Graduate Studies at The New York Botanical Garden

David L. Lentz

The New York Botanical Garden, Bronx, New York, NY 10458, USA


The New York Botanical Garden (NYBG) has trained doctoral candidates in botany since its founding; over 200 graduate degrees have been awarded through this program. From the very beginning, the Garden has taken a leadership role in botanical research and has maintained a commitment to basic studies in systematic botany, economic botany, and ecology, as well as in service to the scientific community. The Graduate Studies Program is an essential component of the scientific research effort at the Garden and will continue to produce botanical scholars into the next century.

The Garden was officially chartered in 1891 by the New York State legislature, who set aside a 250-acre tract of mostly forested land in what was then Bronx Park. Funds were raised soon thereafter for the construction of a conservatory, or glasshouse, and a museum building, which today houses the Garden's 5.8 million-specimen herbarium. Both of these structures have become New York City landmarks and form the nucleus of the Garden's physical plant.

Staff organization

The research staff has been organized into two institutes: the Institute of Systematic Botany (ISB) and the Institute of Economic Botany (IEB). The ISB was officially created in 1991 in recognition of the traditional strength of the Garden in plant systematics and taxonomy. The IEB, formed in 1981, is focused on applied questions of human concern, including tropical deforestation and environmental degradation, the search for new medicinal therapeutics, the uses of plants in prehistoric times, human hunger, and alternative energy sources. The IEB is known for its interdisciplinary approach to applied research in biological and social sciences.

The goal of the Graduate Studies Program is to train scientists of the highest caliber who will move on to leadership positions at academic and research institutions around the world. At this point in time, biologists face a daunting challenge: the imperative to explore, document and justify the conservation of the earth's remaining biodiversity before it vanishes in the wake of unprecedented resource consumption. In the words of one noted scientist: "Despite two centuries of research by biologists exploring every corner of the world, there is still much to learn about life's diversity. Millions of species – perhaps even tens of millions – remain unknown to us. Yet thefor diseases that plague human ime when demands on the worldwiam is one of only several programs in the United States with the capacity to provide students with opportunities and resources for broad-based monographic, floristic and economic botanical research.


The Graduate Program is currently operated in conjunction with the Plant Sciences Program at the Lehman College campus of the City University of New York (CUNY), the Biology Department at New York University (NYU), the Center for Environmental Research and Conservation at Columbia University, the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies at Yale University, and the Biology Department at Cornell University. One of the Program's greatest assets lies in its flexibility, including multiple opportunities for interdisciplinary study. In addition to the core courses in plant sciences, students may take courses in biology or other disciplines at other colleges, including City College, Hunter College, the Graduate Center and Queens College. An agreement between all major universities in New York City entitles students to register for courses in virtually any school in the city. Independent tutorials can be arranged with staff at CUNY, Columbia, NYU, Cornell, Yale, NYBG, or the American Museum of Natural History. The broad range of courses offered throughout the New York area and the opportunity to interact with researchers in the natural and the social sciences, provide a unique opportunity to develop skills in different fields relating to economic and systematic botany. These include phytochemistry, molecular biology, ecological physiology, archaeology, anthropology, linguistics, economics, computer science, and nutrition.

Research facilities

Graduate students have access to all laboratory facilities and equipment at the Garden. These include an electron microscope and instrumentation for biochemical, anatomical, phytochemical, chemosystematic, numerical taxonomic, and vegetational studies. The New York Botanical Garden has one of the outstanding botanical libraries in the world, with more than 1,250,000 accessions, a herbarium with over 5,800,000 specimens, and 10,000 species of living plants maintained in several greenhouses, including the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory.

The Lewis B. and Dorothy Cullman Program for Molecular Systematics Studies, a joint initiative of The New York Botanical Garden and The American Museum of Natural History, supports nearly all forms of molecular research in its newly renovated facilities. The Cullman Program explicitly supports diverse research programs from the far reaches of the biodiversity problem, although its mainstay is the traditional phylogenetic study of plants. A second major research emphasis involves systematic study of the molecular bases for flower and root development.

The Institute of Systematic Botany

The New York Botanical Garden's Institute of Systematic Botany was created in the spring of 1991 in recognition of the traditional strength of the Garden, and to underscore the urgency of the inventorying, conservation and rational utilization of the world's natural resources. The foundations of the Garden's systematic research program are the Herbarium, the largest in the Western Hemisphere, and the Library, the largest botanical research library at a single site in North America.

ISB scientists comprise a core of thirteen full-time scientists with project activities concentrated in the Western Hemisphere. Providing critical support to the work of the ISB is a group of systematists associated with the Herbarium and the Institute of Economic Botany. Eight graduate fellows conduct dissertation research under the direction of ISB scientists.

The work of the ISB focuses on the discovery, identification and naming of plant species, and the understanding of their evolutionary relationships. To accomplish this task, projects encompass large-scale monographic and floristic research. The projects of the ISB are broad ranging in scope. For example, ISB scientists are actively involved in the study of the flora of the Intermountain region of the United States and of the floras of California and New York, among others. In collaboration with local institutions in Colombia, Brazil, French Guiana, Ecuador, Cuba, and other countries, the ISB is engaged in creating detailed inventories of tropical forests for scientific, conservation, and utilization purposes. Current monographic research by ISB scientists includes techniques such as cladistic analysis, DNA sequencing, and life history studies of fungi in vitro. Investigative objectives of the ISB are as follows:

The Institute of Systematic Botany also has close programmatic linkages with the Garden's Institute of Economic Botany. ISB scientists cooperate with IEB scientists in the collection and identification of plants that are being screened as potential therapies for AIDS and cancer by the National Cancer Institute.

ISB scientists publish in national and international scientific journals, including the Garden's own publications: Brittonia, Memoirs of The New York Botanical Garden, Mycologia, North American Flora, and Flora Neotropica. The New York Botanical Garden supports the largest scientific publications program of any independent botanical institution in the world.

In addition to research projects, the ISB is heavily involved in teaching, with formal programs at the City University of New York, New York University, Columbia University, and Yale University. ISB scientists serve as advisors and hold adjunct faculty positions at the collaborating universities.

The ISB programs continue to concentrate on those aspects of systematic botany that The New York Botanical Garden has the capability to investigate by virtue of its diversified scientific staff and the extensive holdings of its Herbarium and Library. The ISB's active, integrated program of botanical exploration, systematic research, and publication on New World plants, combined with its program of graduate education, is unique in the United States today.

Institute of Economic Botany

The New York Botanical Garden Institute of Economic Botany was founded in 1981 to focus a portion of the Garden's research program on applied topics of human concern. With close programmatic linkages to the NYBG Institute of Systematic Botany, Library, Herbarium, and Harding Laboratories, IEB scientists comprise a core of 29 staff, students and interns based at the Bronx campus with project activities around the world. The projects of the IEB encompass five principal activities which support the primary mission of the IEB: understanding the relationship between plants and people. The activities of the IEB are:

The IEB is known for its interdisciplinary approach to applied research in the biological and social sciences. This new synthesis incorporates a rigorous methodology, using contemporary tools and perspectives from a variety of academic disciplines. By expanding the intellectual frontiers of economic botany, the work of the IEB is contributing towards the rebirth of interest in this important discipline.

In addition to research projects, the IEB is heavily involved in teaching, with formal programs at the City University of New York, Columbia University, Cornell University, New York University, and Yale University School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. IEB staff serve as advisors to the students and assist in identifying, funding and implementing field programs in many tropical nations.


Responding to the accelerating rate of habitat destruction in the tropics, NYBG has placed a priority on tropical research and the training of more botanists, not only from the US, but from other countries as well. The program serves a diverse student body with students from North America, Asia, Africa, Europe, and Latin America. Upon graduation, the majority of foreign students return to their countries of origin to hold substantial positions in government agencies, universities, and botanical gardens, working in the country they know best, in order to combat local and regional environmental problems. In this way, the Garden makes a major contribution to the development of sound environmental policies in many nations struggling with the often-conflicting goals of economic development and conservation.

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