The Garden has a tripartite mission: research, education, and conservation. I have spent many years working with botanists at the NY Botanical Garden to support their global research agenda, and engaged closely with the NYBG Herbarium to support that collection of several million dried plant specimens that are critical to botanical research, from genetic studies to ecology.
I quickly learned that our UC Botanical Garden is different from other botanical gardens, even those with substantial research programs, because our living collection was the focus of our research programs. As I quoted in my last blog post, Peter Raven, the dean of American botanical gardens, called our support of researchers the “very best in the world.” What this means in practice is that our Curator Holly Forbes and her staff and volunteers respond to numerous requests from researchers for plant material or the opportunity to collect at the Garden. The Garden’s collection has been acknowledged as invaluable by hundreds of peer reviewed research publications. I believe we are able to respond to every request that arises, and Holly has that program well in hand.
But that begs the question of whether we ourselves can participate actively in research and whether the Garden can host researchers using the collection. Essentially, we want to go from being “acknowledged” as valuable to being generators of research in collaboration with peers.
This brings us to Dr. Vanessa Handley, our Director of Research and Collections. Dr. Handley is often introduced as the replacement for Dr. Chris Carmichael, the longstanding Associate Director for Collection and Horticulture, who remains a research affiliate at the Garden. The difference in their titles reflects the difference in their roles. While Vanessa works collaboratively with the entire horticulture staff, she has two leading foci in her work, research and collections development.
She is actively working to increase our research capacity by collaborating with faculty at Cal and elsewhere. As I write this, she is at the Botanical Congress in Shanzen, China. She is working closely with me on a developing research partnership with Tianjen University in China and UC Berkeley. She is collaborating with a researcher at the Cal Academy on a funded project on Cycads, and with a new faculty member at UC Berkeley on a new research project focusing on the circadian rhythms of Compositaceae here at the Garden. We are currently engaging with Integrated Biology faculty at Cal to create a wet lab from our currently under-utilized 2,000 ft2 “head house” from the Jane Gray greenhouse.
Vanessa is building a network to bring new wild collected plants with provenance into our collection. She has already conducted surveying and collecting trips with colleagues from the Garden and beyond in Mexico and the Mojave Desert and is in close correspondence with colleagues from China, Chile, and Brazil.
So, Vanessa brings a new and important research and collections expansion focus to our staff leadership, while continuing to maintain a very hands-on approach to working with our horticulture staff and our conservation projects.
I actually sometimes think there may be two of her. But they both move fast, so please take the opportunity to introduce yourself to her, she is a mine of information and enthusiasm.