Meet the new head of science at New York Botanical Garden – The Journal News |

Most people experience the New York Botanical Garden as a wonderland of pretty flowers and popular annual exhibits that showcase tropical orchids in the dead of winter and toy trains dressed up for the holidays.

Behind the scenes, though, the 250-acre Bronx landmark is a world-renowned emporium of serious scientific research, with state-of-the-art laboratories to study fungi and ferns, prestigious publications, researchers scattered across a few continents, and a preserved plant collection that’s among the four best in the world.

Since late January, the Science Division has been led by Barbara Thiers, who lives in Yonkers with her husband, Roy Halling. He is also a research scientist at the Botanical Garden — yup, that makes her his boss, but he’s not a direct report. “It’s fine,” Thiers says. “We’ve always worked together.”

She oversees several million-dollar budgets and a staff of about 100, with another 20 or so graduate students also under her wing. And she’s up and answering email from colleagues around the world by 6 most mornings.

Who: Barbara Thiers

Her job: Vice president for science administration at the New York Botanical Garden

How she got into the business: Thiers started at the Botanical Garden 33 years ago as a postdoctoral intern and has held many positions since then. In 2000, she was named director of the Steere Herbarium, which contains 7.3 million preserved plant specimens, making it the largest collection in the Western Hemisphere. “It’s meant to be a physical record of the Earth, past and present,” she says. In her new job, she will continue to oversee the massive collection.

Best part of the job: Working with the 30 or so staff members of the Steere Herbarium. In recent years, Thiers has led the effort to make the plant specimens available online by digitizing high-resolution images of the specimens and incorporating the collection information into a searchable database, for researchers and the general public. “So far, we’ve got about 2 million digitized,” she says.

Why the herbarium matters: “Having the actual plant material from 100 years ago gives you a lot,” Thiers explains. “In this time of global change, you can look at the ways plants used to grow, how they are physically changing. You can reconstruct the environment, weather patterns.”

Worst part of the job: Budgets! Grant applications are right up there, too.

Also a researcher: While Thiers is primarily an administrator, she likes to keep a hand in her botanical specialty, liverworts (“They’re like mosses,” she explains), with ongoing research projects. “I try to keep them small and focused because it’s too depressing not to keep them moving forward,” she says. She is now completing a review of about 60 species of liverworts for a volume of the Flora of North America, a project to document all the plants of the U.S. and Canada, which has been going on since the 1990s.

And a gardener: “While our real estate agent was showing us houses, we were looking at the yards,” she remembers. They now have a nice corner lot in the Homefield section of northeast Yonkers, with a vegetable garden heavy on leafy greens and herbs (no relation to an herbarium, by the way). “We grow a wide range of perennials, with a special fondness for day lilies and tree peonies and trees, including a weeping cherry, yellow magnolia and redbud.”

Upcoming: Travel is a constant in Thiers’ world. “I travel a lot, but not for long periods of time,” she says. This year, trips are planned to Wales, Texas, Florida, Idaho, Brazil, California and Panama.

Fun fact: Her C.V. (Curriculum Vitae) runs to seven single-spaced pages.


See a video of Barbara Thiers, the new head of the Science Division at the New York Botanical Garden at


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