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Dr. Jennifer Richards likes to immerse herself in new and foreign worlds, exploring the unknown and experiencing the unexpected. So it’s no wonder she found herself dissecting the secret lives of plants.

Richards is a researcher in the Southeast Environmental Research Center and a professor in the Department of Biological Sciences. She studies the responses of plants to changes in their environments, including the consequences of climate change and of people altering natural ecosystems. She also looks at how specific plant species grow and reproduce and how to control them.  Her work is critical to informing how wetland restoration will affect wetland ecosystems over time.

As Richards explains it, plants are hard to wrap your head around unless you’ve taken a dive into their lives. They can indicate a thriving environment or a threatened one. They are alien lifeforms just waiting to be discovered and Richards is just the gal for the job.

Name: Jennifer Helen Richards

Home department: Department of Biological Sciences

How long have you been at FIU? In SERC? I joined FIU in 1982 and have been part of SERC since its beginning in 1993.

How would you describe yourself as a scientist? How do you identify your title and role? I am a botanist who is broadly experienced in many aspects of plant science, currently using remote sensing to map wetland vegetation.

How did you start working in this field? What’s your “origin story”? I actually started at Harvard University as an English major, but after taking a class on plant systematics (which provided me with many tools for understanding plants), I changed my major to biology. Little did I know, my entire career path would follow that thread, eventually leading me into the field of botany. After graduation, I worked at the Harvard Forest for a year, surrounded by the plants and nature that really fascinated me. Eventually, I went to the University of California, Berkeley, where I got my PhD in Botany. I ended up teaching at Wellesley College for a year and then got a job offer from FIU, so I came down to Florida for a tenure-track faculty position, specifically to teach plant tissue culture.

What got me into my current research was a former graduate student of mine who was working for the South Florida Water Management District in Everglades restoration. They had put him in charge of monitoring ‘whole ecosystem’ restoration (as opposed to regional projects), and he came to me and said, “we have vegetation maps generated from remotely sensed data [part of a national project to map vegetation across the country]. Can you look at this one of Florida and see what it tells us about Everglades vegetation?” I didn’t know anything about remote sensing, I just knew plants! But I went to the FIU GIS lab, where I began to collaborate with Daniel Gann, who does know about remote sensing, and we realized that the map had limitations with respect to Everglades restoration. I told my former student this, and he said “Well, can you do better?” So we tried, and that was the beginning of our work using remotely sensed data to map Everglades wetlands.

In a nutshell, what is your research about? Right now, I’m working in wetlands plant ecology on how plants respond to the hydrologic and nutrient challenges presented by Florida’s aquatic environments, as well as on south Florida landscape and community ecology. In my lab we have been using remote sensing techniques to map wetland vegetation in southern Florida.  We also are interested in the biology of invasive plant species with an emphasis on understanding vegetative and sexual reproduction in these species and how these processes affect invasiveness, with an eye to seeing how to better control these invaders.

What drew you to the field of botany? There’s a debate among botanists about whether you’re born a botanist or you eventually become one. For me it goes both ways in that I was taught how to look at plants through my coursework and research, but I was also very curious about exploring plants on my own. I had an experience when I was a kid wondering in the woods one day and found a plant that captured me with its beauty–I later learned that it was a species of Kalmia, which is a shrub in the blueberry family. This evergreen shrub was in glorious flower in early spring, surrounded by the dreary gray and cold of winter. That inspired my natural curiosity, but I wouldn’t be a botanist without all of the skills that taught me how to really see plants.

As a professor, I ask my students, “If you had to draw a five-legged dog walking down the road, what would you wonder about?” Where to put the extra leg, right? People have many different ideas for where that leg goes, but we can all conceptualize it in some way. If I ask you to draw  a ‘five-legged’ plant, most people wouldn’t even know where to start thinking about that, because we have no natural way to approach the question, since plants don’t have legs and people are much closer to understanding the structure of dogs than plants–plants are an alien lifeform for us. Now, as a teacher I give my students the knowledge to understand this question, so that they can be surprised when they find that five-legged plant! I want to provide my students with skills that they can use–sometimes that’s technical skills and sometimes it’s conceptual skills. It’s very important to give students the opportunity to go out and interact with plants, so when teaching, I give them a plant “treasure hunt”, where they go collect different examples of the amazing things that plants do (and they are doing them everywhere, if you know how to look).

What excites you most about your research? I love looking and working on the “alien and the invisible”. Plants that grow in wetlands are unique and interesting organisms that are much more “alien” than terrestrial plants. They also have the bonus that they are really important, impacting  how the earth works in globally important ways. I became really interested in them when I was trained as a plant morphologist, where I studied the structure of plants internally and externally. When you work with plants, you have to look at the things you can’t see, at the “invisible”, as well as what you can see. With remote sensing, there’s a concept from information science called the inverse problem – it’s when you have a huge amount of data about one thing but want data about another thing. So with remote sensing, you have to connect what you have with what you want–you get reflectance data captured by aerial or satellite sensors and transform it into the data you want (such as vegetation maps). That’s what excites me: exploring the unique and making visible the invisible!

How do you think this research impacts people or the planet in a broader sense? Plants are primary producers, so they are at the base of everything ecological. I realized early on that everything is interconnected, so you can approach the world from any area of biology or ecology and still see how it connects to seemingly unrelated topics, like business or health or culture. Plants are quiet and stationary,  and are sometimes overlooked, but they are really important, especially to humans. When I try to convince people that plants are important, I just emphasize that we eat them and that they produce the oxygen that we breathe (and take up carbon dioxide)–we couldn’t survive without them. They aren’t an unlimited resource, so if we get rid of the plants, we get rid of our food and oxygen, as well.  Imagine, if we paved over our planet, we would lose our food; but we would also decrease our overall happiness, which speaks to the aesthetic pleasures that plants also provide.

Tell me your most memorable experience working on in the field in south Florida. They are all memorable.  But for a unique one, I was once out in the Everglades with one of our technicians on an airboat, and it suddenly broke down.  But he was able to fix the problem with a gum wrapper that he had–that was quite an impressive and interesting experience!

I also had the opportunity to stay overnight in an Everglades freshwater marsh to do some sampling for a project. What I learned, of course, was that mosquitoes are creatures of the night, and that’s when an awful amount of mosquitoes come out! But I also saw that there is a lot of light pollution from the coastal cities–nighttime is not necessarily pitch dark, even in the middle of the Everglades.

What do you do when you’re not in the lab/field? I have always done some kind of exercise, like yoga, running, or swimming. I believe it’s really important to work out if you constantly go out into the field to work and do research. Lately, I have gotten into making chutney–my knowledge of botany and chemistry helps a lot with cooking!

Dr. Jennifer Richards is a faculty researcher in the Southeast Environmental Research Center (SERC), as well as a professor in the Department of Biological Science.