We Are Knox...
James Solomon '74
Alumni Achievement Award Winner
Curator, Herbarium at the Missouri Botanical Garden
"As far back as I can remember, I was always collecting things: rocks, fossils,
shells, fruits and other plant parts, nests, insects," says James Solomon.
This interest ultimately led Solomon to a career managing one of the world's largest collections of dried plant specimens.
Trained as a taxonomic botanist, Solomon is curator of the Herbarium at the Missouri Botanical Garden -- the second largest herbarium collection in the United States and one of the five largest in the world. Solomon joined the staff of the Missouri Botanical Garden in 1981, after receiving a bachelor's degree in biology from Knox College in 1974 and a Ph.D. in biology from Washington University, St. Louis, in 1981.
He spent his first seven years on staff in Bolivia, conducting botanical inventories at selected sites throughout the country, and returned to St. Louis in 1989 to assume duties as curator of the Herbarium, where he is responsible for managing the activities connected with the storage, care, and use of the Garden's 6.3 million specimens.
Solomon has traveled widely in tropical America and Asia, including Argentina, Chile, Bolivia, Russia, Kazakhstan, Republic of Georgia, and Tajikistan, and is internationally known for his work encouraging support for herbaria and basic botanical research. After more than 30 years in botany, Solomon's passion for collections is still evident. "I still get a kick out of working with plants and the people who study them," he says.
In February 2012, Solomon was recognized by the College with an Alumni Achievement Award for his achievements in botany.
Describe your Knox experience.
Knox provided me with the small school setting that I wanted for an undergraduate education. When I entered Knox, I already knew in broad outline that I wanted to follow a career related to natural history studies. Even though a larger university might have other kinds of opportunities, I was just not interested in a "big" university setting and wanted the close community of a school like Knox. Looking back, I certainly think my expectations were fulfilled. I have never regretted the time spent in pursuing a liberal arts education before moving on to a discipline-specific graduate program.
During the summer of 1974, I lived at Green Oaks, where I spent every day traveling the roads of Knox County collecting plant specimens, identifying them, and assembling a checklist of the wild and adventive plants found within the county. This was only possible because of funding for undergraduate research obtained by the College. There are other great memories associated with Green Oaks, like getting up at 5 a.m. in late March to watch the woodcocks do their spring mating dance and flight, night hikes to listen for owls, prairie burns, etc.
During my time at Knox, one of its characteristics, which continues to this day, was the diversity of opportunities that were available within and outside the formal curriculum. Another aspect was how supportive the faculty was of promoting learning opportunities of all kinds and their dedication to the success of every student.
How has that experience affected your life?
On a very personal level, I met my spouse of 33 years (Andrea Hastings '75) at Knox in September 1974. If I had not returned to Knox that fall to finish my undergraduate program (because I took off an extra term to travel in Central America and Mexico after the ACM Costa Rica Program) I never would have met her.
Looking back, I certainly don't remember all the details of what I did while at Knox. I do know, however, that the overall result was a well rounded background in the liberal arts that gave me a very good foundation for being able to operate in the "real" world. In addition, the Knox "experience" taught me how to learn, to think critically, manage my time and to appreciate the diversity of ideas and people that are around us all the time.
What do you believe is your most notable achievement?
As the head of one of the world's most significant repositories of plant specimens and data, much of my career has been focused on facilitating access to these resources for biodiversity studies. The enormous impact that human activities have on the biological infrastructure of the Earth makes it clear that we live in a time where we now have some of the last opportunities to study and record information about fully intact, functioning biotic communities. My greatest pleasure has been to participate in the global endeavor of naming and describing the diversity of plants and building the tools that allow us to communicate with each other about them. Our goal is to provide information that can be used to answer fundamental questions about biodiversity, its evolution, and mankind's understanding and use of the natural world.
With the tremendous increase globally in the availability of electronic connectivity, I have been fortunate to be able to work on developing plant biodiversity data content for electronic access. This is one of the most critical aspects of giving people with access to limited scientific resources the ability to freely access basic biodiversity information. Clearly, a researcher in the developing world will not have the physical library resources at hand that would be available in the world's major botanical libraries, but if we can give them access to the information electronically, then we will have made a significant contribution to their ability to deal effectively with biodiversity issues on a local, regional and global basis.
What words of advice would you offer to current Knox students?
Oh my, I really don't like to give advice. Its like recommending movies and books. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't. However, a few things that might be helpful come to mind:
Follow your passion, even if you can't quite see how it will become a career. Opportunities will appear where you least expect them, but you have to look for them.
Learn in depth about your subject area, not just enough to get by in class. Really invest yourself in it.
Even if you don't know what you want to do, look for opportunities to learn in every activity you undertake and learn as much as you can. Something will eventually hook you and then you will be off.
Never lose your curiosity about and wonder at the world around you. It's an endlessly fascinating place.
Always ask questions.
Don't take yourself too seriously.
When it comes to dealing with biodiversity studies and the natural world, these two thoughts come into my mind nearly every day:
The depths of my ignorance continue to astound me.
The more I know, the more I know that I don't know.