Botanists are scientists who study plants, which range from the teensy, tiniest of bacteria to the largest plant on the planet, the soaring sequoia (fun fact: it's the most common English word that contains all five vowels).
But we here at Shmoop HQ don't think that evaluating botanists only through the plants they study illustrates all the tons of professional opportunities. Botanists can study plant evolution and adaptation to the surrounding environments, the structure of plant cells, their DNA, or how they convert complex chemicals into simple ones, and vice versa. Botanists study all different types of plants, too—from bursting-heart to Mormon Tea (yes, these are honest-to-goodness real plant names). Gotta give botanists credit: It takes a lot to be obsessed with plants.
Most botanists are usually researchers, working either in the field or on a laboratory bench. Many researchers get their paychecks from universities or private research companies. And most of these hardworking scientists spend their days staring into the microscope or at the lab bench analyzing plant proteins—and don't expect to spend a lot of time traipsing among the daisies.
Research does have its benefits, like flexible hours. The 9-to-5 workday isn't so typical at research institutions (if you are a late-riser, pulling an 11 to 7 is doable as long as the work gets done). However, that flexibility runs both ways, so don't be surprised if you find yourself grinding away the hours on a weekend when facing crunch time on a project.
Most of the studies conducted at universities deal with basic science; botanists try to understand how processes work and develop ways to alter or control development. For example, scientists are able to grow entire plants from single cells in a Petri dish, controlling different aspects of their growth and development along the way. While much of this work can be done in animals, plants can be an appealing alternative. Some of their biological pathways are similar, and they are much easier to grow and manipulate. Also, you don't need to clean up the cage for a plant after it's "done its business.”
Most of the botany research in the private sector belongs to a subfield of botany, called plant biotechnology. The idea here is to use plant-derived chemicals to make new products like fuels, lotions, and pharmaceutical drugs.
Museums, greenhouses, and botanical gardens will also hire plant biologists to serve as experts in their respective endeavors. In museums, botanists may help develop an exhibit featuring hundreds of orchid types, while in botanical gardens and greenhouses they may offer advice about plant environment: temperature, humidity, and what plants can grow effectively near each other without getting jealous. While the majority of their day is spent at a desk, botanists who do these jobs can get dirt under their fingernails, too.
Other botanists work as consultants for biological supply companies, like paper and lumber suppliers, or conservation organizations. They offer tips and tricks to manage the product more effectively, or offer suggestions on how to manipulate an existing practice to be more ecological and plant-friendly. They also help educate the local community on how to sustain plant biodiversity. These botanists spend much of their workday in an office, except when they are giving a presentation to a corporation or to aspiring botanists at the local community center.
Some botanists use their talent in photography or technical writing to convey the beauty of various species to the general public. If the public can't see or hear about critical botany research or conservation issues, it's much more difficult for the public to react favorably and support the cause. If all else fails, at least those flower photos make a great coffee-table book.
The rapidly expanding field of botanical biotechnology appears to have a lot of employment opportunities for research biologists. This field is dedicated to using plant-based products or plant-derived processes to create other products: alternative fuel sources, better pharmaceutical products, or simply better food. Much of the plant biotechnology field is dedicated to the task of genetically modifying edible plants to ramp up their quality. Researchers alter and adapt plant DNA sequences to change their size and color of the plants. Some scientists are even interested in adding additional nutrients, like iron, into our produce to combat anemia. But the more tangible reasoning behind genetically engineered crops is increasing their yield. The world's population is soaring, and as it stands, many scientists believe the Earth lacks enough room to plant and harvest traditional crops to feed everyone. Genetically engineered plants are larger and more resistant to disease, giving farmers more flowers for their seed, if you will.
Of course, detractors of genetically altered food plants refer to these plants as "Frankenfood."
Plants and their botanical researchers have contributed significantly to loads of prescription drugs on the market today. Reserpine, a drug commonly used to treat high blood pressure, comes from the Indian snakeroot plant, native to India and other Southeast Asian nations. There are three types of tools that research botanists use on a regular basis: field, lab, and analytical equipment. Outside, botanists usually identify and collect plant samples. Magnifying glasses are helpful for identifying small plant characteristics (and burning any ant that starts eating your plant specimen). Because all parts of the plant are important—flower, stem, and roots—trowels become a botanist's best friend. Due to all the hazards in the botany field, namely sunburn, poison ivy rashes, and pine needles in the ears, insect repellent and a compass come in handy.
In addition to the newest in latex fashion, most botanists will use microscopes to visualize individual plant cells or, with biological stains, the location of certain proteins within the system itself. The more specialized equipment will depend on the type of research botanists are doing. For example, if a scientist is interested in cloning a particular protein, she will use special equipment that will identify its amino acid composition. In fact, much of the same equipment used in general biology labs will be employed by botanists.
Just as important as the research equipment are the analytical tools that these researchers use every day to understand and interpret their data. Data programming and molecular modeling are becoming much more common in botanical research, offering new ways to identify new research questions and predict plausible answers. Scientific literature is also critical for learning the basics, guiding new research projects, or getting the public interested and involved in the new plant conservation laws.
Botany is a career that will take a lot of effort and determination. There are bound to be stones on this path toward success, whether they come in the form of looming exams, poison ivy rash, or dissertations that won't write themselves. But what's the worthwhile tip to remember on the way to the tops of the trees? Even the largest sequoias started out as tiny seeds, and to this day, rely heavily on the roots they planted years and years ago.