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The New York Times, May 15, 2006

Science in the Garden

When an institution reinvents itself—as the Museum of Modern Art and the Pierpont Morgan Library have done—there is the unmistakable sense that everything has changed because the architecture has changed. But when one like The New York Botanical Garden reinvents itself, the effect is very different.

The real architecture of the botanical garden is the grounds themselves, where change comes more gradually. A visitor who knew the garden 20 years ago would notice significant differences today: a new entrance, shop and library; a restored conservatory; and a remarkable sense of freshness in the feel of the garden itself. But the real reinvention has come in the places the public rarely gets a chance to see—the scientific institution hidden inside the garden.

There has always been science at the botanical garden. Its herbarium—its plant library— contains more than seven million specimens from all over the world, many of them gathered over the past century by the garden's scientists. But the dynamic of scientific research at the botanical garden will change with the official opening tomorrow of the Pfizer Plant Research Laboratory, which will house programs in molecular systematics and genomics.

Molecular systematics maps the relation of plant species to one another, while genomics studies the function of genes within plants. The questions these disciplines ask are very old ones, but they are now being asked in radically new ways, thanks to the DNA revolution. For the next week, the public will have the rare opportunity to go behind the scientific scenes at The New York Botanical Garden—to visit the new lab and the herbarium in the company of the scientists who work there.

Twenty years ago, the future of the botanical garden was anybody's guess. It could have settled into being a pleasant afternoon outing, a slightly dowdy botanical experience. Instead, it has become what no one quite expected—one of the leading institutions in plant science—and it has done so in a way that has only enhanced the public's enjoyment. Seeing the science behind the garden makes the rest of the garden, the living collections we know so well, seem all the more remarkable.

Copyright © 2006 by The New York Times Co. Reprinted with permission.
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