Director’s Letter July 2023
“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Ozymandias, Percy Bysshe Shelley, 1818
In the age of the Anthropocene, when geologists thousands of years in the future will be able to read the moment in time when humans first left detectable fingerprints in the earth’s stratigraphy, I find myself pondering legacies, good and bad.
Shelley’s sonnet Ozymandias was an implicit criticism of King George III, calling out the long and unpopular reign of the mad farmer King. At the peak of his power King George III ruled over 20% of the world. He was considered by many, including his English subjects, a tyrant, a characterization reinforced by his role overseeing the losing side of the American War of Independence.
One of the King George’s many legacies was Kew Gardens, an institution inextricably linked with the emergence of science. Under his watch Kew Gardens grew into a significant botanical institution. Plants from across the world, including curiosities like the corpse flower, Amorphophallus titanium, which smells like rotten meat and is found in Sumatra, and economically important plants such as Coffea arabica, which supports approximately 2 billion cups of coffee daily worldwide, were cultivated. The scientific powerhouse behind Kew Gardens at the time was Sir Joseph Banks, who served as President of the Royal Society for 41 years, the organization that birthed modern science. King George III left legacies that changed the world, but that also left chaos and destruction in their wake as the lives of millions of native peoples were destroyed in the wake of British colonialism.
On a more modern and upbeat note, a conversation with Dr. Scott Wissinger about his legacy has always stuck with me. Scott was a faculty member an Allegheny College, an institution focused on undergraduate education. He worked at RMBL for 30 years before prematurely passing in 2019. While Scott had an active publication record and regular NSF funding, he measured his impact by the students he trained and their successes.
This month we profile Dr. Susan Washko, one of the many students Scott trained (see adjoining article). An Allegheny alumna, Susan originally came to RMBL to work with Scott. She now helps with RMBL’s undergraduate research program, managing professional development activities, helping students stay on track, and providing personal and professional support as the undergraduates make the transition from classroom learners to active field scientists.
The power of RMBL’s people, and our programs which train the next generation of leaders in field science, should not be underestimated. Society’s capacity to navigate rapid societal change, not just the technical expertise, but having the social capital, the trust and a shared sense of purpose in the necessity of wisely managing the earth’s resources, will be determined by the collective capacity of the leaders we train. Investing in people gives us hope that the legacy of our generation will be more than just a geological stratum composed of plastics and radioactive material, but rather a legacy that honors the richness and beauty of earth’s biodiversity.
Ian Billick | PhD
Executive Director, RMBL