microMORPH Summer Course 2015: How I Learned Plant and Wood Anatomy (and how you can too!)

Forget Willy Wonka, I felt that I won the golden ticket when I was accepted into the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University and microMORPH’s summer short course on plant anatomy with a focus on woody plants. This two-week intensive program brought together 11 graduate students from fields such as paleobotany, evolutionary developmental (evo-devo) biology, dendrochronology, physics, and forestry to be taught plant and wood anatomy by leading researchers in both fields. The course took place in the Weld Hill Research Building of the Arnold Arboretum in Boston, Massachusetts. Did I mention that program covered all our costs including airfare, lodging, and meals during the week? This post gives a general overview  of the short course, why it was important to this archaeologist, and microMORPH opportunities for you. 

About the Short Course

The short course was put on by the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University and microMORPH (Microevolutionary Molecular and Organismic Research in Plant History), which is a National Science Foundation (NSF) sponsored Research Coordination Network (RCN). Yes, that’s a lot of acronyms, but it basically means that a research cooperative (microMORPH) got money from an organization (NSF) with specific funding goals (RCN). microMORPH supports a range of activities, which can be found here, including organizing educational courses. In the past, they ran courses on plant morphology and this past summer they introduced a new course centered around plant anatomy with a focus on woody plants.

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For two weeks we learned about plant anatomy from about 9am to 8pm through lectures, microscopy, and exploring various parts of the Arnold Arboretum. For the first week we focused on learning about the anatomical structures of plants, e.g. parenchyma, xylem, phloem, etc., and how they functioned. The second week was a bit more intensive as we had about four lectures a day on wood anatomical characteristics such as mechanical tissues (e.g. fibers), hydraulic features (e.g. vessels), cambial growth, etc. For both weeks, we spent most of the afternoon in the lab observing the structures and characteristics we learned about that day. The microscopy facilities at the Arnold Arboretum are truly amazing and their teaching laboratory has some of the nicest microscopes I have ever used. We were able to take unlimited photographs and we had a fun slideshow at the end of the course with our best photos. Below are some of the images I took:

Lab2_Nathan_Sedum leaf epidermis stomata and subsidiary cells annotated_40x
Sedum leaf epidermis with stomata and subsidiary cells
Lab8_Nathan_Akania F14 F19 scalariform reticulate perfomation plate unannotated_10x
Akania perforation plate with scalariform and reticulate features
Lab5_Nathan_Pinus needle leaf annotated_10x
Pinus needle with key features labeled

Another great part of the course was that we got to explore the Arboretum on almost a daily basis. The Arnold Arboretum is a living collection of trees, mainly from North America and eastern Asia. The Arboretum maintains an extensive record on all trees in the collection, conducts and supports research on topics like ecology, plant pathology, biodiversity, etc., and consistently engages in public outreach and education. The collection is beautiful to walk through and meticulously maintained; however, my favorite part of the Arboretum is that it is free to access. Many botanic gardens, arboretums, and plant collections require visitors to pay a fee in order to enter and such fees are usually necessary to support the running and maintenance of those facilities. One result of fee-based entry system is that impacts who enters a space and how a space is used. Since the Arnold Arboretum is free, the socio-economic requirement of entry is lifted. Furthermore, I saw that visitors were not just entering to observe the trees, but they were engaging with area in a diversity of ways. It was fascinating to see how this space was integrated into the daily lives of community members, in that people were going for a run, walking their dogs, and taking their kids for a walk. All of these seemingly routinized activities were able to repeatedly occur in this space because all were welcome in without having to pay. While this model is probably not viable everywhere, it was amazing to see a space where cutting-edge research and broad public engagement were happening side-by-side.

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Why the Course was Important

Within archaeology, one of the fields I specialize in is archaeobotany, which is the study of ancient plants. Within archaeobotany, I focus on anthracology, which is the study of wood charcoal based on wood anatomy. Unfortunately, a course on wood anatomy is not offered at most universities and plant anatomy courses can also be difficult to find; however, this is content we definitely need to learn. My colleagues in the course were facing the same issue. Though they were studying completely different topics like North American monsoons, tree mechanics, Miocene and Eocene paleobotany, evolutionary developmental biology, etc., we all needed a firmer understanding of plant and wood anatomy for our respective research projects and career goals. This two-week course was our answer! We all talked about how excited we were to find out about the course and that we were extremely grateful to get accepted in the program.

The course enabled us to learn plant and wood anatomy from leading experts in both fields, while building a great network. We were taught plant anatomy by Ned Friedman, the director of the Arnold Arboretum and Arnold Professor of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University, and Pam Diggle, Professor and Associate Department Head of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Connecticut and current Editor-in-Chief of the American Journal of Botany. In addition to being leading researchers, they were excellent teachers. They were able to break down concepts that would have been far too difficult to master by self-study in a reasonable amount of time. We were taught wood anatomy by the people who wrote the book on it! Well, they had help, but Elizabeth Wheeler, Pieter Baas, and Peter Gasson were main editors of the IAWA List of Microscopic Features for Hardwood Identification. The course also introduced me to ten passionate, creative graduate students. I really appreciated getting to know all of them as they do fascinating research. Two of them are fellow bloggers so be sure to check out Trevis’ blog on dendrochronology (tree rings) and the North American monsoon here and Sarah’s blog on Blue Rim paleobotany here. Finally, special thanks goes out to our amazing logistical organizers, Becky Povilus (TA, grillmeister, and Nymphea sp. researcher) and Jessica Gard (Faculty Assistant and cake connoisseur), and our driver, Andrew Brown (Director of Operations at Putney Transportation aka Mr. Frizzle). We all got to know each other quite well after two weeks together.

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Photo Credit: H.Suárez

Want to be a microMORPHer?

I would highly recommend checking out microMORPH if you need in-depth knowledge about plants. Their summer course offerings can change, so make sure to check their site for the latest information. Also, participation is NOT limited to US students or citizens. I met great graduate student researchers from Germany, Colombia, and the UK. The program also offers cross-disciplinary grants and workshops for undergraduates, graduate students, post-docs, and assistant professors.  Be sure to check it out and feel free to contact me if you want to know more about my experience!

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Smiti Nathan

I’m an archaeologist that travels around the world for both work and pleasure. I have a penchant for exploring ancient and modern places and the people, plants, and foods entangled in them. I write about archaeology, travel, and productivity.

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