From: Betsy Taylor, Associated Press
Published June 18, 2007 12:00 AM

Foreign-Born Students Coming To America To Study the Tropics

ST. LOUIS -- Hunched over her desk at the Missouri Botanical Garden, Cynthia Hong-Wa scrutinizes tropical plants found only in her homeland almost 9,600 miles (15,500 kilometers) away in Madagascar.


She collected 50 plant specimens from the African island, but it is here that she learns about them -- in a program where she compares her samples to others drawn from roughly 6 million dried plants preserved in an herbarium in St. Louis.


Hong-Wa uses a digital caliper and sometimes peers through a microscope to measure leaves, flowers and fruits from her samples, as she works to define differences between the plant species she focuses on, shrubs and small trees known as Leptolaena. They are not the prettiest plants around, but Hong-Wa says their beauty comes from their diversity.


Understanding the differences will help efforts to protect those that are endangered.


Scholars from more than 20 nations conduct research at the Whitney R. Harris World Ecology Center, which has an international reputation for its ecology and conservation research and educational programs. Based at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, the center draws on resources at the botanical garden and the St. Louis Zoo, both among the top institutions of their kind.


"We're from the tropics, but we come here to study the tropics," said Hong-Wa. "We come here to have a better understanding of what's going on there."


The tropical ecology center, tied to the university's biology department, has 50 Ph.D students and 80 in the master's program. Linking the garden and zoo to the university allowed the program to provide resources that many others did not have.


Students can use the botanical garden's herbarium, which looks something like the stacks in a library but smells faintly like a spice rack.


Peter Stevens, the Whitney center's director, turns a knob to open up an aisle between two rows of shelves, and the lights kick on overhead. On the shelves are pages upon pages of mounted plant specimens from all over the world, with information including their names, who identified them and the geographic coordinates for where they were collected.


The specimens, their pollen and seedlings can be studied. Researchers can determine how a plant's anatomy changed over time, what the whole plant looks like and where it grows.


The herbarium's plant stock comes from botanists who send in specimens stuck on acid-free paper and often wrapped in foreign-language newspapers to protect them during their travels.


Students draw from the latest scientific literature as well as rare books, like a 1735 copy of Swedish scientist Carl Linnaeus' Systema Naturae, a Latin text that Stevens handles gently. The book classifies organisms in a system that became the international standard.


The students also have opportunities to learn from researchers, assisting them with international work.


Patricia Parker, a professor in zoological studies, is studying three groups of pathogens, or disease-causing agents, on the Galapagos Islands located 625 miles (1,000 kilometers) off Ecuador's Pacific coast. The pathogens include one parasite that was having a detrimental affect on certain populations, like the Galapagos Hawk, particularly on smaller islands.


The Galapagos Islands are known for their unique plant and animal life. Darwin's observations of its finches inspired his theory of evolution.


While the Galapagos National Park already works to keep tourism from having a negative impact on the islands, the findings led researchers to recommend that tourism be further restricted on smaller islands there to avoid accidental introduction of new disease agents to particularly at-risk populations.


Source: Associated Press


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