Editor’s Note: This piece was originally published online in the UNM BioBlog on Jan. 30, 2018, written by Biology Professor David Hanson. This is part of our project to help connect the Daily Lobo audience to more members of our community.
Not, “Why do you WANT to study moss?” rather, “Why would anyone in their right mind ‘LET’ you study moss?”
This assault on my new career choice came from a senior and quite famous plant physiologist in my department when I was a graduate student. For a moment, I wondered what he meant. Did he imagine someone should leap into me and physically knock me off my path to save me from being run over by a bus? Maybe he thought my advisor should force me into another career path or just kick me out of graduate school for my choice.
This event happened shortly after I had ended two years of indecision and struck out in this new direction. I was marrying the passion that I had developed for mosses as an undergrad — yes, I said, mosses — with my new love for photosynthesis in grad school.
Fortunately, I had thought long and hard about my decision, and I was able to ramble off some reasonable retort rather than being crushed. It helped that a second faculty member, who was using the copier behind my illustrious berater, had overheard the question and was visibly containing laughter.
Still, I was a little unsettled by his comment. Would studying moss make me a hermit? Would I end up with moss growing on me after assuming a crouching pose for too long? Nonetheless, I stayed on track and worked even harder.
Since then, moss has only brought me joy.
First, studying moss has taken me into the wilderness that most just hike past or trample on. I used to just see green things, and now every inch explodes with diversity as if a veil was lifted from my eyes. Bogs in northern Wisconsin and Michigan really are beautiful, especially when the northern lights put on a show.
Second, moss (actually, its close relatives called hornworts) was the key to getting me a post-doctoral fellowship halfway around the world, in Australia. There, I studied how hornworts’ photosynthesis is more like algae than plants. That was a fantastic land, and I would not have come back but for the offer of a faculty position here at UNM (which they made after I gave a seminar on hornwort photosynthesis).
Now, as a full professor in this department, I find myself in a world that is upside-down from my graduate school days. Well-known biologists come to me, because they think mosses are so promising.
Mosses and hornworts are interesting from so many scientific perspectives. If you like thinking about evolution, they are the earliest land plants. If climate change is your thing, they cover 2 to 3 percent of the land on Earth and represent massive carbon stores.
Does that get you thinking about life in space or on other planets? Well, moss may be the best organisms to terraform Mars. They can dry up and go dormant for decades, then come back to life in an instant when introduced to water. Some even survived a crash of the space shuttle (they were sent up for experiments on how plants respond to gravity).
How about biofuels or improving agriculture? Mosses are heads and shoulders above other plants for testing out genetic modifications (you can replace their genes with new ones easily) and their photosynthetic metabolism is just like crops, so much so that private companies want to pay me to work with moss.
How about defense? Surely moss cannot help there? Wrong. I just can’t tell you about it. (Hint: mosses are everywhere).
My experience is so far from what I imagined on that fateful day when that famous plant physiologist questioned my interests. Thank goodness I didn’t give up.
The point of this story isn’t to get you to love moss (although I hope you do). Rather, it is to encourage all of you to find and stick to your passions.
There are so many opportunities all around you at this University and in the Biology Department. When I was an undergrad, I didn’t know what my passion was, but I discovered it through interesting courses and research experiences. The never-ending intricacy of small things, like mosses, had been unimaginable, and it changed my view of the world.
For me, it started with an introductory botany class that was harder than I had expected, but was more exciting too. This semester, Biology faculty will team-teach a new biodiversity class (Bio 191) with no prerequisites. It’s just a way for us to share the things that spiked our interests and see if it points you down a new path.
Remember this: when you find your passion, you will feel like doors are opening, not closing. When this happens, chase it down.
After all, as my Ph.D. advisor used to tell me, “If it’s worth doing, it’s worth over-doing.”
My passion is moss...go ahead and laugh if you didn’t the first time, I can take it. I’ll even laugh with you.
A moss-made man
David Hanson is a professor in the Biology Department. He studies photosynthesis of all things, especially small things, and likes to make wedding cakes decorated with plants. No moss decorations...yet. You can contact him at email@example.com.