Long-time Illinois Natural History Survey (INHS) scientist Paul Marcum recently answered a few questions about what it's like to be a botanist.
Tell us a little bit about your role at INHS.
I have worked with the INHS wetland science program for 20 years and for the last approximately eight years I have filled the role of assistant project leader for botany. In this role, I supervise most of the wetland science program botany staff, maintain and update our state plant list with associated data for use in projects, and assign and co-coordinate all projects (~120/year) with the assistant project leader for soils and the project principal investigator. Projects are conducted for the Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT). These range in size from very small wetland surveys associated with bridge repair or replacement to large wetland surveys that cover many miles of existing or new road corridor.
What drew you to study botany?
As an undergraduate, I had a broad focus and had interests in herpetology, entomology, geology, and of course botany. I took classes in all of these areas while working towards my B.S. degree in natural science. My undergraduate advisor, Dr. Robert Deal, was a very influential mentor and especially inspired me to continue with botany. He was very engaging and always had cool projects that undergraduates could participate in and learn. His passion was contagious and because of him I was motivated to continue on to graduate school where I investigated the hybrid origin of a Carex sedge while also working on numerous wetland projects with my advisor and fellow grad students.
What do you love about being a botanist and plant ecologist?
Studying native plants has provided numerous opportunities to work in unique and high-quality habitats. I have studied wetlands, prairies, and forests throughout Illinois, as well as in several other U.S. states. With approximately 3,500 plant species in Illinois, 20,000 in North America, and nearly 400,000 in the world, there is always more to learn. Even in a well-studied state like Illinois, conditions are always changing and opportunities for learning are endless.
Working at INHS—Illinois’ repository for biological information—has provided numerous opportunities. I especially love working with experts in all disciplines of biology and in an environment that promotes collaboration and learning.
What are some common misconceptions about your work?
Haha, I get this one all the time. It is often difficult to explain to people what I do as a botanist. Most people have a preconceived notion of botanists as gardeners or plant propagators, trying to create some new and beautiful ornamental plant for their yard. They are often disappointed to find out that I especially enjoy studying graminoid plants (grasses (Poaceae), sedges (Cyperaceae), and rushes (Juncaceae)), plants that have extremely reduced flowers. In fact, many people are surprised that they are flowering plants.
What’s it like doing this job in the middle of a pandemic?
Initially, the major obstacles were connecting and communicating with staff as well as computer and database access issues. Surprisingly though, everything has worked better than expected. Although the wetland science program is a large group at INHS with 19 full and part-time staff, most of the members have been in the group for several years and have the experience and knowledge to know exactly what they need to do. We certainly are not as efficient due to the safety measures in place, since we need to drive separately to sites but everyone is working harder than ever to complete our projects on time and with the same quality.
What advice would you give to those just starting out in your field?
If you have a passion for plants or whatever field you choose you will always be motivated and inspired to learn and grow in your field. Also, keep a childlike spirit and never stop getting excited about the little “discoveries”.