In addition to being known as a stunning oasis in one of the world’s greatest cities, The New York Botanical Garden (NYBG) is a global leader in plant research and exploration, using cutting-edge tools to discover, document, interpret, and preserve Earth’s vast botanical biodiversity. Every summer, Taft students work alongside NYBG scientists, conducting high-level, often ground-breaking research. Teddy Verheggen ’20 spent 10 weeks last summer working in The Garden’s 28,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art Plant Research Laboratory, mentored by renowned research scientist Dr. Barbara Ambrose.
Did you have a particular interest in botanical science before applying for this internship?
I’ve always felt very connected to nature, and spent a lot of time exploring the outdoors during my childhood. My grandmother was an avid gardener, and I loved joining her there—learning all of the binomial nomenclature of the various flowers and trees, and helping my grandfather weed his vegetable garden. When [NYBG Scientist] Dr. Naczi came to Morning Meeting, I was intrigued. For the first time I considered this passion of mine as more than just a hobby, but as a possible career.
Your mentor, Dr. Ambrose, is known for her research on the role of genetics in the structural development of individual plant species. Was your work connected to this research?
Yes, very much so. I was studying class I and class II KNOX [Knotted1-like homeobox] genes, whose proteins generate the above-ground bodies of vascular plants. KNOX 1 and II have been identified in a number of other plants, but I was working to find them in a particular kind of fern, the Ceratopteris richardii. They were assumed to be there, but my job was to find and identify them using a variety of molecular techniques, including RNA extraction and cloning using polymerase chain reaction (PCR), gel electrophoresis, and sequencing. Dr. Ambrose will isolate the spliced DNA or genes that I put into colonies to prove her thesis.
The work sounds very technical. How did you prepare for it?
The first week or two of my internship was a lot of training. When I looked at what was ahead, I basically panicked, thinking, oh my goodness, I’m never going to be able to learn how to do all these processes. But Tynisha Smalls, a research assistant who works with Dr. Ambrose, did an amazing job leading me through everything. She continued to guide me throughout my time there, directing me to lab notes and instructions, and leading me through each day’s assignment.
What was a typical day like at The Garden?
Each morning Tynisha would say something like, “Take out your KNOX primers and do a PCR clone, get the DNA, then run gels so we can be sure that we have the correct segment of DNA, and print it.” That was the molecular component of Dr. Ambrose’s work and of my internship, and it would typically take all morning. In the afternoon, Dr. Ambrose often sat with me in her office, guiding me through the morphological side of her work—the plant structure. She would show me photos of the ferns we were working with and talk about where they fit into the plant tree of life, and what these genes could possibly have to do with the way that the ferns ultimately look. She was awesome, and it was an incredible opportunity.
What were your big takeaways from this experience?
One of the main things, and maybe the hardest initially, was the importance of perseverance. The DNA cloning and replications that I worked on in the mornings are sensitive and complex—often they don’t work out, so you have to do them over and over, trying to figure out what variable was problematic. Was the cloning machine a little too hot? Was the sample not in the cloning machine long enough? I would assess and tweak each variable to get a positive outcome. Learning not to get discouraged was important, and it is something I brought back to my work here at Taft.
The other big takeaway relates to the science, itself. I had this idea that after thousands of years of scientific research there wasn’t much left to be discovered about plants. It was amazing to see first-hand all of this cutting-edge research being done in so many different corners of the biological world. This was helpful in that I was able to see that this could be a real career choice for me. There are so many new plants that have yet to be sequenced and there is so much left to learn.
Teddy’s internship was made possible by: The Meek Foundation, Dwight L. Stocker III '74; Donald B. Stott '56 New York Botanical Garden Internship; Sonia M. and John J. Batten III, 'P15; Angus and Leslie B. Littlejohn, 'P 03, 05.