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A Collegiate Plant Initiative Success Story: Chloee Collins at the Smithsonian Gardens

Posted on Jul 24, 2018 by in The OFI Blog |

Chloee Collins (left) and Sarah Hedean (right) at the U.S. Botanic Garden in Spring 2018

(The following article is written by Natalie Dozier, Public Relations Director at Collegiate Plant Initiative)

Most people begin to develop an appreciation for plants later on in life. For
Chloee Collins, however, her love and appreciation for plants began at a young age and
has grown throughout her life. “I remember my best memories from growing up were
spent in the garden with my mom,” she said. After fostering this love for plants, she
translated it to her studies. Chloee is a senior botany major with a minor in wildlife
ecology and conservation at the University of Florida (UF).

As a student, Chloee delved into various opportunities to work with plants on
campus. She worked alongside Dr. Dave Clark, a professor at UF, to prepare coleus for
plant drops hosted by the Collegiate Plant Initiative (CPI). “I’ve worked with Dr. Clark for
the past two years, and the Collegiate Plant Initiative was established while I was here,”
she said. “I was mostly involved in preparing the plants for plant drops, but I have seen
CPI grow in many ways.”

Most of Chloee’s research has focused on breeding new varieties of coleus and
basil. “I was working on the ‘Amazel’ Basil project here, which is the first downymildew‐
resistant basil on the market,” she said. This variety of basil is produced clonally
by cuttings, so she has continued to work on the development of inbred lines for making
resistant plants that can be grown from seeds.

After getting her hands dirty with plants at UF, Chloee wanted more. She looked
into various opportunities with Dr. Clark and applied for internships at the Smithsonian
Gardens (SG) and Disney World’s Epcot. Chloee was over the moon when she
discovered that she was offered a position at both the Smithsonian and Disney World.
After careful deliberation, she set her heart on the Smithsonian’s program. “I chose the
Smithsonian because of its connections to the worlds of conservation and horticulture,”
she said.

Chloee started as an orchid intern working with the SG Living Collections
Manager Sarah Hedean in January and had the incredible opportunity to work with over
7,000 orchids at SG’s offsite greenhouses in Maryland. In addition to daily cultural care
of the collection like watering and repotting, Chloee had several special duties. She
virus tested a large portion of the collection, an ongoing project. “There’s a big push for
orchid collections to be clean,” she said. Orchids are susceptible to viruses that are
easily transferred via pest and humans. Once a plant is infected, the disease cannot be
cured, and plant death is a serious issue with such rare and valuable plants. She also
helped digitize the orchid collection where pictures and descriptions for each specimen
were uploaded on an online database so that anyone can view the collection online.
One of her favorite parts of interning at the Smithsonian was collaborating with
the United States Botanical Garden (USBG). Each year, the Smithsonian and the USBG
host an orchid show. This year, the orchid show was held at the USBG with
supplemental orchids provided by the Smithsonian Gardens. “My job was picking out
the plants, creating labels for them and making sure they were in tip‐top shape,” she
said. Chloee loved having the ability to contribute to the show experience and work
with the USBG.

Hands down, the best part of her SG experience was working with orchids and
seeing the impact of her contribution to the orchid collection. “Working with such
special, precious plants was a treat,” she said. “I got to work with such unique plants
and unique people as well.” Seeing people observe the work of her team and react with
such joy was heartwarming for her.

“A lot of people are plant blind,” she said, “and I think horticulture at any level is
a great route to make people care.”

Fortunately for Chloee, the greatest hardship she faced was the cold winter
weather in Washington, D.C. “It was just plain cold, and I’m a Florida girl. It was rough,”
she joked. Overall, Chloee felt that her coworkers and mentors were paramount to her
having a productive internship. Staff members like Cheyenne Kim were very helpful to
her. Chloee was also in an environment with conditions that were similar to her
research experience at UF. “Even though I was working with different plants, it wasn’t
like I was in completely new territory and out of my element,” she said.

After four months of botanical bliss, Chloee returned to UF with more experience
and confidence under her belt. She felt that her experience with the Smithsonian orchid
collection taught her how to efficiently deliver information to all types of people. It also
enhanced her passion to work in the plant industry. Now, she wants to complete her
graduate studies and work as a plant breeder or plant geneticist within the realm of
plant conservation.

“All of this is going to become clearer as I go down the road of life,” she said. “A
lot of it is still a question mark, but I know that I want to pursue higher education in the
plant science world.”

For Chloee, it is important that she engages in worthwhile work that benefits
others. Her experience with the ‘Amazel’ Basil reinforced this belief. “The culinary
market for basil took a plummet from downy mildew, so this work helps people save
their businesses,” she said.

Her time at the Smithsonian furthered her belief in the importance of
horticulture. Smithsonian Gardens aids the public in not only beautifying the area, but
also engaging and educating those who visit. Chloee felt that this concept was
something she first discovered with CPI.

“Plant drops are powerful in the sense that they give people the opportunity to
get excited over something as simple as a free plant,” she said. “Both the Smithsonian
and CPI want to make people who love plants.”

When asked about the best advice she would give to other students, Chloee
recommended that those who are interested in the horticulture industry should look
into every opportunity across the supply chain. “We need every single kind of person to
make all of the different points of view come together for a great picture of how
horticulture can best serve the public,” she said.

In general, Chloee hopes that others who wish to better educate themselves
about plants will surround themselves with both plants and the people who love them.
This was especially true regarding people who love plants in reference to her guidance
from Dr. Clark.

“Find someone who is really passionate about making sure people get to where
they want to be,” she said. “I didn’t know how to get into this world until I had a
mentor who would steer me in the right direction and really cared about my success.”