Becoming a Botanist

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By the time you are in High School, you probably have some idea of what you want to study in college, that is - if you intend to obtain more than a High School Diploma. For students who are not really mathematically inclined, life sciences would be a good choice if you do not want a career in finances, law or the liberal arts. And of course, one of the most important life science subjects is biology and it conveniently divides into Zoology and Botany, respectively for the study of animals and plants.

Like many life science subjects at the undergraduate and graduate level, Botany is an academically rigorous subject of study that requires an analytical and ever-curious mind, an adventurous spirit, a strong will and a 'never-say-die' attitude. In fact, these are all essential attributes of a successful academic in any field of study. Broadly speaking, the study of Botany has been divided into (and continues to subdivide) various departments like Plant Physiology, Plant Taxonomy, Plant Genetics, etc., just to name a few. In order to become a full-fledged Botanist, one needs to at least major in Botany at the undergraduate level and later one needs to take up graduate studies and research in the subject.

I shall not attempt to describe in detail what the study of Botany entails; but for the incumbent Botanist, it may be useful to note that at the undergraduate level, one has to study Plant Cytology (study of cells through microscopy and other methods), Plant Physiology (structure of the various parts of plants and their functions), Plant Taxonomy (the study of classification of plants - into Kingdoms, Orders, etc in which controversies and difference in academic opinions abound), Plant Genetics (DNA, RNA, mitosis, meiosis etc), among others. Generally speaking, at the outset a Botany student has to learn the fundamental but essential processes of transportation, photosynthesis ( in which substances are moved from one place to another in the plant ('translocation') and in which food ( 'sugars') is made, utilizing sunlight or otherwise) and reproduction (here the classification of plants becomes relevant: monocot and dicot - flowering and non-flowering plants )

Other than studying the Botany subjects aforementioned, the student needs to take up Statistics, a mathematical subject studying how data and other information can be collected, analyzed, and interpreted. So you see you cannot avoid some Math after all. In fact, quite many college Botany courses require you to take up Math, specifically Calculus and Statistics (emphasizing on Sampling Theory, Hypotheses Testing, etc). This is important because you will be conducting many experiments, both in the lab and in the field, and the data you collect, both qualitative and quantitative, have to be subjected to statistical analysis and testing to enable you to reach empirically correct and reliable conclusions. It may appear superfluous to say that Chemistry, a subject most important to the life sciences, is a compulsory course in a typical Botany program, though it may take the form of Plant Biochemistry.

Before one embarks on the path to becoming a good and reasonably successful Botanist, I think it is prudent if one makes some study of the undergraduate programs of colleges and universities one intends to enrol. Visit the college or institution you are applying to find out exactly what are the courses taught; what lab facilities they have, the faculty and their past and current research programs and funding available. You also probably have to strike a balance in your decision making: whether to enrol in a college with a very well-established Botany department but where the erudite professors will not be teaching you personally but instead delegating the job to teaching assistants; or you would rather opt for a small college with a robust Botany program where the professors, authorities in their fields, are at hand to impart their knowledge and expertise to you in a relatively small class.

Additionally, you may wish to factor in your intention as a life-long Botanist into the equation: whether you want to remain an academician, in which event you probably want to take up research on a specific area of Botany ( in Plant Physiology or Evolutionary Botany, where you could formulate theories based on your research findings, for instance ); or you may prefer to go into the industries, in which case you may have in mind the study of Plant Pathology, Pharmaceutical Botany and others that have applications in industries related to medicine and health care.
There are many research projects at most renowned institutions and if you do very well in your undergraduate studies you should have little problem obtaining a scholarship upon enrolling in a Masters or PhD program; similarly the Pharmaceutical, Health care and other related industries are constantly on the look-out for fresh and enthusiastic Botany graduates to join their research teams in developing new drugs from herbs and other plants. You can, of course, take up employment with a host of federal or other government or non-governmental agencies like FDA, WWF, Greenpeace and other conservation groups and organizations which offer plenty of opportunities for Botanists in works associated with their activities.

As a final remark, I wish to emphasize that the calling of a Botanist is a noble one in that it brings you into close contact and interaction with nature; it demands that you treasure whatever nature has to offer humankind, appreciate the fact that our already vulnerable planet is now facing a host of environmental challenges awaiting redress from you and others like you; it is also a profession that by its very nature calls for your utmost dedication, patience, commitment and responsibility - for the world is now placing its hopes and trust upon you and people like you to find solutions to problems plaguing the world.

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