Edwards’ passion for plants fosters extensive world travels

Imagine a world where robots can do everything – cook, clean, protect civilians and even love. Well, that idea has already been beaten like a dead horse in countless books and movies, and it’s time to think out of the box. Enter Joan Edwards, professor of biology.

“I’m pretty convinced that plants can do just about anything,” Edwards said. She ticked off examples: “They mimic female wasps to lure them in and pollinate them, they mimic dead meat, they can explode open in less than half a millisecond and throw their pollen into the air.”
The third example was not an arbitrary choice. In fact, the very flower Edwards described was the one that earned her a coveted place in the Guinness World Records.

In 2005, on her annual summer trip with students to Isle Royale National Park in Lake Superior, Edwards and her students noticed an interesting mechanism on the flowers of the bunchberry dogwood. They brought it back to campus to do further research, and, with the help of a camera that records 10,000 frames per second, discovered the fastest blooming flower in the world.
“[When it blooms,] the pollen grains are released at about 2400 g, which is just really incredible. An astronaut, when accelerating, will go about three or four g,” she said.

The discovery was featured in Nature magazine, and Edwards herself spoke on NPR and BBC Radio about her findings. “It was a big splash in the scientific community,” she said. “I ran a one-woman press office for three weeks.”

Looking back, however, Edwards can remember a time when she “had never really thought of [herself] as a scientist.” Although she had always loved plants, she worried that there would be no place for her due to the dearth of female scientists. The turning point for her came during a summer spent taking field courses at the University of Michigan Biological Station, when she realized that she was learning not because she had to, but because she absolutely loved going to class and looking at the natural world.

“I thought, ‘If I can be a field biologist for the rest of my life, I’ll be really happy,’” Edwards said. Since then, her field studies have taken her to all seven continents where she has explored many “magical places.” She believes strongly that in order to study organisms, it is crucial to see them in their natural habitat and to collect comparative data.

Most recently, she traveled to the South African Fynbos region, an area with a Mediterranean climate that contains some of the most diverse flora in the world. According to Edwards, there may be as many as 600 species of one plant growing in close proximity.

As a result of her extensive travels, Edwards has witnessed some of the most fascinating environments for flora and fauna. She recalled an area in the high-altitude east of the African alpine regions, which are “so high that they are above the weather.” Because the plants that grow there have bizarre adaptations that allow them to endure winter every night and summer every day, every 24 hours is like a full seasonal cycle.

Although her studies have taken her around the world, Edwards admitted that some of the best places for exploration are within city limits. “You don’t have to go to an exotic place. Exotic places are wonderful, and they’re important, but you can find just amazing things in your own backyard,” Edwards said as she pointed out a hazelnut branch in a vase on her desk, noting the tiny, delicate red flowers where the clusters of hazelnuts grow. “That’s just on Pine Cobble, right here in Williamstown,” she said.

The time commitment for her work makes it difficult for Edwards to balance fieldwork with teaching, but she “love[s] sharing the excitement and the importance of the natural world” with her students. In her Field Botany class, in particular, she is able to unite her passion for field biology with her passion for teaching by taking students outdoors for labs each week.

“One philosophy I have in my teaching is training students to see things; training your eye,” Edwards said. “I think here at Williams we often focus on writing skills, quantitative skills – oral skills, but I think we tend to downplay the visual. It’s a really important way to learn, and it’s also how you make new discoveries. You notice things that are different or new that you could miss if you hadn’t been trained to look, and to look carefully.”

Outside of class and field research, Edwards also loves cross-country skiing, hiking, sewing and knitting and is even a self-proclaimed “newsaholic.” But one of her hobbies, cooking, is a continuation of her work.

“I love thinking about biodiversity in food – so if you make a tomato sauce, you don’t just make it with one kind of tomato, but you make it with four different kinds of tomatoes, and that makes a much richer, better-tasting sauce. It’s a separate, fun area of research,” she said.

Edwards, who brings her passion to botany and also to her hobbies, preaches what she practices. “Take a diversity of courses, and try to get as rich an array as you can,” she said. “Don’t just bury yourself in one field, but really try to sample very broadly – try new things. It’s such an opportunity, and it doesn’t come again.”