“Read this and call me in the morning”

-Darryl Herron, Tree Doctor

The forest floor may not always seem as impressive as the giant trees that congregate around it but it is probably one of the more interesting places you’re likely to come across. During certain times of the year, if you’re lucky, have patience, and timed your visit after some rain, you will see a once plain forest floor come to life with wonderful colours and weird shapes, like the glowing pale green cap of Mycena chlorophos; the bird’s nest fungus, Cyathus novaezelandiae (yes, resembles a bird’s nest with eggs); and the characteristic creamy star-shaped earthstar, Geastrum triplex. My friends call me a tree doctor, and that’s what I am, sort of…

 

Side note: Before mycology was a recognized field, fungi were thought of as plants and were even grouped with them. The first scientists studying fungi were really botanists; so if we were living in 17th century, my friends would have been right.

I’m actually many things. I am a microbiologist by training; that is my broad field of study. The core focus of my PhD is on a fungus, which also makes me a mycologist (I study fungi). The fungus I work on kills pine trees and is a huge problem for the forestry industry, globally. Because I study a tree disease and work, part-time, in a plant clinic which diagnoses tree health issues, it also makes me a forest pathologist. I could call myself any one of these (and more) but I have adopted the title tree doctor. Like human doctors need to know about human physiology, the diseases which affect them and the medicines to remedy them, I need to understand that about plants.

Herron_Eucalyptus_2
A tree doctor in action

Tree doctors are as awesome as — no, wait — are more awesome than medical doctors because a tree doctor has (or will have, in my case) the title “Dr” without having to worry about medical malpractice. We face a tougher challenge, however: tree doctors, like veterinarians, work with “patients” that cannot tell you what is wrong and the medical research for plants is far behind anything we have for humans and other animals. I essentially treat plants in the medical Stone Age! Yes, there are high mortality rates.

The knowledge gap is wide and that makes my job both interesting and disappointing. A few weeks ago I was called out to give some advice on a beautiful 100-year oak tree that was dying. The owner— having grown up with this tree, like her father before her—was willing to do anything to save this tree. Unfortunately, this oak was suffering with a root rot that was quite advanced and would eventually kill it. Had I the chemotherapy equivalent, the technology to safely cut out the diseased tissue or the knowledge of synthetic root growth, we could have done something to save this tree. But yeah, we’ve focused on animal health for millennia, and we still almost nothing about green living things.

Some individual trees have great sentimental value to people, but generally we seem to take them for granted. We should not. Trees quite literally provide the air that we breathe, and many animals (birds, squirrels, various pollinators) rely on them for safe spaces or food. We need healthy trees. As a farmer or forester, you realize the value of plants because you sell the plant or its products for a living. While these commercially important species are well protected and somewhat studied by many plant doctors, there are far too many plant species that do not receive the same attention—unless there are small pockets of them left, like many of our cycads or the redwoods in the US. Because our knowledge and the technology for plant health is so far behind, should these precious plants ever become diseased, it’s going to take a miracle to save them.

When you walk out of your house tomorrow morning, take a moment to look at what’s around you. Look at the plants in your garden, the trees on the street and those lining the horizon. Now, imagine if the only plants you’d ever see were grown in commercial plantations or massive, monotonous farms.

Herron_Eucalyptus

Research shows that green spaces in cities boost our own mental health, that getting out into nature (not just well-tended gardens or farms) restores balance in our own rushed lives. It’s not just the green spaces, but the pale green, bird-nest lookalike, star-shaped spaces too—trust me, I’m a doctor.

Plants may not always seem as impressive as the humans that congregate around them but they are the lungs of our planet, and keep us mentally rooted (pardon the pun). We need a few more tree doctors to make sure that they don’t simply disappear and turn to dust under our feet.

The joy of ignoring scientific fence lines

I think science should be fun. Sure, I am still young and might not know what I’m talking about, but I’m going to spend the better part of my life in natural science research. That is time I will never get back. I therefore must ensure that it is the best time of my life. I want to spend most of it being happy, not depressed. So then, how do I ensure that I am happy?

I’ve talked about balancing work with social interaction (especially with your family). But now I’ve rediscovered something: exploring! I’ve just spent a weekend as research assistant on a behavioural-ecology undergraduate field excursion. Behavioural ecology — the study of the evolutionary basis for animal behaviour due to ecological pressures — is not really my field; I’m more into environmental health research. However, as an assistant who was supposed to lead a team and help the students interpret animal behaviour, I found myself learning more than they did. The techniques and the data analysis used in this field just amazed me. How one translates a mere behavioural observation into a scientific conclusion really changed my perspective about natural science research. And as I was listening to different students presenting their findings at the end of a very long basic research day, I remembered why I wanted to do this whole science thing in the first place. Most importantly, now that I’m back in the middle of my MSc proposal, I derived a few lessons that I believe will make my life a little bit better.

Figure 1 Observed ungulates on the GGHNP Mountains
Ungulates in the Golden Gate mountains

Firstly, most of the research that we do is not informed by just a single discipline. We fool ourselves if we think that’s possible. No matter your field, there is an aspect of your research that needs the expertise and justifications of another field. This is why it didn’t come as a surprise to me to find out that my research has a lot of justification from chemistry, even though I am in biological sciences. Yes, I was frustrated wading through the chemistry literature, but now I know it’s all worth it. It’s the joy of discovering something unexpected – like a treasure buried in the sand – which you wouldn’t have found if you just stuck to walking down the path.

Secondly, one cannot be stereotyped in research. There are many things that are happening in and around what one is doing. A colleague and his group were observing the behaviour of ungulates. They measured things like wind speed and the local temperature. If someone had told me this a couple of months ago I would have asked, “Why in the world would one measure that? It’s just animal behaviour?” But these affect the behaviour of the animals too; kind of how we also change our behaviour when it is cold or too windy. There really is a lot going on. I think if we can be aware of what is going on around us, our research sites, laboratories, and even in our little spaces, we can eliminate some part of the stress and have fun. Also, hearing about somebody else’s problems always makes your own seem smaller 😉

Figure 2 Science disciplines, like atoms of a molecule, are interlinked somehow

Lastly, things aren’t always as they seem. Everything is interconnected, in sometimes unexpected ways. This is true by the mere definition of behavioural ecology. But looking at other fields in science also, we really need to tap into why things are happening. It is true, we need to invent and modify to better our world but we also need to find out why things are happening and work on research that is intended at eliminating the factors that are influencing the problems we have in the world today. And we can’t do this without looking at outside factors, other fields that we’re maybe not trained in. Physiology can change because of physics and chemistry – and all of this is linked to ecology and economics!

I still have no idea what “science” should look like, but I am busy reading a friend’s research in chemistry. I enjoy forensic pathology documentaries and every chance I get, I take ten minutes to read up on psychology research. It is not because I have too much time on my hands. I think all the disciplines may be interlinked somehow, and as we embark on these postgraduate studies, we have to be open-minded and inquisitive. Like children, playing. Coming up with new research ideas and justifying what we do will be easy this way. That is the beauty of science. That is how we get to excel in science.