Cultivating knowledge

Photos by Scott Spitzer

A stone’s throw from bustling 38th Street, just off Hamilton Walk, lies a carefully curated green oasis, and nearby, a soaring glass-walled structure where plants from the exotic to the mundane are cared for and studied.

The James G. Kaskey Memorial Garden, better known as the BioPond, is a well-loved campus resource by those in the know.

“Some people can hop in their cars and go to a park outside the city, but for some people who live locally, the BioPond may be the only place for kids to see fish and turtles and that sort of thing,” says Tracylea Byford, manager of the BioPond and the Greenhouse. “I think it’s a really important community resource.”

On Penn’s undeniably urban campus, rife with brick, concrete, and asphalt surfaces, the plantings in the BioPond and the Greenhouse provide the raw material for faculty and student research, helping to answer questions fundamental to biology and ecology. They also serve as educational destinations for students embarking on serious studies of biological systems.

The first encounter many students have with these areas occurs during a tour as part of an entry-level biology class. Byford says the exposure to the BioPond’s functioning ecosystem and the diverse holdings of the Greenhouse is critical to give students a well-rounded education, particularly now that the study of life sciences has become more molecularly focused.

“Students who come to us from urban settings are often just not familiar with plants at all,” says Byford. “A pre-med student may think this won’t be of use, but they’re going to see poison ivy, they’re going to be using plant-based medicines. It’s important for them to have a foundation of knowledge that includes an understanding of plants.”

Many faculty members in the Department of Biology in the School of Arts & Sciences embrace this view, integrating the Greenhouse into lessons and labs.

“I’m always borrowing leaf material from the Greenhouse to use in my introductory biology course,” says Brenda Casper, a professor of biology.

For a discussion on plant diversity, for example, she might bring in a fern leaf and a succulent leaf for students to compare. And she has a special trick for holding the attention of a class that can reach 300 students.

“I’ll hide a banana leaf behind my desk,” she says. “Then when we’re discussing gas exchange and photosynthesis, how thin leaves can be or how small they can be, I’ll pull out this huge leaf.  That usually catches their interest.”

Class members also perform experiments with Greenhouse plants, such as measuring the transpiration rates of tomato plants exposed to various environmental conditions. Such concepts could easily be taught from a textbook, but the Greenhouse adds an invaluable element of hands-on learning, Casper says.

“We’re in a city and so far from field sites that it can be difficult to teach ecology courses,” she says. “It’s much more stimulating for students to work with the real material.”


Scott Spitzer

At left, high school student Talia Borofsky, a Greenhouse volunteer, mists pots of leaves so fungi remain active and decompose. At right, Penn student Allison Martinez measures the rate of plant growth.

Scott Poethig, the Patricia M. Williams Professor of Biology, makes regular use of the Greenhouse for both pedagogical and research purposes. In “The Biology of Food,” an Academically Based Community Service course offered in the spring, Poethig and his students mentor high school students, helping them create a vegetable garden on a plot of land just outside the Greenhouse.

“The students in the class will plan out the garden, choose the vegetables, plant seeds in the Greenhouse, and transplant them into the garden,” he says. “Then they tend the garden when the weather warms up.”

Though the spring semester ends before many crops come in, each student goes home with a bag of lettuce they helped grow.

The Greenhouse also plays an integral role in Poethig’s research. One of his main interests is in how plants transition from the juvenile form to the adult form. He has recently begun to study this transition in tropical acacia trees, harvesting their leaves to extract and analyze their RNA. Penn’s Greenhouse is quite tall relative to similar structures, which has proved useful for Poethig’s organism of choice. “The acacias are over a year old and are already five meters [about 16 feet] tall,” he says. “They’re thriving in the Greenhouse.”

While researchers like Poethig, as well as their graduate students and postdoctoral fellows, take responsibility for carrying out their own experiments, Byford and the staff work behind the scenes, providing not only water and basic care to the plants, but also offering advice to help ensure those investigations run smoothly.

For Byford, however, sometimes the most rewarding Greenhouse “lessons” can be the simplest. Showing off one of the Greenhouse’s specimens, Mimosa pudica, or “sensitive plant,” which moves in response to being touched, never fails to elicit a sense of wonder.

“Everyone,” she says, “from the tiniest daycare child to a 16-year-old high school student to a tenured faculty member—they all light up when they see this.”

Originally published on September 12, 2013