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“…at the edge of the world, doing really cool and interesting things…”

Laura Vary’s career as a research scientist has taken her to several exotic locations in the South Pacific and the Indian Ocean. But it all began in her sophomore year at Vassar when her biology professor, Mark Schlessman, asked if anyone in the class could read French. Vary ’04, a biology and French and Francophone studies double major, raised her hand.

Laura Vary ’04 standing next to the jeep at their camping site on New Caledonia

More than a dozen years later, a paper on plant life in New Caledonia written by Vary, Schlessman and two other scientists has finally been published in the International Journal of Plant ScienceDownload the paper.

Schlessman says he never could have embarked on that research without Vary’s help. “Laura’s contributions were invaluable, first when she helped me study the botanical literature of New Caledonia, more than one-third of which was in French, and later in many other ways,” he says.

Schlessman was studying a botanical phenomenon called dioecy – that is, plants that have separate sexes. In most species of flowering plants, each flower has both male parts (stamens) and female parts (pistils). But in dioecious species, each plant makes either male flowers with stamens only, or female flowers with pistils only, but not both. Wolrdwide, only about 5 percent of all flowering plant species are dioecious. But Schlessman says the number of such species on New Caledonia appeared to be much higher than that.

Vary examining a specimen in the field

“In most plant species, pollen can be transferred between any two individuals, since all of them have flowers with both stamens and pistils. But in dioecious species, pollen has to be transferred specifically from a male plant to a female plant, and that makes reproduction inherently risky,” he explains. “We wanted to find out exactly what percentage of plants on the island were dioecious, and why.”

Throughout her sophomore year, Vary translated published studies of plants in New Caledonia, and the following summer she secured a fellowship through Vassar’s Undergraduate Research Summer Institute (URSI) to continue the work by reviewing literature on the subject at the New York Botanical Gardens.

“It was a huge task – there are more than 3,000 species of plants on New Caledonia – but it was my job to track down what had been published previously, and we tapped into a network of scientists who were experts on certain types of these plants,” Vary says.

The work continued during Vary’s Junior Year Abroad program. She spent the second semester of her junior year studying French literature in Paris, but during her spring break, Schlessman joined her to review more literature on plants in New Caledonia housed at the Museum of Natural History in Paris. “It was a happy coincidence that a museum with all this information was right there in Paris,” Vary says.

The information Schlessman and Vary gathered in New York and Paris enabled them to secure a grant from the National Geographic Society to travel to New Caledonia to continue their research. They made the trip in January 2004. “By the time we got there, we had a pretty good idea that there was high incidence of dioecy – maybe the highest in the world,” Vary says.

Professor Schlessman examining a plant in New Caledonia

She says she still remembers her first day in the field – a Vassar undergraduate studying plant life on a tropical island in the South Pacific. “Every botanist in the field who collects samples marks them with his or her initials and a number, and when I marked that first plant in New Caledonia LV-1, I said to myself, ‘I’m at the edge of the world doing really cool and interesting things.’ I remember thinking, ‘Yeah, this is what I want to do for the rest of my life.’”

Schlessman and Vary were joined on the trip by two experts in the field, Porter P. Lowry, a curator of the Missouri Botanical Gardens who is headquartered at the Natural History Museum in Paris, and French botanist Jerome Munzinger. All four co-authored the paper that was published this year.

Vary’s work in New Caledonia helped her secure a Fulbright fellowship to perform similar research on Madagascar, and that work became part of the basis of her dissertation for her doctorate degree at the University of California at Irvine. She received her degree in 2011 and subsequently did post-doctoral research in Australia at the University of New England in New South Wales.

When she reflects on the work she has done over the past decade, Vary says, “I look back and see that this research that took me all around the world all started at Vassar.”

She says she’s especially grateful to have been afforded the opportunity to take part in original research so early in her college career. “Scientific research isn’t for everybody. You have to be single-minded and patient – it’s often a very long process. But I’m indebted to Vassar for launching me on this journey.”

--Larry Hertz

Posted by Office of Communications Wednesday, May 14, 2014