A magazine for friends of the Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University.

Anatomy of a Botanist



There are around 100,000 specimens of plants, fungi, algae, and the like in the Brown University Herbarium. Most were collected more than a century ago. It’s a nice—and definitive—permanent record of what used to grow in Rhode Island: “Nobody can argue with it, because we have an actual plant,” says Timothy Whitfeld, PhD, a research assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and the herbarium’s collections manager. “But what we want now is a collection from the 21st century.” Whitfeld came to Brown in 2013 with that goal in mind. “The amazing thing is that for such a small state, it has a lot of diversity,” he says. “There’s about 1,700 species that grow here.”

To properly document Rhody flora, Whitfeld has to go town by town, habitat by habitat, at least twice a year, and collect everything he can. He’s added about 1,000 specimens to the herbarium so far. “It’s very hard to get everything,” he acknowledges. But it’s important to try: a comprehensive collection is a physical record of ecological change over time and space, indispensable for botanists but also climate scientists, who can track the spread of invasive species, earlier flowerings, and fluctuations in diversity and distribution. When Whitfeld has grant money, he can hire undergrads to help with this massive undertaking (“even in a small state, one person can’t cover the whole area”); otherwise he’s on his own. He has one thing in his favor, at least: “Plants don’t run away,” he says. “They won’t fly away.”


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