I’m a Scientist Now

Settling into the USA // Longwood Garden’s Research Department // Tissue Culture

So after recovering from food poisoning, I managed to feel well for about three days before getting a stinking cold, which made me feel rubbish for over a week! I was a very grumpy adventuring gardener. I don’t think that I’m allergic to the USA but, yes, I may be suffering mōchi withdrawal symptoms. However, despite feeling crappy for most of the time I’ve been here, I’ve managed to settle in, learn my way around a little and visit some gardens and tourist spots. I even managed a weekend in Philadelphia AND a last-minute day trip to Manhattan, after one of the other students had to cancel their plans and very kindly gave me their bus ticket. So, not all bad, not at all.

Whilst I’m working at Longwood, my time will be divided between three of the six horticultural departments. I chose to work in Research, Conservatory and Outdoor Display. My first rotation is in the Research Department, and it is not really like anything I’ve done before. I’ve been working there for a few weeks now, and I’ve sort of started to understand a few of the things they do (!), so I’ll try to tell you about it because it’s really fascinating, and quite alien to the ordinary life of a National Trust gardener.

Longwood’s Research Department has been around since the 1950s and its remit includes plant breeding, trialling plants, maintaining virus-free stock of significant plants, some conservation, some commercial production of Longwood-raised varieties, sourcing new and interesting plants, soil and compost research, generally coming up with solutions to anything that needs solving. I won’t go into any of this in detail- because I’d get it wrong-but there are some interesting case studies on their website if you’re interested.

So far I’ve done a lot of things, but I’ve predominantly been working with a research horticulturist named Alan, who is responsible for Canna and Clivia breeding, trialling plants, maintaining virus-free stock of a range of Chrysanthemums and Cannas– and lots of other things.

Whilst working with Alan, I’ve been assisting with various tasks including watering, virus testing, potting up, pest scouting with the IPM team, general cleaning and preparation work but the most exciting thing I’ve done is tissue culture! I’ve had the opportunity to work in the tissue culture lab a lot, doing division and transfers of CannaCineraria, Sarracenia and Chrysanthemums. This is Proper Science, people. I’ve been using scalpels, tweezers, test tubes, autoclaves, a tissue culture hood, a steriliser, all sorts. I even used a microscope and pipettes one day. Seriously, give me a badge: I’m a scientist.

For those that aren’t official scientists like me, tissue culture is the practice of growing plants in test tubes in agar which is enriched with nutrients and hormones, under specialised lighting. With this technique you can quickly grow a lot of plants from a very small amount of material, and you can also grow virus-free plants from material you’ve taken from a plant that is infected with virus. To do the latter, you have to extract the teeniest weeniest bit of meristematic tissue (these are the cells that do the growing in a plant, so they’re found inside buds, shoots, roots etc) from the parent plant, in which the cells are so new and multiplying so quickly that they haven’t had a chance to get infected yet; with a tiny amount of this tissue you can grow lots of new plants. It’s a lot like magic, except it’s Science. If you’ve got no idea what any of that means, or you want to find out more, here is the relevant wikipedia article.

I haven’t had the opportunity to do meristem isolations yet (that’s Friday’s lesson), but I have been working with the results: removing them from test tubes, cleaning them up, dividing them and putting them back into new test tubes. Of course all of this has to be completely sterile because if any bacteria or fungi get into the test tube, they’ll have a party in the lovely warm, moist, nutrient-rich environment and will outcompete the plant. So, you have to use specific techniques when handling the material and a lot of time is spent sterilising tools with heat, cleaning things with alcohol, sealing test tubes with special tape and everything has to be done in an air-flow hood, like you may have had in the science lab at school. If contamination happens, an intern or someone like me has to spend lots of time emptying out and cleaning disgusting, stinky, mouldy test tubes, so that’s not very good. Of course, I am convinced that every test tube I’ve worked with is completely contaminated and everything I’ve done will go mouldy- but I’ve done a few weeks worth and so far, things seem OK… :-/

Outside of the lab, I’ve spent some time with another research horticulturist named John, who is based in the main nursery and does research with hardy plants: trialling for hardiness, looking at new varieties, comparing different strains, breeding and maintaining significant stock material. He has only just started this job so I’ve been helping him to tidy up, plant things out and take an inventory of everything (BG BASE accession number fest: like being at RBGE all over again 🙂 ). I also was lucky enough to go with him and his boss, Peter, to look at a wild population of Cypripedium parviflora. Orchids in the woods! I loved it!

In general, the work environment is very different to that of the UK. I usually start work at 06.00 and finish at 14.30 (sometimes I get a lie in and work 07.00-15.30). There is only one break a day: lunch at 11.30-12.00. Of course you’re allowed to go and grab a drink/quick snack during the morning and I have taken to carrying water around with me. When it starts to get really hot*, I think I shall have to strap bottles of water all the way around my waist, and be the crazy sloshing water belt lady. In terms of other benefits, the staff get 25 ‘personal days’ a year: this is their annual leave and their sick pay combined. I’m told that the health insurance package and other benefits are very good, and this number of holiday hours is particularly good.  Once again, I thank the National Trust and my ancestral union members for my cushy life.

So far, it’s been a busy time here at Longwood. When I haven’t been feeling poorly, there are plenty of people to talk to (which is a big change!), lots of work, a wonderful library and a huge garden to wander around. Every Thursday we go on a trip to visit a garden or relevant horticultural site and of course there is lots of sightseeing to do. This weekend is Memorial Day weekend, so I’m going to go to Washington D.C. to see some… memorialising (?!). Next Sunday I’m heading to Miami for a week to attend the American Public Gardens Association conference. I’ll be presenting a poster there, so I’ve been busy trying to get that written. In fact, I should be doing it right now, so I shall sign off!

Oh, here are a few shots of Longwood, to balance all the test tubes…


* OK, so it’s already really hot by my standards, and I managed to burn my neck so badly that I got blisters :-< But, it isn’t hot yet.

2 thoughts on “I’m a Scientist Now

  1. Hi, love the blog. sad you had a lousy start but pleased that thinks have got better apart from the heat, hope they have made you aware of the nastys, and snake population when you are exploring the woods, enjoy yourself on the holidays and experience the American holidays , lookforward to you next blog. xxxx Joy


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