|Brian Boom is Vice President for Botanical Science and the Pfizer Curator of Botany at the New York Botanical Garden. He is also an expert on the trees of the Bolivian rain forest. We asked him how he decided to become a botanist. "The way it evolved was a combination of luck and circumstance," he told us.
Brian's parents were historians, and as a young person, Brian felt pressure to choose a career that would satisfy their standards of being "legitimate and academic," as he put it. "But of course, like all kids who rebel against what their parents do, I knew there was no way I was going to be a historian and sit in a library all day." An avid camper and hiker, he looked for a way to earn a degree and make a living that would allow him to spend most of his time outdoors.
He was interested in everything that had to do with nature, and in the course of his childhood, adolescence, and college years, he worked his way through a range of living things. "I started off with insects and cycled through marine organisms. And one thing led to another. Then I got a job offer as a botanist, and I took it," he said.
It should come as no surprise that Brian loves fieldwork. He explained to us that botanists can work on their own or as part of a team. Sometimes the teams are interdisciplinary, including scientists working in areas as diverse as botany, entomology, herpetology, mammalogy, ornithology, and mycology. "Interdisciplinary teamwork can be tricky, though," Brian observed, "because different sciences have different needs." For example, botanists do most of their work during the day, whereas herpetologists often study their creatures at night. "Botanists are the smart ones," he boasted. "They're in their hammocks when the snakes come out."
As an administrator, Brian now spends much of his time--too much, he said--indoors. "When I was a full-time scientist, I would be away for half of every year," a pattern that he said was typical for scientists at the Botanical Garden. "I miss it," he admitted, but he added that even people who don't love the outdoors as much as he does can follow careers in natural science.
"Science happens everywhere, and there are many ways to cut the pie," he said. "Some people may not like the field, may not want to deal with the bugs and the damp and the harsh environmental conditions. Luckily, there is a ton of stuff to do in the lab." As an example, he described new techniques for doing DNA studies of plants, and he told us that so far at the New York Botanical Garden DNA has been obtained and studied from dried plant specimens collected as long ago as 1910.
He loves being a botanist, but he has kept his fascination with all of nature, entomology in particular. "You get to the point where you know so much about a particular subject--botany in my case--that it just makes most sense to go with it. But for me, there was no greater interest inherent in botany than in butterflies. It's just what I happened to specialize in." But it was perfect for him. "I found a happy marriage of rebelling against my parents and doing something interesting and adventurous."
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