Friday, October 26, 2007
ConsCom's newest member Jen Bush brings expertise in zoology
Though she expected to work in field biology, her first job turned out to be as curatorial assistant in the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology, where she prepared mammal and fish specimens for storage and display. While contributing there, she noticed a greenhouse under construction on the roof of a nearby building. It turned out that a well-known professor of entomology (the study of insects) was setting up a laboratory to study the interactions of species that benefit one another.
Insect and plant relationships
Intrigued, Bush transferred to a job that required her to learn the basics of entomology. She now found herself responsible for maintaining cultures of both insect species and their host plants. She gives the example of a study of ants that live at the base of a plant favored by a caterpillar for food. The ants "milk the caterpillars" for tiny droplets of nectar, but in turn protect them from predatory wasps that like to deposit their deadly eggs on the ants' pals.
Bush was, in effect, responsible for maintaining healthy laboratory plants while culturing both pest and beneficial insects for use by research scientists. This in turn meant that researchers depended on her to train students in insect culture and assist in experimental design. Success also required application of U.S. Department of Agriculture quarantine guidelines and simultaneous implementation of a pesticide-free Integrated Pest Management (IPM) program. "You can't expose a collection of beneficial bugs to pesticides," she explained. "I loved that job," she added, "but many of my former colleagues were horrified that I was culturing bugs to feed on plants."
Bush's next move was out of academia and into the private sector where she managed a plant research greenhouse for Cereon Genomics, a Cambridge branch of Monsanto. There she headed an eight-technician team that supported 22 plant research associates and scientists engaged in the study of gene function. The primary research tool was the Arabidopsis, which Bush describes as "the fruit fly of the plant world, a plant that has a short life cycle and thrives on fluorescent light." The object of the research was to develop a model of the basic molecular structure of the plant. It was her job to supervise plant care "from seed to seed" or from sowing to harvest to storage.
Can plant genetics help humans?
The trained zoologist had now completed the journey from field biology to molecular biology and laid the groundwork for her present position as Greenhouse Manager in the Department of Molecular Biology at Massachusetts General Hospital MGH) and the Department of Genetics at Harvard Medical School, a facility that serves 30 plant researchers.
This interviewer's next question was, "Why study the molecular structure and genetics of a plant, again chiefly Arabidopsis, at MGH? Bush explained that a major purpose is to ascertain how plants fight off disease. Plants are known to have an innate immune system, simpler than that of mammals, but they also possess other weapons that we do not. The question becomes, "Can study of these mechanisms lead to possible solutions for human problems?"
Bush works with the molecular scientists to facilitate finite research projects such as a current study of a plant that can remain frozen for a substantial period of time and recover. If so, how does it do it? Bush takes understandable pride in the fact that several of the researchers have already been successful in projects she helped to complete.
Bush and her partner of 17 years, Jack O'Connor, have a hobby greenhouse behind their Church Street home. This information led me to seek advice about getting rid of white flies that are afflicting a prized hibiscus. It turns out that infestations in a greenhouse can be cured by introducing tiny wasps that can gobble them up; but is a plant worth investing in a greenhouse?
Foss Farm gardener
Bush is a familiar figure at the Foss Farm community gardens, where she dug up a rare blue-spotted salamander. She says it is the third one she has found there, but the first to be photographed and registered. She has also served on the Town Center Committee.
Asked what had moved her to apply for John Lee's vacated seat on the commission, she spoke of support for existing agricultural operations, followed by active encouragement of native plant species and its corollary, the search for answers to an epidemic of invasives like the buckthorn at Towle Field.
Moving to broader environmental policy, she suggested serious consideration of a program of forest management. With Carlisle's wealth of wooded parcels, she sees a potential for enrichment of wildlife habitat, timber sale, and/or the planting of forest crops like nut trees for their future value. "The Greenough Land might be a good place to start," she suggested. Concluding with a recognition of current political realities, she stressed the growing imperative to work closely with other town boards to minimize the environmental impact of competing priorities.
© 2007 The Carlisle Mosquito