Summer Journeys: Isabel Yang ’24 at the New York Botanical Garden

For nearly 10 years, world-renowned scientists at the New York Botanical Garden have welcomed summer interns from Taft to their research laboratories on the Garden’s historic 250-acre Bronx, New York, campus. The internship opportunities are part of a long-term, ongoing and extraordinary partnership between Taft and The Garden. The internships span the full summer, and culminate in presentations to fellow interns, researchers, and Garden leadership. Last summer, Isabel Yang ’24 was awarded one of the coveted internships.

“I wanted an opportunity to engage in hands-on research at a high level,” Isabel says. “This internship was not only an exclusive program at a prestigious institution, but it also gave me the opportunity to participate in an ongoing, active research project with outcomes that will be applied in the real world.”

Isabel was mentored by Dr. Kate Armstrong, the Institute of Systematic Botany Assistant Curator, and Dr. Damon Little, Cullman Curator of Bioinformatics, Cullman Program for Molecular Systematics. Both have worked with Taft students over the years, and both are engaged in a multitude of consequential research projects, from biodiversity informatics, phylogenomics, bioinformatics, and Artificial Intelligence to patterns of floristic diversification throughout tropical Asia, and the study of floras across time. Isabel joined the team on a hyperspectral imaging project.

“Our goal was to test the utility of leaf spectral data for species identification,” Isabel explains. “We wanted to test whether the reflectance signature would hold up as a characteristic across specimen age and use that data to identify species from satellite images. My role in this project was to collect the fresh specimens from the NYBG grounds—as well as those same specimens from the herbarium—and image them using a hyperspectral camera.”

During the course of her eight-week internship, Isabel collected new specimens from more than 200 different species of plants growing on the New York Botanical Garden grounds.

“After collecting a batch, I'd image, press, and dry the fresh plants. The plants typically took a couple of days to dry, and I usually had another batch ready from a previous week to image as well. In addition to the fresh samples, I spent time in the herbarium gathering 16 specimens of each corresponding fresh plant before imaging them, too,” Isabel notes.

Isabel worked to determine which part or parts of the spectrum would be most useful for identification at gross (ordinal, familial, generic) and fine (species) levels. She also explored whether the spectral signature is retained across fresh, dried, and dried-aged samples, and if not, whether there might be some identifiable scientific correlation.

“My presentation included an overview of my research project as well as relevant background information on hyperspectral imaging,” Isabel explains. “I presented process photos of our methods and equipment, as well as a preliminary analysis of data. Although no conclusions could be drawn yet, I wanted to give a broad picture of the next steps needed to analyze the results.”

Taft students are typically the only high school students in the internship programs at The Garden; their fellow interns are typically college students, and doctoral and post-doc researchers.

“At first I was intimidated to deliver this presentation, as I'd be giving a talk about plants to a room full of postdocs and experts in plant science. However, many of my classes at Taft had prepared me for public speaking, so I applied the skills I learned in class to effectively communicate about my work. Overall, this experience taught me how to be independent and self-disciplined in a professional setting. During this internship, I was treated like an equal in the workplace and saw firsthand how people act in a work environment, which encouraged me to work hard as part of the team.”

Isabel’s internship at the New York Botanical Garden was made possible in part through the generosity of program patrons Dwight (Trip) Stocker '74 and Donald B. Stott '56.