One Stem at a Time

In recent years traditional taxonomy has generally been seen as a declining discipline, while molecular sequencing and genetic analyses have increasingly become the standard approach to answering so many biological questions. But I think traditional taxonomy fulfils a pretty unique and valuable role in the biological sciences.

I spent a lot of time outdoors when I was growing up, interacting with nature and biodiversity. Over the course of my life I've just become increasingly fascinated with understanding biodiversity, and what makes species different from each other. That fascination has developed over a long period of time and is ultimately what brought me to the place where I'm at now, where I actually have an opportunity to really study and understand those aspects of biodiversity.

I start my day at the University of British Columbia Herbarium, accessing the plant collection that exists there. It's one of the largest collections of vascular plants in British Columbia, with approximately 250,000 specimens collected from around the world. These specimens are housed in cabinets within the museum and stored into perpetuity so that researchers like myself can access them and use them for research. As a taxonomic researcher I'm interested in assessing a variety of aspects of these plants, one of the most critical being the morphology (structure and shape) of them. To do that, I need to have access to real specimens that have been collected by botanists over the last 100 years.

In the research room, I can use high-powered microscopes to assess what are often very minute morphological details of the specimens. We use dissecting microscopes to assess these fine characteristics. The dissecting microscope allows me to observe things in three dimensions, so unlike a traditional slide microscope this allows me to assess the structure of hairs, and the shape of bracts and leaves. Often these very tiny and minute characteristics are the most important in separating very similar species.

One of the really important roles of the taxonomist is to help guide conservation efforts, by recognizing intrinsically valuable species. Traditional taxonomy provides a framework for the interpretation of biodiversity, and provides a common language that scientists and non-academics alike can discuss. That's why I think the best approach is for traditional taxonomy and modern techniques to work together hand-in-hand to more effectively answer the complex biological questions that we face.


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