Roadside Science

Exploring science from the roadside and beyond


I conduct experiments in coastal Maine. I know what you’re thinking: hikes along rocky inlets, kayak excursions in pursuit of moose, tents pitched under canopies of spruce and fir.

That is not my world. Most days I find myself crouched along roadsides. My only break from assaulting mosquitoes comes with the quick bursts of wind following the regular passing of Mack trucks. I live the glamorous life of a biology PhD candidate studying an invasive plant.

From my less than pristine vantage point, I witness some fascinating science. Mostly I watch an intense battle between two species of jewelweed, one from India and one from the United States. From the moment these plants emerge side by side in early May, they race for vertical domination. Whoever grows tallest fastest wins sunlight, and with it the energy for seed production. The invasive jewelweed nearly always wins, but I suspect the native jewelweed may evolve to survive this fierce new neighbor. I’ll let you know how it turns out.

I didn’t follow a direct path to roadside science. I studied English at Penn State University and then worked as a paralegal, thinking I would attend law school. I stayed sane during my brief law career by volunteering in the greenhouses at the San Francisco Botanical Garden. In preparation for graduate school I interned with the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia and the University of Pennsylvania’s Morris Arboretum. I then worked for the Harvard University Herbaria for two years. In 2009 I began my biology PhD at the University of Virginia.

Along the way I’ve been lucky enough to study plants everywhere from the highest mountains of Peru to the cloud forests of Venezuela to secluded beachside trails on Shelter Island, New York. I will happily accept any opportunity to go traipsing into the woods. But I’ve also spent a lot of time road tripping and I recognize that some of my best thinking, writing, and botanizing happens alongside the road or behind the wheel.

So this blog will cover my own adventures in natural history and science from both roadside perches and backwoods trails. I will also go deeply into the scientific literature to bring you remarkable stories from other scientists. I am a plant person, but animals are just too charismatic to ignore, and bacteria do some pretty wild things as well, and rocks—rocks have some of the best stories to tell. So I reserve the right to write about all subjects—plant, animal, mineral, or otherwise. We humans are interesting studies too, so I will also write about people and what it means for us to step into the wild, and if the wild even exists anymore (I believe it does).

Feel free to contact me with questions or ideas for posts. Or if you want to share your own story, let me know and we can discuss a guest post. New posts will appear every other week so please visit often.

Until then, keep your eyes on the road, your hands upon the wheel, and your mind full of science.

Carolyn Beans

me in field

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  1. Pingback: Networking tips for graduate students ‹ Varsity Net

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