This month’s Conservation Champion, Dr. Katie Heineman, is at the heart of many of CPC’s networkwide conservation initiatives – from the educational resources housed in the Rare Plant Academy to the Seed Longevity Study, and more. Her commitment to the shared access and practical application of biological data advances our mission to Save Plants by promoting collaboration and knowledge sharing, making plant-saving information readily accessible in a centralized place for conservation practitioners. Katie’s work shows us that passion and teamwork are a winning combination to Save Plants!
When did you first fall in love with plants?
I have always been fascinated with biodiversity in a very nerdy way. When I was a kid, I kept a binder with hundreds of animal fact sheets, and my best friend and I would create little dioramas with animal figures in different ecosystems. I crossed over to loving plants in college when I did a research experience in Borneo, where the plant diversity is breathtaking. It’s amazing to see pitcher plants below 40-meter tall ironwood trees draped with orchids, ferns, and bromeliads – oh my! There is just so much to know and love about plants. Plus, I love how they can’t move, so it’s easy to revisit, study, and “get to know” a plant, especially a tree.
What was your career path to the Center for Plant Conservation?
I did my PhD research on tropical forest community and ecosystem ecology at the University of Illinois and the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama. For field work, I tromped around Fortuna Forest Reserve in western Panama collecting plant tissue samples to evaluate how tropical trees store critical elements, such as nitrogen and phosphorus, for times of stress. With this experience, I learned how to manage and unite forestry and plant trait datasets for analyses – but also developed a distaste for the labwork that would have been key to generating more data to advance my particular research topic. After a stint exploring data science options in Silicon Valley, I decided that conservation and collections management would be great way to contribute my background in data and biodiversity toward something positive (without getting my hands too dirty in the lab). I am thankful to the Plant Conservation team at San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance and the CPC network for acquainting me with plant conservation science and being patient with me as I learned the ropes over these past five years. I love this field not only for the subject matter, but also for the uniquely friendly and supportive community of plant conservationists.
In your experience, what are some of the pressing conservation needs impacting the rare and native plants of the United States?
Rare plants need skilled and well-resourced advocates on the ground. The care of these species requires a great deal of sustained study and curation, so we need to advance the profession of conservation botany and find support for botanical knowledge within our private and public institutions to ensure that these plants have skilled protectors for generations to come. That is why I am proud that CPC is making learning and training resources freely available on our website through Rare Plant Academy (RPA) and our upcoming Applied Plant Conservation Online Course.
What are some of the current conservation initiatives you’re helming for CPC?
I currently help oversee two main types of CPC programs: 1) programs that fund our partners to secure and learn from ex-situ collections of rare plant species, and 2) those that catalogue the plant-saving work of our partners in a rare plant knowledge base. I am particularly excited at the moment by our IMLS-funded seed longevity study that has funded our PIs to recollect seed from populations of plants held in orthodox seed banks for fifteen years or more. We are working with the USDA-ARS National Laboratory for Genetic Resources Preservation in Fort Collins to determine if we can use a metric of seed health known as RNA Integrity to better inform curation decisions. As a community, we need more exact estimates for how long rare plant species live in seed banks, so we can prioritize which collections to grow out or recollect before it’s too late.
Much of your work is focused on the access and application of biological data for conservation research and activities – in what ways does this advance CPC’s mission to save plants?
In contrast to animal conservation, for which whole teams of people at many institutions may be working with a single rare species, plant conservation knowledge can be extremely limited to specific organizations or individuals. One of CPC’s current priorities is creating a public knowledge base for plant species in the National Collection, so that practitioners can learn from past knowledge and avoid reinventing the wheel. Through our CPC Rare Plant Academy grant, CPC has been pulling multi-media forms of plant conservation information into our National Collection database – including recorded conference proceedings, newsletter articles, and photos – to create a more complete, one-stop reference for our network’s work on a particular species.
CPC is also excited to be partnering with Dr. Joe Bellis and Dr. Matthew Albrecht on the reinvigoration of CPC’s Reintroduction Registry/Database, which represents a repository of knowledge for plant translocation – perhaps the most time-intensive and important actions in plant conservation. The registry is online now, and the database will be available in full to contributors later this year.
What has surprised you about working with and learning more about rare plants? What successes or challenges have you encountered in your work?
Working with rare plants has higher highs and lower lows compared to other projects I’ve been involved with. For instance, it’s a great feeling to visit the Torrey Pines restoration site I am collaborating on with San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance and the staff at California State Parks and see that some of the seedlings planted last year are already one meter tall! However, it is also very distressing when we go to census seedlings and find higher mortality than expected, or seedlings beginning to show signs of drought stress. The emotions are stronger for a plant reintroduction than when you are simply conducting a field experiment, because it’s more than an academic question – you really want to see the plants do well for the sake of the species persistence.
What advice would you give to those who wish to learn more about how they can help save imperiled plant species?
For students interested in becoming involved in plant conservation as a profession, I would suggest subscribing to the CPC newsletter, CPC Rare Plant Academy, and the Plant Conservation Alliance listserv, to learn more about opportunities to work, intern, or volunteer at botanical gardens, environmental consulting groups, or federal agencies. If you are looking at graduate schools, I recommend seeking out programs that have collaborations with public gardens. I studied plant biology in graduate school, but collaborating with a botanical garden was not on my radar until very late in the game – and I think I would have loved it. And of course, I would really encourage you to stay tuned for our CPC Applied Plant Conservation Course, so you can learn from experts in the field about the best methods for saving plants.
For members of the public, I would say that visiting your local botanical garden and joining a native plant society in your area are the best ways to learn about opportunities for plant conservation support. These experiences might include invasive species removal efforts, planting of native species on your own property, or even contacting your representative to help push forward important policy changes that increase support for rare plants.