Chocolate, coffee, rice, wheat, corn, eucalyptus, aloe vera, wood, cotton and oxygen. Where would we be without plants? At a time when native plant species are increasingly endangered around the world, so, it seems, is the plant scientist. Not enough botanists or plant conservationists are being trained to address the growing national and international threats to biodiversity and impending global mass extinctions.
In response to this critical shortage, Northwestern and the Chicago Botanic Garden are joining forces to offer the nation’s first master of science degree in plant biology and conservation — a unique interdisciplinary program designed to educate the next generation of plant scientists. This is the first major collaboration between the two institutions.
“This is a wonderful new marriage of intellectual interests, culminating in an important new graduate program that neither institution could offer alone,” said Jon E. Levine, professor of neurobiology and physiology at Northwestern and director of the program in biological sciences. “We are experiencing major environmental changes — loss of habitat and biodiversity, extinction of species, global climactic change — and these shifts are having a major impact on human life and the science of our globe. By teaching new scientists to apply human reason and science to these large and complex problems, we are looking to the future.”
From the Eastern prairie white fringed orchid of the Midwest to the Aloe rauhii of Madagascar, thousands of the Earth’s plants are in peril. According to a 1997 World Conservation Union report, 34,000 species, or 12.5 percent, are facing extinction. The United States’ flora is the fourth most endangered in the world; 4,669 species, or 29 percent of the country’s plants, are in danger of becoming extinct. Here in Illinois, more than 300 species of native plants are listed as threatened or endangered.
The primary causes of species extinction or endangerment are habitat destruction, commercial exploitation (such as plant collecting), damage caused by non-native plants and animals introduced into an area, and pollution. Direct habitat destruction threatens the most species.
To stem the loss of biodiversity and its harm to ecosystems, threatened and endangered plants must be located and safeguarded, their reproductive biology must be understood, and they must be propagated and reintroduced to native habitats that will sustain them into the future. This requires qualified and committed botanists and plant conservationists.
“In light of the colossal environmental changes taking place across the globe, this dynamic partnership between the Chicago Botanic Garden and Northwestern University seeks to create an educational springboard for tomorrow’s leaders in plant conservation and biodiversity research,” said David Lentz, vice president of scientific affairs at the Chicago Botanic Garden. “This new program is urgently needed to produce conservation biologists who will help anticipate and prevent the potential loss of plant species and the valuable genetic and chemical information they contain.”
Students in the Northwestern University/Chicago Botanic Garden program will study populations of endangered plants — their genetics, the environmental changes to their habitats and their potential for reintroduction. They will learn how to use the Code of Botanical Nomenclature and define plant populations; acquire an understanding of the complexity and interactions of the many organisms that make up plant communities and ecosystems; develop a working knowledge of nucleic acid and chromosome structure; and master recombinant DNA technology and gene cloning.
Upon graduation, the plants scientists will go on to work in the nation’s botanical gardens, for the government and non-government organizations, as teachers in high schools or junior colleges or as students in doctoral programs, leading efforts to learn more about plants, save plant species from extinction and increase public awareness.
Applications are being accepted for the first class, entering in fall 2005. The master’s degree — five core courses, four electives, independent research and a thesis — can be finished in four or five quarters. Molecular biology, biostatistics and plant science will be at the curriculum’s core; the independent research component will provide students with opportunities to work on “real world” conservation and botanical problems. Classes will meet at Northwestern and the Chicago Botanic Garden and be taught by faculty from biology, environmental studies, anthropology, archaeology, engineering and economics.
“The master’s program is part of a bigger effort to build synergy between Northwestern and the Chicago Botanic Garden,” said Levine. “Our undergraduate science students also will benefit from access to new classes and independent research projects conducted under faculty at the Garden. This is an exciting opportunity for them as well.”
For more information on the master’s program, call (847) 491-4031 or go to http://www.wcas.northwestern.edu/biosci/graduate/.