Whether you await the arrival of “Shark Week” with feverish enthusiasm each year or simply look forward to greeting your Labradoodle when you return home at day’s end, it’s likely you subscribe to Christopher Martine ’06 Ph.D.’s belief that animals are, indeed, awesome.
But this UConn alum is out to prove to you that, in fact, plants are very cool, too.
Traveling to deserts, swamps, and mountain ranges across the country with a film crew in tow, Martine is on a mission to seek out unusual and extraordinary stories about the plant world and then to deliver them to audiences far and wide via his own YouTube web series – aptly titled “Plants Are Cool, Too!”
“There is all this dynamic visual content out there for young people to watch,” says Martine, creator, co-producer, and host for “Plants Are Cool, Too!” as well as associate professor of plant genetics and research at Bucknell University. “There’s ‘Shark Week’ and all these other animal shows, and it’s a great way for kids to learn about nature. I thought, ‘Well, what do people have for plants?’ There are a lot of gardening shows; no kid is going to watch a gardening show. So the idea here was to generate cool content related to botany, and hope that young people had something they could actually find and watch if they were willing to learn about plants.”
Through his “adventure botany” series, which releases its fourth installment this week, Martine educates viewers on the plant kingdom by highlighting particularly interesting plants, along with the botanists who conduct innovative research that may be unfamiliar even to their fellow scholars in the field.
Touting the cool factor of plants to students is likely no easy task. But it is a job Martine has eagerly taken on of his own accord.
“As a representative of the discipline of botany, I’ve come to not just recognize, but also relish, the underdog role,” he says. “If I can explain to the students why I love something, they can’t help but at least be curious and willing to listen to me. And then maybe – once that door’s open – they actually find some other stuff that piques their interest, and want to learn even more.”
Adventures in botany
Each webisode of “Plants Are Cool, Too!” follows Martine as he treks to such destinations as the Adirondack Mountains – where he and his guest botanist find amidst the snow-covered hills a type of blooming plant with blazing internal temperatures – or the backcountry of Idaho, where he joins a group of scientists excavating fossilized leaves so well preserved that they miraculously still hold their 15-million-year-old autumn hues.
Encapsulating informative botany lessons in the form of entertaining webisodes that typically run 15 minutes or less is a challenge for which Martine seems especially well suited. A former singer, songwriter, and aspiring actor, he has found a way to bring his talents in the performing arts not only to his role as the engaging, amiable host of “Plants Are Cool, Too!”, but also to his work as a university professor.
“Every time class starts, for me, it is kind of a performance,” says Martine, who, along with his colleagues, uses “Plants Are Cool, Too!” in his lectures as a way to introduce students to topics in botany. “I think that my experience performing has helped to make me a better teacher. In the case of this video series, having to present complex material in a way that a whole roomful of students will understand has also really helped me to become adept at doing that on camera.”
At the same time, Martine says that sharing “Plants Are Cool, Too!” in his classes at Bucknell offers his students an up-close look at research they otherwise would not have the opportunity to see firsthand. “It’s much different for them to essentially go on the trip, go on the adventure with the scientist, even for 15 minutes, than for me to stand in front of the room and tell them about it through pictures and on a chalkboard,” he says.
‘Science needs a Chris Martine’
In the latest webisode of “Plants Are Cool, Too!”, Martine teams up with a fellow alum of UConn’s ecology and evolutionary biology graduate program – conservation scientist Krissa Skogen ’08 Ph.D. – in the deserts of New Mexico to study sundrops, a type of night-blooming wildflower. There, Skogen and Martine catch the sundrops’ chief pollinators, called hawkmoths, and collect samples of the flower’s scent, as well as the nectar and pollen these moths have gathered on their nocturnal journey from blossom to blossom.
With these samples, Skogen explains, she and her research team can begin to gather answers to an array of questions – from what compounds make up the scent of this particular species of plant to what role these pollinators play in the flowers’ survival.
The significance of such research, Skogen says, relates closely to one of the biggest stories in the news today – the collapse of honeybees. “We know next to nothing about most native bees, and for that matter, pollinators, worldwide,” she says. “Projects like this help create a baseline knowledge about pollinators – bees, hawkmoths, bats – and help move the field forward and contribute to a greater understanding about plants, and the insects that rely on them. Only through studies like this can we understand how that works and be able to make predictions about the consequences of loss of plants or loss of pollinators.”
In hopes of continuing to highlight studies like this, Martine is looking to land funding for up to a dozen more episodes, which currently receive partial support from Bucknell and the Botanical Society of America.
His colleagues – Skogen among them – are all for it. “Frankly, all of science needs a Chris Martine, who has the passion, talent, and excitement for getting people engaged,” Skogen says. “Botany is really lucky to have him.”
See more of the “Plants Are Cool, Too!” series at youtube.com/PlantsAreCoolToo. Or follow Christopher Martine on Twitter @MartineBotany.