Community Garden Summit

On Saturday, I spoke with Dr. Terry Woodford-Thomas of the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center at the 4th Annual Gateway Greening Community Garden Summit. This was my first opportunity to speak about science with non-scientists in a formal setting. And it went well.

When I reached out to Gateway Greening to gauge their interest in helping me with my own event aimed at bringing plant scientists and community gardeners together, I was invited to speak at the Summit. They also asked me to help them find a professor at the DDPSC to present with me. The title of the talk was "Plant Breeding and Genetics". Although Terry works on science education and outreach full time, we were not quite sure what kind of presentation to give. We knew the attendees would be well-educated but likely without any specific knowledge of the topic. We certainly didn't want to bore anyone to death.

But it's difficult to develop a presentation plan for a group of people you haven't met on a topic you're not an expert on. After all, I have only recently begun studying plants, and I have no background in plant breeding at all. What I did have to offer was a biological background and an overlapping interest in food systems and gardening. And although we knew we had to make the presentation approachable, we also suspected that the people attending our talk--when they could opt instead to attend presentations like "Organic Gardening Methods"--would likely be interested in learning something new and challenging.

We decided to briefly review a history of crop domestication and to cover the basics of plant genetics that make plants unique and interesting, like the prevalence of polyploidy in our crops. Then, in the style of Michael Pollan's The Botany of Desire, we would tell the stories of a handful of crop species. We would discuss how they were bred and how the genetics of these species impacted their roles in our food system.

Terry already had dozens of slides from various presentations given over the years on similar topics. This was my first opportunity to begin collecting such material for future work, so I had to start from scratch. My topics included the interesting genetics of plants and then I would cover the nightshade and brassica families. Terry covered the history of crop domestication and then the cereals--corn, wheat and rice. 

I tried to think of ways to make my part of the presentation as interesting and approachable as possible without making the fatal mistake of condescending to the audience. That was my greatest fear, because I felt it would help confirm the worst stereotypes about scientists. The ivory towers and snotty attitudes and holier-than-thou high-mindedness. Frankly, scientists are only good at their job when they are honest about all that they don't know, although there are certainly individuals who could be reminded of that occasionally.

Nonetheless, without really knowing my audience or having experience with this kind of presentation before, that was the balance I strove to achieve. I wanted to the material to be understandable but to really offer something new to the audience so they felt that their time was well spent.

We had about ten people attend our presentation. As I mentioned earlier, topics like organic gardening methods competed for the same presentation slot, so it was not altogether surprising that we had a small group. Rebecca came along to support us and to learn as well--she was taking notes and asking questions the whole time! Terry and I traded off presenting our own sections and answering questions as we went.

On the whole, I was very satisfied with the presentation. The audience was curious and engaged, although there were certainly some heavy eyelids in the crowd. (I take no offense, I have been on the other end many, many times and sometimes your eyes just won't stay open.) I could sense that the presentation was dry at times and I learned that I needed to prepare more succinct and engaging ways or presenting certain topics, like marker assisted selection and the real significance of hybrid crops versus inbred lines. I believe that our crop-focused sections were the strongest, which was really the intention and is something I believe I will repeat.

The audience asked many great questions, both to clarify our points and to ask after new information. One woman was intensely interested in the gene banks that save germplasm we brought up. Others were curious about how we propagate seedless varieties. We did not discuss genetic engineering at length, but it was brought up and the only real concern expressed from an audience member was over the potential overstepping of Monsanto's legal team.

Our host, a young man (older than me) whose name I unfortunately forget, was very excited about our presentation. At the end he and I spoke briefly and he thanked us for presenting and seemed genuinely happy to have attended. I got extended feedback from Rebecca, but she's understandably biased. On the whole, I am very happy with how the summit went and I look forward to speaking on a similar topic at the Pints 'N' Plants event in June. I think it was a great first step and I intend to take many more