Vicki Funk and the Uses for a Herbarium

1 montanoa_hibiscifolia

Montanoa hibiscifolia, photo by Forest & Kim Starr.

Early in my romance with herbaria I came across an article by Vicki Funk called “100 Uses for an Herbarium (Well at Least 72).”  Learning about the many ways plant collections can be utilized got me even more excited about them.  I also felt I had met a friendly member of the herbarium community, someone with a sense of humor.  She came up with a great title for her piece and then stuck with it even though she didn’t quite get to the magic number her title promised.  In the piece, Funk lists herbarium functions from verifying plant Latin names in issues of nomenclature, to serving as a repository for voucher specimens, to making specimens available to students and interested members of the public.  This article was written in 2004, and I am sure that Funk could come up with many more roles today.  She in fact does move in that direction in a major review article she recently published on “Collections-Based Science in the 21st Century” (2018).  I plan to use that article as the basis for this series of posts, but first I’ll say a little more about Vicky Funk, who seems to me to be the epitome of a plant systematist in the 21st century.

Focusing on Funk’s work right now is particularly timely because she has won the 2018 Asa Gray Award, the American Society of Plant Taxonomists’ highest honor.  The fact that her nomination was accompanied by 18 letters of support suggests just how deserved this recognition is.  Funk is a research scientist and curator at the U.S. National Herbarium in the Department of Botany at the National Museum of Natural History, part of the Smithsonian Institution.  She is an expert on the Asteraceae or Compositae and is lead editor for the 2009 Compositae: Systematics, Evolution, and Biogeography of the Compositae.  This is a massive work in every sense of the term because it treats one of the largest flowering plant families.  She has also been involved in the creation of the digital Global Compositae Checklist.

Funk received her Ph.D. from Ohio State University for work on Montanoa, a genus of plants with daisy-like flowers in the Heliantheae or sunflower tribe of the Asteraceae.  They are native to Central and South America, but since then Funk has worked in Hawaii, Guyana, and a number of other places, and perhaps most importantly in the developing field of phylogenetics.  She has also been an important figure in the development of plant cladistics and is coauthor of the classic, The Compleat Cladist.  While doing all this research, she has been a good citizen of the plant systematics community as president of both the American Society of Plant Taxonomists and the International Association of Plant Taxonomists.  I have yet to meet Funk, in part because I am in awe of her.  However I have heard her speak; her passion, intelligence, and good sense come through along with her deep and comprehensive knowledge of the field.

Funk has also been a hard working member of the Smithsonian scientific community.  I keep up with her through the pages of the U.S. National Herbarium’s newsletter that has the great title The Plant Press and is available online.  The first issue I read was from 2007 when she had the lead article on the 20-year project of the National Museum of Natural History called the Biological Diversity of the Guiana Shield program.  As Funk describes it, the shield is a geological formation of igneous and metamorphic rock that underlies the northeast corner of South America and includes parts of Venezuela, Guyana, Surinam, French Guiana, Brazil, and Columbia.   At the point when she was writing, the Shield plants checklist, of which she was an editor, was in press.  It has proven to be an important resource since its publication in 2007.  I should note that her article includes a photo of herself and two colleagues doing what is stated to be their “best” imitation of a jacana, a South American marsh bird, standing on one leg.  In a later issue of The Plant Press, (April-June 2011), she is pictured more sedately with the University of the District of Columbia students she was mentoring.  In most photos Funk is wearing Hawaiian patterned shirts replete with large tropical blooms, seemingly to remind herself of her work on Hawaiian plants and to provide others with a pleasant aesthetic experience.

But while Funk can be light-hearted, she can also be deadly serious, as she was in the October 2014 issue of The Plant Press with the opening lead article:  “The Erosion of Collections-Based Science: Alarming Trend or Coincidence?”  She unfortunately sides with the first alternative, citing a number of disturbing cases over the prior years, including elimination of the science program at the Milwaukee Public Museum, dwindling support for scientific research at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden in Florida, closing of the science program at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, and diminishment of programs and staff at the California Academy of Sciences, the Field Museum in Chicago, and the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.  Funk then goes on to outline the results of these cuts:  less projects in developing nations to assist in their scientific and economic development, weakening of education programs in the life sciences, and reduction in research on such crucial topics as climate change.  As the following posts will illustrate, these were hardly Funk’s last words on these topics.  She is in the forefront of the effort to support the future of systematics and environmental studies.

References

Funk, V. A., & International Association for Plant Taxonomy. (2009). Systematics, evolution, and biogeography of Compositae. Vienna, Austria: International Association for Plant Taxonomy, Institute of Botany, University of Vienna.

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