Wheaton College Norton, Massachusetts

Cole Larson-Whittaker

Cole Larson-Whittaker is interning this summer for the U.S. National Arboretum.

What is the National Arboretum?
The U.S. National Arboretum is a leader in developing and introducing new landscape species and hybrids to the public. Its Nursery and Floral Plants Research Unit collects plant materials for the National Plant Germplasm Repository Project, which was mandated by the U.S. Congress. The aim is to create a comprehensive collection and inventory of genetic material of all plant species. This genetic material, in the form of seeds, cuttings, and herbarium specimens, is collected by 20 satellite repositories and then sent to Fort Collins, Colorado, where they are stored at a special facility.

All plant species? That’s a lot of plants!
It is. The Botanic Gardens Conservation International estimates that there are around 400,000 species. In an age of genetically modified organisms, monocultures, high rates of plant disease, and invasive species being introduced, genetic variation is slowly disappearing. This, coupled with the threats of conflict and the fragility of the world’s food sources, make this project a huge investment in the future. Think of it as a genetics library for scientists.

What’s your role this summer?
I am spending the first part of the summer at the Beltsville (Maryland) Agricultural Research Center, aiding in woody landscape plant research by propagating and managing the collection. I am also shadowing the head curator to learn about the horticultural industry, horticultural maintenance, and research techniques.

And then?
Later in the summer I will embark on an extensive collecting trip throughout the Northeast, which will give me the opportunity to learn collection and fieldwork techniques in an active scientific research setting. I will also get to use the research I conducted last semester in my independent study, in which I tried to determine the locations most suitable for collecting the species Fraxinus nigra, commonly known as black ash.

Why black ash?
The naturally small population of F. nigra puts it especially at risk for potential extinction. The USDA is working to preempt and prevent the loss of genetic diversity in this species due to the spread of the emerald ash borer. This is a large green insect, originally from east Asia, that feeds on the conductive tissues of ash trees, resulting in massive canopy dieback and, ultimately, death. The USDA collects both genetic information and the exact location of specific populations of black ash in order to repopulate areas with the same genetic material after the population collapse. If the initiative is successful, this will be the first time that a plant blight and resulting loss of genetic material has been effectively reversed with anthropogenic aid [positive human intervention].