We chat with botanist and science educator, Claire Hopkins, about how she got started in botany and how that led her to starting Brilliant Botany, a science educational platform and YouTube channel. We also chat a little about being #QueerinSTEM and how that experience can vary from scientist to scientist.
About The Guest:
Claire Hopkins is a botanist who has created a myriad of resources for the general public to learn more about pollinators, plants, and more. You may know her well from her YouTube channel and site, Brilliant Botany, which covers a wide variety of topics like historic women in botany, plants and tubers, and yes - even the kinds of plant Pokémons in Pokémon Go and their real-life analogs. She’s also compiled several educational resources for free, like the Botany 101 resource in JSTOR’s Global Plants database and a free educational webinar as part of ASPB’s Plantae seminar series.
Links & Resources:
Books Mentioned in the Episode:
YouTube Channels Mentioned:
We talk about all of this and more in this episode. I hope you enjoy!
CLAIRE HOPKINS: Oh, that’s a really good question. So when I say botany, it definitely varies upon the scientist. But for me, botany as opposed to plant biology is usually a little bit more encapsulating of the taxonomy (like the naming) and more old-school plant bio, kind of? I’ll probably talk a little bit about like, when I worked in herbaria and pressed plant specimens and stuff... So I generally think of botany as that field while plant biology is more so like molecular and lab science. That’s not to say - people can use them interchangeably. I definitely just picked botany for Brilliant Botany because of the alliteration, but I also most often call myself a botanist, too. So I definitely would say botany is more so the old-school field work, while plant biology is more so in the lab science.
SYNAPSE: Would you say a larger percentage of botany is done in the field or like, in labs, or in offices, or kind of a mixture of all three?
CLAIRE: I'd say a mixture of all three. A lot of folks who are doing research where they want to discover a new species are working in more tropical areas of the world because temperate areas... like, I live in New England. We know most of the plants around here. That’s not to say there aren’t ones that we don't know, in terms of vascular plants. But so they'll often be going on expeditions into areas where they’re going to be doing a lot of collecting in a short period of time and then going back and working with those specimens. And then that's more so for botanists working in the fields. And then a lot of plant biologists who do lab work - they'll be growing plants in their lab or traveling to get samples and things like that. Definitely a mix.
SYNAPSE: And when did you personally start getting interested in botany?
CLAIRE: That would be when I was in high school, in my junior year of high school. So for anybody who's, you know, not from the States - we have something called AP Biology, which is basically college-level biology that you take in high school. So it's basically like the introductory biology course you might take as a freshman in the States. And I loved the plant unit, which my teacher is still puzzled by because everybody hates the plant unit in AP Biology (SYNAPSE: Right! [chuckles] ), which is too bad. But that really just got me interested. I still remember looking under the dissecting scope - we just had like lilies from the grocery store that my teacher had brought in - and like, looking at the different parts of the flower under the dissecting scope and just finding it so, so cool. So that's definitely where it started for me.
SYNAPSE: Yeah, I wonder why that is, too. Because I know like when I was in high school and also in college, like the plant section was always everyone's dreaded section. They’re like, “Ugh, when can we get this over with.” And then you actually do some of the experiments in the lab or you actually research some of the stuff and you’re like, actually this is really interesting. And it makes me wonder if a lot of times, maybe botany isn't being taught to us in an engaging way, so a lot of people think, “Ugh, plants. They're just boring things,” you know?
CLAIRE: And I think what happens a lot is - as it happens when a lot of sciences - people are told that it's boring before they’re actually taught about it. So if a young kid even gets an inkling that plants are as interesting as animals, they kind of slot that away. So when I'm working with kids - something I encounter a lot in all types of science communication is apologizing for the topic you’re going to talk about and be like, “I know you might think this is boring, but...” - in so far as I can never say that, I want to make sure that I'm just presenting it as cool because it is! But I think by the time a lot of folks get to high school or college, they just kind of have this predisposed theory that it's boring and then it gets taught as something boring.
SYNAPSE: So after your initial interest in high school with AP Biology and plants, what kind of triggered you to - or motivated you to, rather, choose that as a field that you want to spend most of the rest of your life kind of studying and researching?
CLAIRE: That's a good question. So I - I was also unique in somewhat that I studied both English and plant biology in college, so I initially thought I wanted to go into like, journalistic science writing, not knowing too much about that field. And I would say I'm still in science writing but definitely not a more journalistic-type deal. But I knew I wanted to go into the sciences and I knew I loved plants, so I looked for programs that either had a concentration in plant biology or a major in plant biology. And I don't know - it’s - it’s long enough ago now that it’s hard for me to remember what high school Claire was thinking like, “I definitely want to do this!” But I think, it helped I had my AP Biology teacher - she was very encouraging. She ran like a science book club and she would always, if there was an occasion where I got an award or there was - or I think, probably when I graduated - she always give books and she would make an effort to find really good plant-related science books for me. So that definitely helped, as well.
SYNAPSE: I actually wanted to ask you about that…. Because I know last time we chatted, we actually talked a little bit about Lab Girl, which for folks who aren't familiar, it's a really - I highly recommend it - it's a really interesting science book by Dr. Hope Jahren. And I thought it was really interesting at the time when I was reading it because it feels like, at least maybe from like a molecular biologist point of view, it feels like a lot of other fields (maybe even including mine) typically sit in the limelight of science communication. I feel like we don't hear as much from, you know, like botanists or geologists. So, to see this book and read about botany, I mean a) I was like, “Oh my gosh, I didn't get a good botany education laughs because of all the things that I'm now learning in this like, autobiographical book and b) like, it's the only plant related or botany related popular science book I've ever read. So, I was curious like, I mean a) what your thoughts were on Lab Girl and also what other plant books you would recommend - like plant-based or botany books that you would recommend?
CLAIRE: Yeah, for sure. So to start with Lab Girl, you talking about like the botany in it - I love the passages where she's talking about like, seeds waiting to grow and things like that like, talking really romantically in a way but still scientifically about plants. And I love seeing a book about botany getting a lot of attention and a lot of readers. The only thing that I don't love about it is the glorification of how much time these scientists are devoting to science and not taking care of themselves. Obviously, however folks want to live their life is valid, but I have - I take issue with how prominent in the sciences it is that the expectation that you're going to work 90-hour weeks, 120-hour weeks, never leave the lab, never go on vacation…. So I want folks to get into botany, but not think that's the only way to do it is the way that Hope was able to do it...
So, but that said I love seeing botany in like a prominent book. In terms of books, I don't keep up with non-fiction as much as I used to, but the ones that really made an impact on me: Flower Confidential by Amy Stewart is a really excellent book. It's one of the ones that my AP Biology teacher got me, but it’s about the cut flower industry? So, it's got a lot of science in it, it's also got some history and just - she is a really great writer. She's - I don't believe she's a scientist by trade, but she's a science writer, which in some ways I think helps because she writes more narratively about it. Not that all scientists can’t do that, but for her in particular… And it's just - she talks about the struggle of scientists trying to breed a blue rose and how flowers get from where they're grown to your door, which made me way more particular about if I have cut flowers, where I want them from, because a lot of them are dipped in fungicides before they leave where they’re grown.
So, that's a really great one and I also - my favorite plant is coastal redwoods and I love, oh gosh, The Wild Trees by Richard Preston. That's more written as almost like - not a thriller, it’s definitely not that far in that direction - but it's more of an adventure type book. But it has a lot of great information about coastal redwoods in it and talks about some of the ways that scientists kind of got into studying them - because for a long time they weren’t studied. So those are the two that come to mind right off the bat.
SYNAPSE: That’s interesting. Yeah, like I said, I haven’t heard of a lot of plant-based books, so I definitely have to check those out. I think it's interesting, too, that you bring up the whole, like, glorification of sleep deprivation and working yourself to the bone, which… It does seem like a big problem especially now, and I know a lot of folks are talking about it, which is great - important to have that conversation. But we glorify it so much - this idea of putting our work over ourselves - when in reality, as scientists, we should be realizing we can't do our work if we're not taking care of ourselves.
CLAIRE: Yeah, you're going to burn yourself out. It limits accessibility in the field in so many ways, too, because if say, you're a parent with children, you can't be pulling extremely long hours in the lab. You have a family to take care of. Or if you have health needs or you’re disabled. You need to be able to take time to address those as well. So I think that it's really great that people are talking about it, but I would love to see a shift towards that being more acceptable. Because even, I think of - it’s Letters to a Young Scientist I believe by E.O. Wilson - it’s definitely one of his books where he has a chapter or passage about scientists don't take vacations. And I’m like, no! Scientists can take vacation, that's okay! So, just kind of that culture is a little bit hard to see because I'm like - I don't work in the sciences in my day job anymore so I have the luxury of working like a nine-to-five where I get to leave work at work, which is - I think - really wonderful if you’re able to do that.
SYNAPSE: Yeah, I - I remember that being such a big part of, like for example personally my undergraduate career, when I was younger that was the whole mindset is like - work yourself to the bone, put as much of yourself out there, you don't need to get as much sleep, you need to prove that you're willing to do anything, like work for free - all that kind of stuff which... as I got older I was like, this is super unhealthy. [laughter]
CLAIRE: whispers Yeah!
And also, again we talked about accessibility if it's - when it's working for free, you’re like oh, so you can only do this if you have some kind of income or support from family or something like that where you can work for free.
SYNAPSE: Right. Yeah, I saw a Twitter thread about that. There was a young scientist who was talking about how - she's like, I don't have time to do things for free. As much as I want to advance my career and I want to learn more, I have to pay my bills. I can't go to my landlord and be like, “Hey, don't worry about it. I'm getting experience.” [laughter]
CLAIRE: I've even had situations where people - I do really enjoy volunteering my time to do science communication, I absolutely do that, I do things that like science festivals and things like that - but there will be situations where I'm afraid to say, “Oh no, actually this is what my rate would be.” And I kind of get walked into maybe potentially doing a workshop for free where it’s an organization that I know they would reasonably have the funds to pay me. If it were a low-income school or something, I'll happily do a program for free. But there is that kind of expectation in the sciences and also in science communication, like why don’t you just volunteer your time? But I do need to pay rent and for the supplies and things I bring to classes, as well. So…
I didn't pursue a Master's or a Ph.D, partially because I didn't know after undergrad exactly what I wanted it to be in, and now I don't think I would go back for an advanced degree for the reason of how much time it requires. And so little money for the most part, so it's just - I am lucky that I found a career where I don’t need to. And I just am like, no, I like my 8 to 9 hours of sleep a night. I'm very happy there. So, yeah [chuckles].
SYNAPSE: Yeah, right? [laughter] So how did you transition from studying botany to actually creating educational resources for folks like Brilliant Botany or some of the other projects that you've done?
CLAIRE: So Brilliant Botany started as a Tumblr, which is funny now because I spend very little time actually on Tumblr, but this was in the heyday of when a lot of folks (especially 20-somethings and teenagers) spent a lot of time on Tumblr. I started it as a blog, and I always say it’s because my friends were tired of me talking about plants at them so I decided to talk at the internet instead. So, it started often times, too, as a way for me to kind of process what I was learning about in classes. So if I had learned about a cool plant, I would create a post about that. And it grew fairly rapidly from there…
I think there's a lot of folks who are interested in plant-related content, whether they be botanists, or horticulturists, or backyard gardeners, so I found this little niche on Tumblr where my content got really popular. So that’s where it started and since then I've always just kind of added things on to it, whether it be starting YouTube a few years ago or doing in-person programming.
And what’s funny, too, is I completed my Plant Biology and English degrees, but a lot of the jobs that I've gotten have been based upon the work I did on Brilliant Botany, as opposed to my more traditional day jobs. Not entirely, but a lot of the time the work that I had to show from doing Brilliant Botany was the strongest part of my resume.
SYNAPSE: What was it that motivated you - that made you think like, I want to actually be creating something for people to learn?
CLAIRE: The blog was more for fun and almost honestly, it was almost a little bit like a game for trying to get reblogs. Definitely - (SYNAPSE: [laughter]) there was definitely a little bit of that, because you want your content to be consumed and you want to be creating cool things. But also just, the enjoyment of interacting with people, because there were a lot of - like, this little niche community of botany passionate people. But especially when it came to YouTube, as well, since I was already consuming YouTube content - I was following the Vlogbrothers and then later on Emily Graslie of The Brain Scoop, who is also a science communicator - it was just kind of this cool community. And I really wanted to build content that went on larger concepts because especially on Tumblr, people really want short content for the most part, especially for science unless you’re writing really provocative, long blog posts. So YouTube allowed me to take one concept and talk about it for a while, instead of doing one photo and like a short informational caption.
And… yeah, it's funny - I'm trying to think about what motivated me to make my first video. I hate watching my first video that's live - it's actually about botany books, it's horrible. [SYNAPSE: laughter] But people still watch it because it’s my first video, too, I think they go to my channel and they watch the earliest upload. That was when I was still living at home, too, so it's like in my bedroom with a bookshelf in the background.
So I think it was just - I’ve always been a creative person, I'm like a knitter, I studied - I did art when I was in high school, so I think it was fun making something. Like even today, I have trouble...finding time to make a video, but once I upload it, it feels really good to have made something. So I think that was definitely part of it, as well.
SYNAPSE: Right. There is a certain, like, strange satisfaction in creating something? Like kind of molding something with your own hands, whether that's like metaphorically or literally, and then once it's done, you’re like, “I did that. (CLAIRE: Yeah!) That's a tangible thing I put into the world.”
CLAIRE: Yeah, exactly. And I think especially when it comes to digital content, it’s very easily quantified because it’s on your channel, you can see how many views it gets, or just how long it is, or the captions that you've put on to it. So it's very like, even though it's digital, to me it feels almost concrete because it's like this discrete unit of something that I made. So, yeah.
SYNAPSE: Yeah, definitely. And actually, for folks who are not familiar with Brilliant Botany, could you kind of describe what it is for them?
CLAIRE: Absolutely. So Brilliant Botany - I describe it as a plant science website community when I like have to do a description of it. But essentially, I shifted away from doing the blog content, but I have resource lists. So if you are interested - I do a lot with pollinator conservation - so if you're interested in figuring out how to support pollinators in your area, I have tons of resources in terms of tutorials, things like that. I also more prominently now do YouTube videos on anything from - one of my more recent series is Pokémon that look like plants and what the plant is that they're based on -
SYNAPSE: That's amazing! [laughter]
CLAIRE: I really enjoyed doing that one, and it was a really good excuse to do - to look at some cool plants. And then I have a series about women in botany, mostly through history - I’ve done, I think, one living scientist so far. And just anything that interests me. They’re generally fairly short, and I do have some tutorials like, I did a how to make a moss terrarium years ago that’s still doing well. So I do enjoy doing those ones, as well. I'm always open to suggestions for what folks want to hear.
SYNAPSE: That’s awesome. Yeah, I always feel like botanists and people who are experts in plant biology and things like that are like real life druids.
CLAIRE: I think you - you have it locked it on the real reason I wanted to be a botanist which is like - (SYNAPSE: [laughter]) - “Yeah, I could just be a druid, right? Ok, cool!” [laughter]
SYNAPSE: “That’s a real-life thing I can do? Alright, sign me up!” [laughter]
CLAIRE: There you go! [chuckles]
SYNAPSE: I'm curious to hear also what your experience has been like as somebody who makes educational content, specifically on YouTube. Because anyone who watches a lot of YouTube videos might be familiar with how different changes to the site's algorithms or policies has impacted a lot of creators one way or the other. So what has your experience been like using YouTube as a medium for your scientific communication?
CLAIRE: So I feel like YouTube, in general, like from the beginning - I’ve been very lucky in terms of my audience. I know another thing that people often think of is trolls and terrible comments. I get one every once in awhile but for the most part, I’ve been very fortunate with the audience that I get. I don’t get a ton of comments - that’s fine, because most of the time, it’s something complimentary or a question. So I've been very lucky in that respect and I've made a lot of really great friendships and connections with other educational YouTubers, which has been really wonderful. They’re awesome people and we can kind of exchange resources. When I need a PDF of a journal article I don’t have access to, I usually know someone who’s still in - who is working in higher education that can get it for me. So that’s always wonderful.
In terms of the platform itself, like you mentioned there's been - like, the demonetization that happened earlier this year wasn’t great for small educational YouTubers. I wasn't making really any substantial income from doing the videos, but there was something satisfying about seeing just the pennies tick up a little bit, and then maybe next year you get to do a withdrawal once you hit the threshold. But they changed their restrictions or requirements for being a monetized - getting monetized videos, and I can’t even remember what they are anymore. All I know is that I did not qualify. You needed a really high amount of views over the last, I think it was year, or six months, and it definitely was discouraging because it takes away that trickle of pennies that could potentially become more if your videos got a little more traction. But that said also, my videos - I don't ever think will go viral, and I'm fine with that. (SYNAPSE: [chuckle]) I don't think that really niche science videos necessarily - unless there's something really large that’s used in classrooms, like Crash Course or something - they’re not really designed for everybody to watch. Of course I want everybody to love plants, but I don't expect everybody to love my videos.
So I think by - it's a tough situation because they're trying to eliminate some other types of videos that are gaming the system, but I think it's sad that a small science channel that’s just kind of chugging along can't really get even the little bit of monetization that they’d get from their viewership.
So it was not great. There’s definitely - I was pretty far from the requirements - there were folks who were right on the cusp that it's definitely way more frustrating for, where they had a little bit of money coming in to cover things like domain hosting but then they got kicked off. So…
SYNAPSE: It always seems to be to that the changes are - at least from my perspective and the channels I've been watching - the changes to YouTube's policies and guidelines and things like that have always more significantly impacted the smaller creators more than anything.
CLAIRE: Absolutely. I know YouTube is trying to do their best, but often times their policy changes are prioritizing the advertisers and prioritizing the largest YouTubers because there are so many small YouTubers. But it is tough because that is kind of the - you couldn't - they couldn't survive with just the massive YouTubers and those massive YouTubers are very small ones. So it definitely favors the folks who are bringing in a lot of money for YouTube and who have like a really large viewership.
SYNAPSE: And we were also talking earlier and you mentioned that there's a bit of a gender disparity, too, not just in like the YouTube educational community, but in the history of botany, as well.
CLAIRE: Yes! So yeah, I think in terms of YouTube, I think I remember telling you about this that - so I've always known that the gender disparity in the sciences, in terms of YouTuber viewership has always been different (and this is all with the caveat that the only demographics we have access to are male and female demographics, but gender being not a binary, but just using the info I’m given). I knew that there was always a disparity. I thought I had - when I first started, I had like 60% male 40% female. But I was like, “Oh, that’s probably about standard.” And then in talking to other YouTubers who maybe are in really “hard” sciences like physics, things like that, they have like 90% men 10% women. And that just boggled my mind that it was actually that drastic.
And so for me - I think, for me, that's not surprising in terms of my content. I think plants are a little bit more accessible to all genders in some ways. Like often times, looping back into history, it was kind of a women's field even if they weren't getting notoriety for it. So a lot of the scientists - plant biologists that we know about (even Darwin would count as one) are old white men, who often times were wealthy because that meant they had time to study or to travel. And there were lots of women who, unfortunately also, (if we know about them) were wealthier white women because they also had free time - they just didn’t get as much prominence.
That said, there were some really cool women who worked in the sciences. Mary [Rose] E. Collom was the first botanist hired by the Grand Canyon National Park, and she did a bunch of collecting for them. And the reason she was the, probably the world expert on plants in Arizona, because she moved there with her husband for his job, had nothing to do while he was working, so would just walk around, collect plants, study plants… She would do studies where she would move plants between different altitudes to see how they did, to see if they could adapt to different altitudes, and then she was also very involved in her county fairs and jam competitions and things like that. So in her case, she would be corresponding with scientists around the country talking about the plants in the area where she lived, but while she got some plants named after her and things like that, it's not like she has her name on a bunch of books even though I'm sure she contributed a lot to the research that went into them.
So that's why I mentioned my Women in Botany series, which right now is all women, though I would love to incorporate like people of color and things like that. I'm talking about them because there's not a lot of resources on them. We might have a little - maybe I needed to sift through some documents from the Smithsonian to make the video, but by making it, I’m hopefully making it a little bit more accessible to folks to learn about them.
These days, I'm trying to think about like gender these days definitely depends on the field you’re in. When I used to work in natural history collections with plants, there were actually a good amount of women, but often times the people in the head scientist positions or the managerial positions were men. So it is shifting a little bit, but the positions of power are often times occupied by men.
SYNAPSE: It’s also interesting because you were talking about how we don't have as many resources out there, or maybe not even like written records or things like that, of women in botany. And it reminded me of this article I was reading about Beatrix Potter, who apparently was like a really prominent mycologist? Like, she had papers written, she wanted to go to like scientific conferences, and just the men in those fields would not take her seriously, which is a shame because like her illustrations and her work that you see out there are phenomenal stuff.
CLAIRE: Yeah, and that makes me think of, too - we definitely have phenomenal botanical illustrators throughout history, which in and of itself is a wonderful field, but often times a lot of these artists (often many of them women) could also have been considered scientists in addition to botanical illustrators, but because they were women and they were just kind of painting things, it was more considered art, which again is also totally valid, but… Especially in an age before photographs and plants unfortunately don't preserve well - you can press them and, you know, keep them but they don't look like they did in life - so botanical illustrations are particularly important when you don’t have access to cameras. So it‘s actually very important for science.
So I worked in natural history collections in herbaria, which are basically dead plant libraries. So they keep pressed plants from all around the world collected by a lot of folks. Collecting isn't as prominent as it once was in like the 1800’s and early 1900’s - it was very popular especially, like I mentioned, in wealthier folks who had the time and ability to go travel. But scientists use them, they’re really great for research in terms of naming. Scientists will actually use them in some ways to track the progress of climate change. They can do things by looking at the density of the stomata, which are little pores on the underside of the leaf, and that reflects kind of what the gas levels were in the atmosphere - again, I’m not a chemist so they might be able to explain that more.
So I worked primarily in digitization, which was photographing and databasing the specimens so that we had a good catalog of them. And there were a lot of women collectors! And a lot of them we don’t have a whole lot of information on. One of them - I can’t remember the exact quote from her - Kate Furbish was a collector in, I believe, Maine (definitely New England). And I actually have a poster upstairs that has a bunch of female naturalists on it, and her quote is something to the gist of that she just likes walking around in the woods collecting plants. Like, that’s how she’s happiest, is like alone with plants. So she sounds like she was pretty interesting.
So there were a lot of female collectors, we just might not have had as much information about them outside of the physical specimens. Or they might have been helping their husbands, friends, you know, men who happened to also be collecting and those men's names actually ended up on the specimens, who knows? So...
SYNAPSE: That’s interesting. Also, before you mentioned herbaria, I had never heard of that before. I never knew that we had collections of this kind of stuff or like even the amazing benefits that we can gain from them, like for example tracking climate change like you said. How did you find out about that kind of stuff and what made you want to get involved in that?
CLAIRE: So when I was in college, I had a really wonderful advisor, Dave Barrington at the University of Vermont. He studies ferns, but he was my advisor for my major. And I think he told me about some internships at the New York Botanic Garden, which has a herbarium. So I got an internship for a summer there in the herbarium doing digitization work, and I really, really loved it. I had - my first job was in a library when I was in high school, so I love organizing things? And that's basically what a herbarium is, it’s just cabinets and cabinets of organized plants, generally arranged by taxonomy, so what name and what species they are, and then by location where they were collected.
So I started there and then transitioned to working actually at the herbarium at the University of Vermont, where I was going to school, and then later I worked at the Harvard University herbaria in digitization. So it was definitely like this weird little niche area that I knew about. Upside of that is there aren’t many jobs, but at least I knew to look for them, which most people would not. And even though I don’t work in them now, I love herbaria. They’re very, very important.
But unfortunately, part of the reason digitization is a thing now is trying to take herbaria into the modern dge. Because otherwise, if you don't have images - and you still need the physical specimens for some things - but the images allow scientists to search your catalog and look at specimens from around the world, instead of having to travel all the way to that herbarium just to get information about it. So.
But that said, the Harvard University herbaria has 4 million specimens (SYNAPSE: Wow.) so it's not like, oh we're just going to [snaps fingers] digitize all of these. I was on a project that just focused on the New England specimens and oh, it’s been long enough I can't remember how many we had. It was a few hundred thousand, at least. So it’s a big undertaking.
SYNAPSE: I was not prepared for that number when you threw that out there. [laughter]
CLAIRE: Yeah [chuckles], and New York has more! I can’t remember how many, it’s been a little bit. And because this is the first time that they’re, for the most part, actually cataloging them? They're like organized, but then you actually don't know exactly how many you have because there's no way to check. You know how many cabinets you have, but they're variable density, so it's all estimates. So you kind of have to work with that. [laughs]
SYNAPSE: Wow. Do you remember what some of the oldest specimens were that you worked with?
CLAIRE: Oh god. My friends who I worked with probably would.
Probably early 1800’s would be the oldest. I have handled specimens that were collected by Darwin. That was something they have at the New York Botanic Garden, and then Harvard actually has a lot that were collected by Henry David Thoreau. They're not kept in the main collection - they're in their own section - but as we were working through New England specimens, every once in a while you’d be working on the specimen, and then you’d read the name written on it, and you’d be like, “Oh! H.D. Thoreau!” We need to - we’d still photographic it because we had it so why not - and then we would just transfer it to the person who was responsible for them. So those were - there’s like some big names that were collectors, too, which is pretty cool.
SYNAPSE: I had no idea that specimens can last that long.
CLAIRE: They don’t necessarily look great at that point - (SYNAPSE: Right! [laughter]) - as long as you have… I don't know a lot about DNA extraction and how that all works, though I do know that the technology is getting better so I don't know how viable they are for that. But maybe you can get DNA out of them - somebody who’s an expert in that could tell me. But even just the information of where they collected it and what species it is is useful because you can get an idea about the range of a species, even if it’s - some preserve well, some just look like weird brown sticks after a while. [laughter] It depends on the specimen and how well -
There were some weird techniques for trying to “preserve” specimens way back in the day. They would spray...mercury...on them [both laugh] thinking that would help. Yeah. That's not my area of expertise, but so it’s always a good idea after - they’re not that dangerous but for folks that work with herbaria specimens for years, it’s - I think somebody I worked with actually gets the mercury levels in their blood tested occasionally just to be safe because they were someone who is always touching specimens. For the most part, they’re fine, but there was definitely some weird stuff sprayed on them. Every once in a while, when I worked in collections, you’d get one that had like, a skull and crossbones or like, that kind of stamp on it, and you’d be like, “I don’t know why it’s there? I'm just going to wash my hands after this.” (SYNAPSE: [laughs] Right!)
So they don't really hold up, though people really did try to preserve them. Another thing that - Harvard had this and New York did, as well - are alcohol collections where they have maybe the large fruits or the seeds of plants preserved (because those are too large to press) or dried wood, things like that, which holds up a little better.
SYNAPSE: What other educational projects have you been a part of?
CLAIRE: So one of the bigger ones was - so, actually when I was working at digitization at my first jobs in New York and at the University of Vermont was on a project where the images were going into JSTOR, which is a large academic database. A lot of their stuff is humanities-based but they also have a global plants database. And so I worked on that, and then later, having already digitized for them, they reached out to me because they wanted to make a resource primarily for professors in college classrooms to help them use the database.
So the project is called Botany 101. It’s still available, it's also great for the general public or if you’re just curious. It’s a series of like 12 or 13 units, all in different topics with a video, some resources, and some specimens linked to, and possible activities. There’s even - like, they have botanical illustrations in their database, as well, so there’s a unit on that. I think there’s a horticultural unit or an important crops unit...it’s been a little bit. But that was a really fun project to work with them and kinda design the units, especially because some of - a lot of the specimens in their database, I touched and actually photographed. Or actually, in that case, we scanned them for their project. But the scanners took like 4 minutes to run because they were such high-resolution images - it was very impressive [laughs]. So that was a really fun project.
SYNAPSE: What has been your favorite part of doing science communication and teaching it and going out to fairs and talking with people?
CLAIRE: [laughs] The first thing that comes to mind - honestly, one of the most rewarding things is I’ll...one of the ways I try to volunteer my time is doing presentations at Girl Scout conferences. A lot of - I’m in Massachusetts, so like Western Mass. and Eastern Mass., they’ll have STEM conferences for the local troops. Every once in a while, I’ve done some of them multiple years. And like, this past year, I went and a girl who had been in my seminar the previous year was like, “Oh, my God, I loved that workshop!” and that is - honestly, if a teenage girl or teenager, in general, tells me that I'm cool or they enjoyed what I did - I’m like, that’s the highest compliment you can possibly get. (SYNAPSE: [laughs])
But that's definitely the most rewarding or when I’m at festivals and like, talking to young people and telling them something that they think is cool. Because...especially, I feel like kids get a little more cynical at like 12 and up, so if you can get them to think something is cool, it's a win. So definitely like working face-to-face. I love working with adults, too, but it’s particularly rewarding with young people because maybe they get that spark of plant or pollinator appreciation, and it’ll keep growing and they’ll appreciate them more when they’re older.
SYNAPSE: Planting a seed, so to speak metaphorically… [laughs]
CLAIRE: Exactly! [laughs] I almost went there! [laughter]
SYNAPSE: Yeah, I hear that a lot from people doing science communication. I feel like maybe younger kids or younger people are more passionate about these kinds of things or -
CLAIRE: Yeah, they definitely have a little bit more wonder, too. Because especially for a lot younger kids, everything is new to them, so they just really are unabashedly excited about it.
Because even as a kid, I would sit in the yard and - just don't do this - I was probably like, 7. I would have this little net from a game that we had in my house, and I would put it over a bumble bee on a flower and watch the bumblebee inside the net, which it was fine, I let it go. But I got stung that way, so don’t let your kids do that. But it was just fascinating to sit there and watch the bumblebees, so kids - most grown-ups aren’t going to do that. You should! Bumblebees are super cool. But most adults aren’t going to do that, but kids will do that, just sit there and watch them for forever.
CLAIRE: Yeah, so my - I give the caveat, too, even though I consider myself a scientist, in my day job, I don't work in like a lab setting or in a hardcore science setting. I more work in administration. But in terms of working in science communication, I really just wanted - there's a lot of different ways you can advocate for whatever your marginalized community is, being a scientist, but I just wanted to kinda be visible in terms of - especially working with kids, to indicate that me, I happen to be a cis queer woman. Someone like me can be a scientist or whatever you look like, or whoever you are, there is going to be a - might have to fight for some of those places, unfortunately - but we want to make a place for you in science. And just like putting it in my profile, to me, felt kind of weird? But I was like hopefully, this will help people feel seen and let them know that they're like welcome in the community I'm creating about botany.
And then I also - so on top of all the science communication work, I sell like stickers and things like that to help fund things like domain costs and software and I'll sell them at events, and I’ll also hand out information at events. So I've been going to Pride events for a couple years now, which is always really fun, and I always joke that like the young queers are going to save the bees - (SYNAPSE: [laughs]) - because I'll be at these events, and I have most of my standard merch that’s just plant and bee related, and I also have bees with different pride flag colors on them. And I always get so many people who are like, “Oh my God, I love bees!” and then they try to apologize for being so enthusiastic (SYNAPSE: [laughs]) and I have to be like, “No! This is why - do you see the table of things I have made? I also love bees! So, in that regard, too, 1) the selling - it helps fund the work that I'm doing, but also I'm hopefully giving these people a way to like, express their pride and their interest in bees or science or whatever it might be. And then also, I’ll - if I’m able - I’ll give out native wildflower seeds including at pride events because, hey if you want to put some native wildflower seeds out, that'll help pollinators.
But just - especially working with kids wanting to like be visible, and it's always tough working in classrooms with kids. That's not something I’m specifically going to talk about? Just - I don't want to talk to a classroom of Girl Scouts about that and get in trouble. It doesn’t make any sense, (SYNAPSE: [laughs] Right...) it doesn't make any sense to, anyway. But just in terms of being visible as the way I look. I have short hair, I often wear like button-ups, I also wear dresses. But just - even just looking different I think can be used useful to kids or adults in understanding that you can look different than the white man in a lab coat and still be in the sciences.
So that said, I do a lot to try to encourage people to go to into the sciences but there's a lot of work that also needs to be done, too, kind of almost tying into what we talked about with the assumption of how much time you're going to put in and accessibility. A lot needs to be done to actually make being in the sciences sustainable for a lot of people. Being a woman in science is not easy. It’s hopefully getting easier, but it's not easy. So that said, there are plenty of girls who would want to go into science, and plenty of people of all genders who would want to go into it, but we want to make sure that we’re actually able to create an environment for them. And hopefully, the Brilliant Botany community - I’m doing that for them.
SYNAPSE: I think it's an interesting conversation about “how to be” queer in STEM because I know some folks are like, very involved in activism, and they're very involved in really being a prominent voice and advocate for inclusion and representation and visibility in STEM. And for a lot of folks, too, though, who don't directly work in research at the moment, it's kind of the little things, like you said.. like just being visible, being out there, kind of...normalizing I guess is the word (CLAIRE: Yeah! Absolutely. Mm-hmm.) I'm looking for. So people see it and they’re like, “Oh, this is - this is as normal as seeing whatever we’ve seen in society for the past so many years.”
CLAIRE: Yeah. Absolutely. And that’s definitely what I’m trying to do. Because there are people doing really great active advocacy work, and I know for me, I just try to do what’s sustainable and comfortable for me, too, and do whatever I can within the spaces I’m in.
SYNAPSE: I think that’s important, too, for young folks or people who might be new to the queer community - to realize, too, that you don't have to go 100% all out like super advocacy. If you want to, that's cool! (CLAIRE: (agreeing) Yeah.) But just being yourself and being open with some people, if it's safe for you and you're comfortable doing that, makes a huge difference. (CLAIRE: Absolutely.) I know it has for a lot of people that I've talked to in the queer community so…
SYNAPSE: Going forward, what are your future plans for both Brilliant Botany and any educational stuff that you might have coming up?
CLAIRE: I definitely - it's always my goal, even in my planner when I'm goal setting ,to try to make more videos. What's been the toughest for me - and I feel like we almost, I think we talked about this a little bit last time we chatted - but finding the time to do stuff like this. Especially when - in a context where I’m not really making a lot of money off of it, which is by no means why I'm doing it, but it means that I need to be devoting time to things where I am making money where I have my day job and a bunch of side hustles to pay the bills. So... but hopefully I’ll be able to devote more time to it and create more videos.
I actually am working on my Project for Awesome video right now, which needs to go up Friday. It's a annual charity drive run by John and Hank Green of the Vlogbrothers on YouTube, and it’s 2 full days of live streaming where they raise lots and lots of money. So the first half goes to - oh, I believe, so the first half of like the time and money raised, I believe goes to Partners in Health. And then the latter half, folks vote for the videos about charities in the Project for Awesome that they like, and then the money is split among the top probably 20 winners of that? So tons of creators, myself included, make videos about charities that they think deserve some money, and even if they're not allocated the money from the Project for Awesome, it still is a great way to like bring attention to them. So, this year I'm making one about the Xerces Society, which - they do conservation for insects and invertebrates. So that includes pollinators but also other types of invertebrates, and fortunately if you're working on things like habitat conservation, it benefits a lot of different species. So I often times try to do kind of - not niche because it is a large charity - but organizations that are doing work for nature and pollinators and things like that.
Yeah, so that’s the video I’m working on right now, but it’s been a little while just because it is time consuming. I'm sure as you know, working on like this podcast, you come home after a long day of whatever other work you have, and you’re like, “Oh, and I need to...do more work? (SYNAPSE: Yeah! [laughter]) Oh, okay.” So I enjoy doing it, it’s just a matter of finding the time. So. And once you get out of the rhythm, it’s like - it’s hard to get back into it, so… I still do like craft fairs and stuff regularly, because I do actually really enjoy selling the art that I do related to Brilliant Botany. That started because I needed - I use Squarespace, but all like the design and graphics that make sense for me to do, I do myself - so then at some point, I was like, “Oh, I can put these on stickers…” So I have a lot of fun doing events and selling those, so - and that actually does make me some amount of money, which is nice. So I continue doing that, and then I'll be at the Cambridge Science Festival next April in Cambridge, Mass. I’m usually there every year. So if you are in the area, you can come say hi. That’s a really awesome event for families - there’s some big organizations that do really cool, cool events.
So I think for now… continue on that path. I'm really happy in my day job, which is really wonderful. So I like having Brilliant Botany as a side hustle because I kinda get to call the shots, which is nice.
SYNAPSE: Yeah. If people are interested in getting started or involved in botany, are there any other resources that you would recommend for them or pieces of advice that you would give them?
CLAIRE: Ooh. The resources one is a good question. That one’s tough, because there isn’t a lot? That’s a question I get often - people ask about degree programs and things like that...email me if you want specific resources, I can't think of anything right now.
But in terms of tips, I often tell people just start trying to learn in your free time. One of the things I do love about botany is that plants are literally everywhere. Sure, you don't have like Venus fly traps (or maybe you do) growing in your backyard, really like unique plants, but all plants are really cool. You can learn to identify - even if you live in a very urban area, the plants that are growing there are still ones that you can learn to identify. And there's usually even just like, a wildflower guide from your local library is a great place to start: trying to read through and figure out how to use it. Local gardening groups are actually also a very good resource. They have a really good knowledge on identifying and just learning different plants, which is a really great way to start, and it’s always a good skill to be able to grow plants. So trying to learn in your free time - don’t feel like you need to get a degree or invest in something expensive just to get started.
SYNAPSE: Mm-hmm. I think that’s great advice, too, especially for folks who might not be in a situation, where they have as much access to higher education or things like that. That's why I think, for example like the educational resources that you put out, especially in botany, are so important, and I was amazed by how many resources were out there, how many things you can just - I mean these days, you can Google anything, but the fact that people like yourself actually curate things and take the parts of knowledge that they know and kind of distill it down into a digestible format...especially for free? It's amazing, it's golden, I'm so glad you do that.
CLAIRE: Oh, I’m glad! Yeah, the other thing actually I would say - the way I learn to identify a lot of plants is by collecting them. That said, there are laws about collecting. If you want to get into collecting, feel free. But a lot of like parks and things like that, you're allowed to collect there, and there are protected species. So try to be aware - like, there’s different orchid species in New England that you’re not supposed to touch.
And then the other caveat I just give because I’m a botanist: don’t eat anything unless you know exactly what it is. I feel - like, that's just something that comes up every once in a while - like, “Can I eat that?” I don’t know. Don’t - unless you have a specialist in edible plants, do not eat anything. It might look like a blackberry, it might not be a blackberry. So, [laughs] other tip!
SYNAPSE: Yeah! That's an important tip! Don't follow the geologist rule where it's like, “If you see a rock, you lick it.” If you see a plant, don't - don’t put it near you...
CLAIRE: I was just listening to SciShow Tangents, the podcast, and Hank Green was talking about he found something that he assumed was pine nuts and put it in his mouth. And I wanted to be like, “Hey!” (it probably, it might have been pine nuts) but don’t do that! [laughter]
If folks are interested in your work, where can they find you online?
CLAIRE: The best place to start is brilliantbotany.com. If you want to go straight to YouTube, that’s youtube.com/brilliantbotany and then I'm Brilliant Botany on all platforms. And if you have a question specifically for me, I love - if I don't know the answer I'll try to find it for you - my email is email@example.com.
SYNAPSE: Fantastic, and we'll have links to everything and more in the show notes for this episode on the website as well.
Thank you so much, Claire! This was a lot of fun!
CLAIRE: Thank you! Happy to do it! [laughs]
As always, you can find us chatting about interdisciplinary and intersectional science over on our Twitter @synapsepod. If you’d like to get in touch with us for comments, questions, or anything else, you can email the show at firstname.lastname@example.org. And if you like the podcast, you can help support it by giving the show a rating and a review on iTunes.
Thank you again for listening. I hope you enjoyed this episode, and until next time, have a wonderful rest of 2018! See you in the new year...
Music tracks used in this episode are attributed to Kevin MacLeod, which is licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0 creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/. The Synapse Science Podcast is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.