You would think a professor holding a plant seed, telling his students it could kill them, might turn one off from career in botany. Not so for Western alumna Jennifer McDonald.
As an undergrad at McMaster University, McDonald was on the path to her goal of becoming a human geneticist. The idea of trees and plants were just, well, there.
“From the start, I had the typical view that they’re green, they’re everywhere, some are big some are small and that’s it,” she said.
But a mandatory second-year Biodiversity of Plants course – one to which she openly admitted her approach was “pass it, as long as I get a 51 (per cent) that’s it, I don’t have to do it again”– changed her career focus.
“The professor started off with a demo in class where he had two petri dishes. One had castor beans, which contain ricin and can kill you, and the other ones were common scarlet runner beans. They look very similar,” recalled McDonald, adding the professor then went through the first three rows of the class asking if students would prefer to eat one from his right hand or left hand.
“He told us had enough beans in one of his hands to kill the first three rows and, unfortunately, the majority of us chose the castor. All of us were like ‘whoa,’” McDonald said. “He was the one who really turned me on to the fact that plants are really cool and how they hide secrets in unique ways. One bean being enough to kill a human adult? That’s not something you think about when you talk beans. It was that year I decided plants were very cool and it was definitely something I wanted to do.”
McDonald looks to inspire others about plants, perhaps even in the same way she was, during her upcoming Nature in the City 2016 lecture, part of the free six-week series of illustrated talks, sponsored by Nature London, about nature in and around the city.
After completing her undergraduate degrees, her continuing love for the study of plants brought her back home to London, and Western, where she began her PhD with Biology professor Greg Thorn, focusing on the evolution of fungi, or mushrooms. She completed her thesis last year and is the first to tout the excitement of the wonderful world of being a mycologist.
“It’s not just what you put on your pizza, or what you take to get high, or the black stuff growing in your bathroom. There is so much more to them,” said McDonald, describing some of the more than one-and-a-half million varieties of mushrooms. “And we don’t know about 90 per cent of them.”
She added 15 per cent of medicines we use come from fungi, with another 75 per cent of medicines originating from plants. “Just looking at it that way, they are so important in keeping us alive,” McDonald said. “You take it in this little white pill form, but do you know the story behind it?”
During her time at Western, she discovered almost 18 new species of mushrooms, the majority being in Australia and New Zealand during her field work. But for two new species, McDonald didn’t go far at all. They were in the forest area behind the old Ivey building.
“This little tiny pocket of forest, that tons of people walk by and walk through every year, yet we discovered two new species just right there in front of our face. They only grow on Western’s campus,” said McDonald, who initially didn’t even realize what she had discovered.
“We were looking for species we already knew about when we found them. I identified them based on their morphology and that’s it. Later, when I sequenced the DNA, it was like ‘Wow, that’s not at all what I thought it was.’”
McDonald also taught at Western and her course, Plants as a Human Resource, had the familiar reputation among the students who were applying for medical school – ‘pass it, as long as I get a 51 (per cent) that’s it, I don’t have to do it again.’
“My goal was to change that mentality,” she said. “You don’t have to become a tree-hugger, but I wanted them to be aware of the fact, especially if they’re go into medicine, dentistry or any medical profession, that they will be relying on the knowledge you learn in this class in a biochemical way.”
While currenlty on a part-time contract at Western, helping migrate the Learning Management System for the Department of Biology, McDonald soon hopes to head back the classroom, this time at the front of the class as a teacher.
“Saying this is the end of what we need to know, I don’t think that point will ever be reached in science. There is always going to be more to know,” she said. “It’s the development of these ideas that is so cool. I love telling people how cool plants are. I live for that moment when some goes ‘whoa.’ Best day ever.”
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NATURE IN THE CITY
Sponsored by Nature London, Nature in the City 2016, beginning weekly Jan. 12, brings together local professionals and educators to share the marvels of nature and the resilience of species and ecosystems in London.
Jennifer McDonald will share some of the more obscure facts about the plants we take for granted. Her talk, part of the free six-week series of illustrated talks about nature in and around the City of London, is scheduled for 7 p.m. Jan. 19, at the Wolf Performance Hall at the Central Library.
Visit naturelondon.com for more details.