're not intimidated. You feel really comfortable.


I start with that comparison of disparate types of parties every fall in my non-majors botany class at Bucknell. They don't mind imagining parties, especially the good kind.


What I tell those students is that the sad truth is that many of us are walking through the natural world is if we're at the first kind of party. It's a place where we don't know a lot of the other guests. We don't feel that comfortable there. It feels sort of scary and unknown, maybe even unknowable, threatening in some way.


What I ask them to do is sort of stick with me. As they take this course and maybe another course with me later, they begin to feel a little more comfortable in that natural world and begin to feel a little bit more like they're at a party where they know more of the guests.


What I have seen through my own experience is that one way to do this and make students feel more comfortable in the natural world, that stuff that's out there beyond our campuses and classrooms, dorm rooms, our homes, is to actually get them outside to have real outdoor experiences. Increasingly, the students that I meet have not had those kinds of experiences. They've had outside experiences, often in very controlled environments. Many have done athletics outside, but it's often on artificial turf.


I've had time out in the air. But not lots of time in the outdoors with real organisms and real places. These are the sorts of things I try to get them to do in my courses because I know this is a fundamental way of changing the way that they see the world that they live in. In fact, they even often need to be trained on how to do that seeing. They don't yet know how to see that world is around them.


In many ways it's a big amorphous green blob that's out there. They haven't had those experiences where they feel connected truly with that natural world.


Now some of these students are going to do what we really strive to do at undergraduate institutions like mine at Bucknell, and some of those students are going to then maybe take what they learn in class and that experience and then parlay that into some mentored undergraduate research, which is one of the things we really try to strive to do at my institution.


There's Nick Diaz on the left. He's with my postdoc Jay Cantley. This was a trip to Hawaii where the trip went to six different islands of the archipelago and there were something like eight new species discovered. Nick will be part of those papers. On the right is May Lacey. May went with us to Australia, northern territory. She's holding a really unusual night shade. We found another handful of undiscovered, unknown species on that trip as well.


These students have no choice. They're fully embedded in this kind of life, this connection to the outdoors in a way that they hadn't been before they had these types of experiences. This is like truly trans-formative kind of work.


But I don't think it's only the students that we have in our college classrooms that deserve an invitation to the party that's the good kind. I think there's a lot that scientists can do in other ways.


This is me just a couple of weeks ago on what has now become a semiannual tour of the storm water basins next to the grocery store down the street from my house. These are folks that are not college students. But I'm bringing them to this place that's nearby all of their homes where they can see what happens when you create a new wetland. New plants come in, waterbirds show up, a bunch of other critters show up and we can see not only this really cool kind of engineering project, but also learn a little bit about the organisms that live there right in that neighborhood.


This is me on a recent trip to Eichhorn Middle School where I met with Mr. Bradley Catherman's seventh grade life science students. This is one of these examples of sort of when you can't bring the people to the field, you try to bring the field to the people. I brought in plants that we had grown from seeds of another unknown species we had collected in Australia and we challenged those students to write essays, coming up with a new name for this species and a justification for why we should call it that. In the end we did publish this as a new species using the suggestions from these seventh grade students. So bringing the nature to the students when we couldn't bring them all out to the nature.


That's the spirit in which I came up with the video series Plants Are Cool, Too. This is a web based YouTube series. We have a channel also that you can check out. The idea here was to find a way to sort of expand the reach of the good word about nature, about getting out there into the world when you can't bring everybody to the world. We're scientists. We want to share what we know. We can't sort of interact physically with every person so how do we find ways? We've seen some great ways that people are doing that, particularly online today.


I'm going to run it for a moment here so you can get a sense for what the show looks like and then I'll come back and talk about it in a minute.


There's a really nice one.


And just like that we're seeing leaves that haven't seen the light of day in 15 million years.


That's right.


We're cracking open 15 million year old time capsules on the hunt for dino plant DNA. This and an Idaho baked potato next on Plants Are Cool Too.


Major funding provided by the David Burpee Endowment at Bucknell University, with additional support from the University of Idaho and the Botanical Society of America.


This is the forest of present day Northern Idaho and one would think that these big giant cedar trees behind me have been here for an eternity. But the truth is even thought they're probably about 2,000 years old they're actually late comers to this part of the world.


In 1972 Francis Kienbaum was expanding the racetrack on his property with a bulldozer when he came across what turned out to be one of the most impressive plant fossil deposits in the world. The family still owns and maintains the property and the race track today.


We're headed to the small community of Clarkia, Idaho, a town of less than 100 people and thousands upon thousands of incredible fossils waiting for us there as Dr. Dave Tank and his team from the University of Idaho will guide us on a journey to the past and a time machine built from the remains of the ancient forests that grew in these parts millions of years ago, in a time when even the Arctic circle was warm enough for a summer vacation.


Two years ago Dave told me that this was a place I had to see and I'm finally here to find out what the fuss is all about. Hey, Dave Tank.


Chris, great to see you.


The idea here is that we generate these videos as a way to highlight cool plants and cool plant stories, but also as a way to talk about the people that are actually doing the work. So as we've heard today, I think it's important to sort of model what scientists are doing. We've got these dynamic stories and then these dynamic, just cool people, regular people who are doing science that can serve as models for anybody who watches these videos to say, "Oh yeah, all right, so I can do that too."


Dave, who you just saw there, is just this cool regular guy. The video goes on to talk about how one of the things Dave is doing with these fossils, which are actually leaf material, leaf tissue that is 15 million years old and is locked in the rocks in this fossil site in Idaho, he's attempting to extract DNA from that material, which is just outrageous.


We tell that story. We tell about Dave. We meet his grad students, Hannah Marks, who's a woman from the Pacific northwest, Simon Uribe Converse, who's a grad student from Columbia. We even meet Bill Rember, who's a retired paleo botanist who built his house next to a fossil pit so that every day he could drink his coffee and then go out and just dig all day, take a lunch break, come back out and dig all afternoon, and then go to bed at night.


We meet these people who are really passionate of all these different backgrounds and ages. For anyone who watches these to say, "Oh yeah, that's what scientists are. That's what they do." We tell these cool stories and meet these cool people.


One of the main reasons I started to do these videos is that when I talk to young kids about science and I ask them to tell me what they think are the coolest organisms they know, they always say animals. And I say, "How do you know about that particular animal?" They said, "Well, I saw it on animal planet or discovery or whatever."


I realized that there's not a lot of dynamic content out there about plants. There's some gardening stuff, there's the occasional Attenborough thing on plants. But just not very much out there. I decided I was going to start making this series and I enlisted a couple of freelance videographers. Paul is on the knees there and Tim is standing up and I hire these guys and we work together to make these videos and travel around.


At this point there's about 10 episodes online. You can check them out on YouTube and I do hope that you watch them. In fact, tonight when you go home you should watch these. But what I hope is that you'll also be inspired to do something else.


The whole main gist of this and what ties back to where I started is that I want people not to necessarily think, "Well to be sort of connected to nature I just need to watch videos on my handheld device." What I need to do is still go out and do this. What I hope you do is that you watch a few videos and then in some way they inspire you to actually go outside and see some of the real organisms in real places that are around us all the time.


After you watch them maybe this weekend go for a walk and take a young person with you, or kids or nephew, niece, grand kids, whatever, and I'd like you to go out and show them one thing. Pick out a tree that you know. You probably know at least one, an oak or maple or a ginkgo, and tell them the name of that thing. I think what you'll find is that as people begin to learn the names of the stuff around them and they become, so they begin to know what's out there in the world around us, we just start to become a little more familiar with that world. We start to feel like we're actually at the party where we know some of the guests.


I think ultimately what that can do for us is it makes us feel as though the world sort of belongs to us, and in some way that we belong to the world also. Thank you.

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