Interview with Nishanta Rajakaruna: Education & Career Guidance in Botany

Interview with Nishanta Rajakaruna: Education & Career Guidance in Botany

Nishanta ("Nishi") Rajakaruna was born in Sri Lanka and developed a love of plants and of the natural world at a young age, when he visited the Sinharaja Rainforest on a school trip.

Nishi decided to pursue his undergraduate studies at the College of the Atlantic, a small liberal arts college in Maine. He earned his BA in Human Ecology while studying botany. His studies took him back to the Sinharaja Rainforest to work as a field coordinator for the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute.

He went on to become a research assistant in plant biology at Harvard University's Harvard Forest. From 1995-2002, Nishi earned his MS and Ph.D. degrees at the University of British Columbia, researching the evolution of the Common Goldfield (Lasthenia californica). He went on to Stanford University as a Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (Canada) postdoctoral fellow to do research on the serpentine chaparral of California.

In the fall of 2004, Nishi came back to COA - this time as a member of the faculty. He teaches several botany courses there, and is looking forward to continuing his research on how extreme soil conditions affect the biodiversity of plant communities.

About Dr. Rajakaruna & His Career

Tell us about your career - how did you get to where you are today?

That's almost a 35 year old story! I'll try to stick to the last half of it because that's when botany started to become a huge part of my life. But I still want to give you a bit of background. I have always been interested in my surroundings; first it was the animals that caught my eye. I fell in love with animals at a very young age. I could not have picked a better place to grow up - I was born and raised in Sri Lanka, an island where there were simply too many animals for me to collect and learn about. I walked along streams to catch native fish, explored rice paddies to find turtles, spent long hours observing lizards and snakes, climbed trees to look at bird nests, all this even before I turned 10. I became interested in animal husbandry during these early years and tended quite a menagerie consisting of owls, snakes, rabbits, squirrels, lizards and birds. Then at the age of 13 I visited a rainforest. This is where I first caught the plant bug. I visited the Sinharaja rainforest in the southwestern part of Sri Lanka and fell in love with plants. This rainforest has such a diverse flora and fauna and is currently listed as a World Heritage Site. This is where I was infected with a passion for plants, an infection that has got the best of me so far. The last 20 years of my life have been controlled by my desire to learn more about plants -- I have gone wherever plants have taken me. I am not exaggerating if I tell you that my personal and professional life has been under the spell of plants for quite a while!

What made you decide to become a botanist?

My love for plants, my desire to learn more about them, and the realization that I really enjoy teaching others about the wonders of the plant world.

Who have been some of your biggest inspirations in life and in your career?

Many individuals at various stages of my life. First, it was my parents. They are both dedicated teachers. I have always admired them and their commitment to teaching others about what they love. Interestingly, they are both in the arts but I have to say that my love for teaching came from them. Also, they encouraged me to pursue my dreams. I didn't have to be a medical doctor, they wanted me to do what made me happy and I really appreciate this freedom I got while growing up.

Second, it was my environmental studies teacher who encouraged my interests in nature throughout my schooling in Sri Lanka. He was also the person who took me to the rainforest. He is no longer alive but was so thrilled to see me come to College of the Atlantic 15 years ago. He knew at the time this was the right path for me. I have no doubt he'd be thrilled to know I am here, now as a professor. As I mentioned before I fell in love with plants during this trip to the rainforest. How could I have not? All those tall trees you just can't climb, carnivorous pitcher plants with half-digested insects, tree ferns like those you would expect to see during the times of the dinosaurs, lianas like the ones that Tarzan used to swing from tree to tree, colorful orchids with unbelievable form and structure, soggy mosses waiting to suck up more rain, and many other types of plants - this diversity I observed was so overwhelming that I started to realize that there is a whole new and mysterious world for me to discover.

Third, it was my late supervisor, Dr. Craig Greene, who was my academic advisor at College of the Atlantic. Craig was a botanist and an excellent one at that. He was just what I was looking for - he added fuel to my already burning desire to explore the plant world. I took all the botany courses Craig and my other advisor, Dr. Suzanne Morse, an equally inspiring botanist, had to offer. I wanted more and that quest for more knowledge took me to other schools and other botanically interesting places.

During my adventures many people have come to my life making significant impacts on my way of thinking, in my approaches to research and teaching, and in the way I look at the plants and their neighbors.

What are some of your favorite projects that you've worked on, and why?

I can get excited about almost anything to do with botany so it is hard to pick just a few; I have had many exciting opportunities as an undergraduate at COA and during graduate school at The University of British Columbia. The first project that I became so fascinated with had nothing to do with botany. It was really the first experiment of my life; something that made me realize that there was a scientist in me. I observed a lizard lay eggs and then followed the eggs through the entire incubation period (several months) making careful records of my observations at every stage. Once the baby lizards came out I took care of them for several weeks, including feeding them appropriate insects, prior to releasing them into the wild. I wrote a little report on my observations that was published in several newspapers and journals in Sri Lanka, I don't think I was much older than 12 at the time.

All experiences I have had from working as an intern at Harvard Forest in Massachusetts to working as a field coordinator for the Center for Tropical Forest Science, Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute to conducting my own graduate research on trying to understand the role unusual and often extreme soil conditions play in plant evolution (click here) have reinforced that love for science I developed at a young age, my subsequent fascination with the plant world, and my desire to always share my knowledge with others.

What are some of your personal and/or professional goals for the future?

I love teaching and want to continue to get students excited about plants. There is so much to know about plants we have already "discovered" and so many plants yet to be "discovered" in many places of the world - I want to continue to explore the world with my students. I also want to be able to continue my research on plant evolution. As a first-year professor, finding the right balance between teaching and research is a challenge but a challenge I know I will meet.

About Botany

What do botanists typically do?

Botanists explore the plant world just like zoologists study the animal world. There are over 250,000 species of flowering plants. Add several thousands of more species to that from other groups of plants like the gymnosperms (e.g., cone-bearing plants like the pines), ferns, club mosses, horsetails, mosses, and liverworts. You are dealing with lots of diversity of form and function. There is still so much to learn from this diversity.

There are different kinds of botanists out there. For example, taxonomists put names to plants, systematists explore evolutionary relationships among plants, plant evolutionary biologists explore the process of diversification in plants, phytogeographers try to explain plant distributions in space and time, physiologists study plant function, plant biotechnologists may work on genetic engineering, phytochemists study plant chemicals, plant pathologists study plant disease, and ethnobotanists study the various roles of plants in human societies. Then there are horticulturalists, greenhouse botanists, park botanists, professional plant collectors and so many others who make a living out of working with plants they come to love. So botany is a colorful and attractive field with many opportunities to pursue depending on your interests. Beware, once the "plant bug" has bitten you there is no turning back!

You have studied and participated in research projects all over the world. In the end, what made you decide to teach, and why did you go back to your alma mater?

Fate? I am still surprised by the fact I was able to return to my alma mater. Given COA is a small school jobs do not necessarily come by often. My undergraduate advisor, Dr. Craig Greene, passed on in 2003, the job was advertised in 2004 just as I was applying for jobs. I was called for an interview and the job was offered. I am not at all surprised by the fact I decided to pick teaching as a career but by the fact that after going all around the world I ended up at the same school where I first started my journey through North America. I loved my time here as an undergraduate and am definitely enjoying my time here as a teacher. The same freedom and independence I admired as a student is what I appreciate now as a teacher. COA is a very special place and I am glad I have the opportunity to learn how to become an effective teacher at a place like this. I want to be able to convey my passion for plants to my students and hope they go out there and do great things with the knowledge and experiences they have acquired during their time here. COA opened the world to me and I want to give the kinds of opportunities I had here as a student to my students and hope they too will be able to build on that foundation and go far with their dreams.

How do botanists use computers in their work?

Computers are widely used in our field. Like in any other field we use computers for basic data entry, database management, and data analysis. Computer programs are widely used in the field of plant systematics where genetic information is used to reconstruct evolutionary histories. Geneticists use computers for their research on examining and analyzing gene sequences from many species of plants. Every sub-field in botany, from morphology to physiology to genetics has incorporated computers to better conduct their research. Geographic Information Systems and other kinds of computer programs are widely used to map vegetation and predict future dynamics of vegetation and their habitats. Computers are extremely useful.

Why is botany important today? What would you like people to know about the field?

Without plants you are nowhere! Plants create the oxygen we breathe, provide us with food, beverages, medicine, clothing, products for shelter, even dyes to color our clothing. All life depends on plants. Imagine a tree that acts as host to so many insects, birds and others animals while providing a home in its root system to hundreds or perhaps more species of microbes. All other biota depends on plant life. This is why I think we should pay closer attention to plants.

Education In The Field: What To Expect

Please tell us about your education.

I had my entire secondary education in Sri Lanka, a little island off the coast of India. I entered the university in Sri Lanka in 1989 hoping to study botany but civil war and political unrest made me leave the country to seek a more stable education in the United States. Of course being an islander I had to come to another island, so I ended up at Mount Desert Island in Maine in August 1990 to attend a small school of human ecology called College of the Atlantic (COA).

After I graduated from COA I worked in a plant ecology lab at Harvard University for a year and then entered the Department of Botany at the University of British Columbia to do a M.Sc. in botany with Dr. Bruce Bohm. I worked on a beautiful little plant called the common goldfield, an endemic of the Californian Floristic Province. Upon completion, I wanted more - so I did the next possible degree, a Ph.D., also at UBC. I used the common goldfield to examine the process of speciation in plants and worked under the supervision of Dr. Jeannette Whitton. My research represents one of the better documented cases of parallel speciation in flowering plants (click here to see Dr. Rajakaruna's publication list).

After finishing my Ph.D., I was fortunate enough to be awarded a post-doctoral fellowship for two years by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada to go anywhere in the world to do research in botany. But the choice was not that difficult - I had already fallen in love with the plants of California. So I joined Dr. David Ackerly's lab at Stanford University* to investigate how plant communities come together on soils formed by the weathering of an unusual rock called serpentine. Serpentine rocks are found in many places in California and along other continental margins of the world where there is tectonic activity. After 1.5 years of post-doctoral research I applied to fill the position of botanist at COA, a position left behind way too early by the death of my former undergraduate advisor Dr. Craig Greene. I am here now teaching botany in the same classroom I took my very first botany class, occupying Craig's office where I had my first advisee meeting 15 years ago. Unbelievable turn of events to say the least!

*(Dr. Ackerly is currently at The University of California, Berkeley)

What factors do you think prospective students should consider when picking a school?

There are so many schools out there with many good programs. It's a hard call. I guess financial aspects and proximity to home are important to think about but it is critical you find a program that really suits your interests. I chose COA 15 years ago because I wanted to go to a school that focused on the environment; I was attracted to the idea of living on an island; I needed a full scholarship; and I wanted to be at a school where I was not just another individual. Class size was important, too.

I also think students should make every effort to visit the schools they are interested in, meet other students, faculty, sit in classes, visit the town you are going to live - these are all important parts of the equation in making this key decision. It is one thing seeing a school on paper or the web, and quite another to visit.

What are some of the different things a student should consider when picking a grad school versus an undergrad program?

Two different things for sure. When you are applying to graduate school your goal is to find a person who is doing work that really interests you, ideas that make you tick. During graduate school you do independent research. A supervisory committee, including a primary supervisor, will assist you in designing and conducting your research. Your committee is there for guidance and direction, you do the work. If you are considering graduate school right after your undergraduate degree, I recommend looking at research papers and attending conferences in your area of interest at least by your junior year of college. In this way you give yourself enough time to find interesting topics and meet people who are doing interesting work. Meeting someone before applying to grad school really helps mainly because in most graduate schools you end up getting admitted to work with a particular group. If they know you and like you your chances of getting admitted are high. Paying a visit also helps. In this way you meet your potential supervisors, their students and other members of the research group. This helps everyone decide whether it is a good match for you and for them -- after all, if you decide to do a Ph.D. you are in there for about 6 years of your life.

If you are one of those students who know you want to continue with your studies, start early; it will help you in preparing for graduate record exams, applying for fellowships and assistantships and looking for other sources of funding to help you during graduate school.

You earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in Human Ecology. Tell us a little more about this field. What does it have to do with botany?

Human ecology to me is the study of humans and their habitats. It is by definition a broad field but an important one; it makes you look at nature and our role in it from many different angles.

As a botany professor I teach a range of courses, including edible botany, field botany, plant taxonomy, plant evolution, biogeography, and even a course looking at heavy metal tolerant plants that may help clean up contaminated sites found all over the world. Learning and teaching take on a whole different meaning when you are interacting with a bunch of human ecologists - whether it is in botany, marine biology or environmental law.

Jobs In The Field: What To Expect

You studied and/or conducted research at Harvard University, the University of British Columbia, and Stanford University. Do you think that working with these sorts of prestigious institutions helps when looking for a job later?

Yes and No. I have to admit that names do count but when you are thinking about graduate school it is ultimately the research you do that will take you places. Of course bigger, more prestigious universities may attract top quality researchers, have better infrastructure and research facilities but this is not always the case. You may be able to do excellent work at a lesser-known university and still be able to get the job you want.

Do you think that botany students should pursue internships? Where should they look?

Internships, independent research, senior projects are essential and should be encouraged in every undergraduate institute. I would even take it a step further and say internships should be a requirement. At COA you can't graduate without doing an internship and a senior project and that is a very good thing.

For me, the internship I did at Harvard Forest during my sophomore year was one of the most influential experiences I had as an undergraduate. It made me realize that research is something I am excited about and that a career in research and teaching is something to think about pursuing. During my senior year I did another internship with the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute and worked as an assistant field coordinator in a vegetation survey project in the Sinharaja rainforest in Sri Lanka. Again, this experience reinforced my interests in botanical research.

I think every student should consider doing one or more internships during their undergraduate career. In this way, you not only get to put into practice what you are learning in school but also get a flavor of what it is like to pursue a career in your field of interest. You may also meet your potential employer this way. I first met Dr. David Ackerly during my first internship when David was a graduate student working at Harvard Forest. Thirteen years later I joined his lab at Stanford University to work as a post-doctoral researcher. Start looking for internships, there are lots out there. Do web searches, talk to your professors, visit your career placement/internship office, attend job fairs. If you are thinking about summer work, start looking early spring latest, don't wait till the last moment.

If you are a botany student contact botanical gardens, arboreta, research institutions like the Smithsonian, botany department at your university or other universities, the National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management, and the Forest Service. Ask your professor whether he or she is looking for help during the summer or whether they know anyone else who may be looking for a research assistant. I love working with my students on their internship searches. This summer my students have secured some really exciting internship opportunities. There are lots of opportunities out there, keep your ears and eyes open always. I can't stress enough how important an internship is during your undergraduate career.

What kinds of jobs can botany students with a Bachelor's degree get? How about those with a Master's or PhD?

With a bachelor's degree in botany one option is to further your education in the field and apply to graduate school for a Master's or Ph.D. However, there are other options. Students with bachelor's degrees can get research jobs in the industry or at botany or plant-related departments at academic institutions. If you have a plant biotechnology-related degree there are lots of opportunities in the industry. If you are a horticultural student you can get jobs in the greenhouse and landscaping industry. If you are a taxonomist you may get a job at a botanical garden or a herbarium. If you have a plant pathology degree you can get a job in a research institute looking at plant disease. With a bachelor's in botany you could even go into education and teach biology/botany at high school. There are many opportunities depending on your focus.

Obviously, if you have a Master's you do increase your chances of getting a higher paid and perhaps a more interesting job in the field. This will also allow you to teach at the community college level. If you do a Ph.D. you can teach at the university level, start your own research program, and get students to come do graduate research with you. You become pretty much an authority in your little area of study and you can spend a lifetime working on your research and teaching people about plants.

Do you have any advice for botany students who are starting to look for a job?

Start early and don't be afraid to talk and write to people doing work that interests you. Make sure you get your professor or career services officer to look at your cover letter, resume, and statement of intent before you mail it off. Revision is the key; you can never get these documents written in one sitting. You want to make your prospective employer see your potential and realize you are an interesting person to get to know, so work on your application materials carefully. If there are conferences on campus or nearby cities in your field of interest, find time to attend them -- sometimes there is even funding to attend. You never know what you will hear and who you will meet.

Industry Trends

What topics are emerging as hot issues in the field?

Some examples:

  • Phytoremediation (i.e. the use of plants to clean up contaminated soils) and phytomining (using plants to mine heavy metals - the plants take up heavy metals in their tissues and are harvested for the metals)
  • Genetics of adaptation and reproductive isolation (i.e. examining the genetic basis for the evolution of new species)
  • Pharmaceutical properties of plants
  • Plant-insect/microbe interactions
  • Physiology (research on plant function)
  • Biodiversity conservation and habitat restoration/reclamation

Overall, there is a greater appreciation for inter-disciplinary approaches to research whatever your specific area of research may be. Due to increased collaboration among experts from different fields and better use of technology I think many topics in botany have the potential to emerge as hot issues in the coming years.

Is there a specific area within botany that students should focus their energies on in order to be competitive in tomorrow's marketplace?

Experiences in plant molecular biology and genetics will help you get jobs in the industry and in academic institutions. There is much interest these days in biotechnology-related fields so coursework and hands-on experiences in these areas are valuable. This is not to say that other areas of botany are not competitive in the marketplace. Plant taxonomy is somewhat of a dying field but soon we will realize that there aren't too many people qualified to put names to plants, work in herbaria and botanic gardens, and even go on plant explorations. The field of plant evolution has seen some rapid advances in the last decade and there are currently many research programs dedicated to studying evolution. The fields of conservation and habitat restoration are other areas where there will be a need in the future.

What are some of the big challenges within the field of botany that need to be addressed?

Natural habitats that harbor plants are disappearing all around the world. The rapid loss of habitats and plant diversity is a concern and one of our biggest challenges will be to learn how best to preserve these habitats and their plants while we go on with our lives. Most of our medicines have come from plants. We are still looking for cures for many diseases and health conditions. Who is to say that there may not be a plant with a compound that may help develop a drug that will help cure one of those diseases? Botanic gardens and arboreta are becoming as important for the future of plants as zoological gardens have been for the conservation of animals. Different kinds of botanists will also have to collaborate and appreciate each others fields of research. Our understanding of botany and the kinds of approaches we can take to our own areas of research will greatly benefit from such collaborations.

Closing Remarks

Is there anything else you can tell us about yourself, your career, or the profession that would be interesting or helpful to others aspiring to enter and succeed in botany?

We all have dreams. Never underestimate your potential, believe in yourself. Believe in your dreams. You can always get to where you want if you hold on to those dreams. Appreciate every opportunity that comes your way, whether it is a course or an internship or a summer job. You never know how these experiences will come to influence you in your future. They all do in some way or another.

Botany is an exciting field to pursue. Plants are amazing -- they are stuck in one place, having to deal with so many stresses that animals can simply avoid by moving a few feet away. Plants have to come up with innovative ways to deal with their unpredictable environments. This fascinates me. There is so much diversity out there; plants have been around for way longer than animals. There are thousands and thousands of species of plants showing an amazing diversity in both form and function. How did this all come about? What factors and mechanisms were likely responsible for intriguing patterns of plant distributions in both space and in time? Why do some plants take up toxic levels of heavy metals into their leaf tissue? Questions are endless; all you need is a curiosity, an imagination and a desire to explore the unknown.

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