regarding my return to science

I'm not actually required to wear a lab coat.

I’m not actually required to wear a lab coat.

“OH! It’s called a ligule, not a sheath!” I was huddled over a microscope while mentally scolding myself for years of misunderstanding a plant term. These “D’OH!” moments were frequent during my botany class, but on this Wednesday morning, my surprise was particularly acute. I examined a blade of grass as my mind drifted back to the last time that I had encountered the finer anatomy of this plant family; it was during my first science illustration job, four years ago, in Yosemite.

One afternoon, I was toiling over the kitchen table that served as my drawing desk when I was approached by a student researcher bearing a fistful of tall, feathery grass. He explained that velvet grass was among 190 invasive plant species in Yosemite, and that it was endangering the tiny population of endemic plants within the park. He advocated a simple idea: to use park visitors as a tool for locating and mapping invasive species for potential removal by The Park Service.

First, he needed an illustration of velvet grass that visitors could use for identification. We agreed that we needed an image of the grass when it was flowering, one image after the grass had gone to seed, and an image depicting the sheath of the grass. The sheath was the most important part – its presence separated velvet grass from other grasses… or so, I thought.

Suddenly, I awoke from my daydream. I was back in Wednesday morning botany class, and I had just learned that my illustration was wrong! What I had believed was a sheath was actually a ligule, or a tiny, papery membrane where the leaf blade joins the stem. All grasses have sheaths and ligules, but some grasses can be identified by the shape and color of their ligule.

My friends and family sometimes wonder why I’ve abandoned a life of glamorous, self-employed illustration work in favor of apparent mental anguish over a botany microscope. To me, the answer is simple. The “AH-HA!” moments, or times when I learn something new or realize I was completely wrong, are frequent in the Field Naturalist Program. Each one reminds me of why I chose this path: I want to become a better illustrator and a better science communicator.

Some days, I feel like I’m in over my head. I have a 20 hour/week teaching commitment on top of my schoolwork, and this semester I illustrated a book, too. I teach “Biology for Biology Majors II” lab… and guess what… I was never a biology major! (Some of my students found one of my websites the other day… I wonder when they’ll realize I’m an imposter! Or when they’ll find this blog. Uh oh.)

It’s all worth it.

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