Careers in Plant Science and Conservation | Part II
A conversation with Teri Barry, collections manager at UC Davis Center for Plant Diversity
By CNPS Student Advisor Hannah Kang
Herbaria have been part of Teri Barry’s life for 11 years. Teri received her master’s at California State University, San Jose and researched local adaptations of two cryptic species Lasthenia californica and Lasthenia gracilis in different serpentine soil conditions. During that time, she was a volunteer at Jasper Ridge, where she was able to attend Tuesday talks, map rare plants, and conduct surveys. Her thesis work was also part a paper in the American Journal of Botany in 2012 “Edaphic adaptation maintains the coexistence of two cryptic species on serpentine soils” at Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve (Stanford owned).
Today, she is responsible for managing 350,000 specimens along with the California Phenology Project at the UC Davis Center for Plant Diversity. Teri works with students and faculty to maintain a collaborative and educational environment.
The data herbarium specimens provide are priceless. A well-collected and curated herbarium specimen tells us where and when plants have been collected through time. DNA can even be extracted from specimens for taxonomic research to help us understand how plants are related.
H: How would you explain what an herbarium is?
T: We are the dead plant people. An herbarium is a collection of pressed, dried plants mounted on archival quality paper. Each specimen has a label which includes information about the plant, the location, and date it was collected, and who collected it. You gain an understanding of where and when plants have been collected through time.
H: Can you give us some background on how you got interested in plants and herbarium work?
T: I always loved plants and nature, but started off as a business major because I thought it was the thing to do to get a job. I completed the lower division pool of classes and realized I hated it. I wanted to do something more meaningful. Since I was interested in wellness I switched my major to kinesiology (the study of human movement), and worked in the fitness industry. (I did not know about botany options at this time). My intention after graduation was to earn an advanced degree in physical therapy or botany. After working as a physical therapy aide, I decided it was too hands on with people, and I wanted to be hands on with plants. I had no botany connections, so I had no idea how to pursue a botany career. I had to figure it out on my own. I looked up programs at San Jose State, where I did my undergrad work and found they offered some botany classes. Since I needed a stronger plant biology background, I applied for a post bachelor’s program and took almost enough classes for a second degree while I was still working as a fitness trainer. There was a job announcement in one of my classes to work as a student assistant in the herbarium, and I applied immediately. I did not know about herbaria before I took on this job, but Toni Corelli, the curator, got me hooked! I switched to a master’s program, where I met the new director of the herbarium, Dr. Nishanta Rajakaruna (Nishi). He took me on as a graduate student to work on local adaptation of Lasthenia. Because I already had a BS and I took enough botany classes, I was able to jump right into the program.
H: What are some plants that you think are more beautiful pressed than alive?
T: What makes pressed plants beautiful is they preserve stories from snapshots in time. A well-pressed and mounted specimen is also a work of art. If well preserved, a plant specimen can last hundreds of years. I’m really getting into vernal pools and I love tiny wildflowers that nobody else but botanists would understand and know. ‘Oh! Look at that beautiful wildflower,’ like Downingia. It’s fun to see what comes up, and every year you go back and you learn what the seedlings are. It’s exciting to go through the seasons.
H: What are some of your favorite conservation stories involving herbaria?
T: Alice Eastwood rescuing the type specimens from fires at California Academy after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake is my favorite story of conserving specimens. The collections themselves can also play a role in plant conservation. Presumed extinct plants in collections can help us find and identify new unknown populations if they exist. Collections of rare plants can help us understand their distribution and help us identify them better.
H: Can you give us some insight on what is a typical day is like at the herbarium?
T: The herbarium is open Monday through Friday from 9 am to 4 pm. On any given day, there may be upwards of 10 people working, while some days there are just a few of us. We have staff, student workers, and volunteers who perform a variety of tasks. There is always data entry, specimen mounting, and filing to do. Right now, we are working on an imaging project funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), as well.
H: What direction are herbaria going in today’s world?
T: While we still have to fight for funding, there is a lot of excitement nationally with herbaria imaging and georeferencing collections. Publicly accessible data is big right now. Currently all of our specimen data are available on the online database Symbiota. More than 22,000 records have images. Our goal for the NSF grant is 50,000 California flowing specimens from target taxa, but we are pushing to get all of our California specimens imaged.
H: What do you wish people knew about herbaria?
T: The value of the specimens is priceless. As great as it is to get all our data with images online, you cannot replace the original specimen. Taxonomists need to refer to the original specimens when describing new species. There are certain features you cannot capture through our imaging process. You must look under a microscope on the physical specimen. You also cannot extract DNA from an image.
H: What kind of projects are herbaria associated with?
T: Databasing, georeferencing, imaging projects, such as the Capturing California’s Flowers NSF grant, outreach events such as Biodiversity Museum day, Taxonomic research such as Dr. Ellen Dean’s Lycianthes work. Herbaria are also often involved with local flora and rare plant monitoring projects.
H: How can students and other interested individuals become part of the UC Davis herbarium?
T: Volunteer, intern, and work study. Sometimes there are special projects or grants for students who don’t have work study. Anyone can contact me and start volunteering. We have people who aren’t students that are retired and volunteer at our herbarium. Individuals can also join the Davis Botanical Society (DBS); this is a joint membership with the herbarium and conservatory. DBS members get access to discounted plant sales (10 percent) and field trips, which are often led by expert botanists.
H: What do you find most valuable about herbarium specimens?
T: The data herbarium specimens provide are priceless. A well-collected and curated herbarium specimen with good data tells us where and when plants have been collected through time. DNA can even be extracted from specimens for taxonomic research to help us understand how plants are related. Looking at the morphology and taking measurements is incredibly important to plant taxonomists. We have this whole collection here where professionals can compare their specimens. There are a lot of great online resources, like Calflora, but it’s not the same thing as an herbarium specimen. There are so many things you can’t capture through a photo even with all the great imaging we have going on, you can only zoom in so close. Sometimes you need to dig out a fruit or look fine details under the microscope.
H: How do herbaria play a role in plant related careers?
T: Herbaria provide valuable data for plant scientists, from consultants needing specimens to confirm a plant identification to taxonomist describing a new species. Herbaria at universities also offer jobs, volunteer and intern options for students. Plant identification is very big in herbaria. Biogeography and phenology are other big projects going on in herbaria. With our imaging project, you can obtain the date, when a plant is flowering and fruiting from an herbarium specimen, and this data is a huge area of interest with climate change. Imaging plays an important role, because having online imaged specimens reduces loans and traveling. If you can get the information online that is great, but it doesn’t substitute an herbarium specimen.
H: What type of advice would you give to students who are interested in a career in herbaria?
T: Job opportunities in herbaria are limited, but if it is your passion you should find a program that offers studies in plant sciences, plant biology, horticulture. You will also need to gain experience by volunteering or doing an internship. If you are lucky you may find a paid position, but funding is often an issue. There are jobs for people with BS or MS degrees, but most of the higher up positions in academia require a PhD. If you want to be a curator you should go for the PhD track. Students need to get herbarium experience wherever they can. That often means volunteering, which can be hard because time and money is limited, but even if you commit to volunteering three hours a week that is good experience.
I suggest looking up your dream job and seeing what skills you need. You must have an open mind too, think about consulting and other botany related jobs too. Students who are interested in herbaria work should also consider coursework in bioinformatics, especially at larger herbaria. There are positions specifically for coding and data management in larger herbaria.
H: Is there anything you would like to add on about herbarium work?
T: Herbarium work is suited best to people with the combination of a passion for plants and good organization skills. The work requires a lot of attention to detail, but at the same time thoughtful prioritizing of tasks and time management. You will also need to be an advocate for funding, especially if you are a director or curator. Learning to write good grant proposals is important.
Thank you, Teri!
CNPS student advisor Hannah Kang grew up in Roseville, California and earned her bachelor’s of science in plant biology at UC Davis. She is currently working in her new job as a consulting field botanist.