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After a few posts about science in the garden, have you wondered whether any scientists have made discoveries using gardens or garden plants? The answer is that a whole “field’ of science (sorry ☺) was discovered in a garden and it is still progressing due to work on garden plants.

You’ve probably heard that the science of genetics was born in a monastery garden in the 1860’s. Gregor Mendel was a monk who carefully worked out genetic inheritance by growing garden pea plants. He work was ignored for about 30 years, until a few other scientists came up with the same ideas and rediscovered the importance of Mendel’s experiments.

In an interesting parallel, a woman named Barbara McClintock was born about the same time as Mendel’s work was being rediscovered, in 1902. As a child, Barbara liked playing sports and spent a lot of time outdoors. By the time she was a teenager she discovered she liked learning new things and decided to go to college. At the time women were not always encouraged to go to college, but she was determined to go. She went to Cornell University without even having enrolled, and they let her in.

Barbara liked Cornell and studying science so much she stayed on as a graduate student, getting her PhD in botany. She studied the genetics of corn plants. She studied what the clumps of DNA called chromosomes looked like in corn plant cells, years before scientists discovered what DNA was and how it worked. She also went out to the field and planted the corn, so she knew each plant and where it came from. When she worked in the corn field she wore "knickers" she had specially made, at a time when most women only wore dresses.

Barbara_McClintock_(1902-1992)(Acc. 90-105 - Science Service, Records, 1920s-1970s, Smithsonian Institution Archives Persistent URL:Link to data base record Repository:Smithsonian Institution Archives View more collections from the Smithsonian Institution.)

After graduating, eventually she got a job as an assistant professor at the University of Missouri. Her job only lasted a few years because she didn’t always follow the rules and did unusual things. Once when she realized she had forgotten her keys and found her work building was locked, she climbed up the front and crawled through a window. Assistant professors were not supposed to climb buildings.

Finally Barbara found a position at a research laboratory, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. There she spent many years growing corn and studying corn genetics. Soon she realized that the corn seeds were not coming out in the colors expected based on simple genetics. Interested in finding out why, Barbara worked hard and came up with an answer. The only problem was that the answer was that the genes were jumping from place to place. Because her answer was so different from what anyone expected, many other scientists didn’t understand or didn’t believe her. Her work was kind of like Mendel’s, ignored and forgotten by and large.

The good news is that Barbara persisted and finally people did begin to understand what she had discovered. In fact, scientists were so impressed with her work that in 1983 she was given the Noble Prize in Physiology and Medicine.

So you see, studying plants in a garden can lead to great things.

For more information:
The National Library of Medicine has files of Barbara McClintock’s actual papers/correspondence and photos under The Barbara McClintock Papers.

Books: (Covers and titles are affiliate links to Amazon)

Barbara McClintock: Genius of Genetics (Great Minds of Science) by Naomi E. Pasachoff

Barbara McClintock: Pioneering Geneticist (Makers of Modern Science) by Ray Spangenburg and Diane Kit Moser

Barbara McClintock: Pioneering Geneticist (Unlocking the Secrets of Science) by Kathleen Tracy

Books for adults:
A Feeling for the Organism, 10th Aniversary Edition: The Life and Work of Barbara McClintock by Evelyn Fox Keller

I read this book as a graduate student and remember it had a large impact on me. Now I recently re-read it and see that it has some flaws, but is still interesting reading.

For another viewpoint, try: The Tangled Field: Barbara McClintock's Search for the Patterns of Genetic Control by Nathaniel C. Comfort


This week we have an unique opportunity to find out about what scientists do. DNLee at Urban Science Adventures stopped by to let us know about the Diversity in Science Carnival. Diversity in Science #1: Black History Month Celebration is up and it’s a wonderful opportunity to meet scientists past and present.

Note:  Keep in mind that these posts were not necessarily written for children.

And if you are interested in an outstanding post about DNLee and how she got her start in science, visit Nurturing a Scientific Mind.


What do you think of when you hear the word "scientist?" The classic visual of a person in a white lab coat peering into a glass tube filled with colorful liquid? Someone tucked in a laboratory somewhere, far from the real world?

Actually, nothing could be further from the truth. I think it would be helpful for children to choose a career in science if they knew what scientists really do and what they really are like. To help children learn more about scientists I'm considering having a "Meet a Scientist Monday" as a regular post. Let me know if you like the idea and even better, if you know of a scientist who would be willing to let me interview him or her.

Here's an example of a scientist, using information from Dr. Thomas Eisner's book, "For Love of Insects" and from his website (go visit it just to see his photographs and his FanciFul Designs).

1. What is Dr. Eisner's scientific field?

Dr. Eisner is a chemical ecologist. That means he studies how insects and other arthropods communicate and defend themselves using chemicals.

2. Does he spend all his time in a laboratory?

No, Dr. Eisner does much of his work outside in natural areas. In fact, he calls himself a field biologist. Dr. Eisner is also a nature photographer, as you can see from his website.

3. Did he always want to be a chemical ecologist?

Dr. Eisner always liked insects, and his father was a chemist, but he didn't become a chemical ecologist until after he got his PhD degree. He says he had the idea in his mind that he would like to study chemicals and insects, but it wasn't until he found a special beetle called a bombardier beetle that he was actually able to do it.

4. Where does he work?

Dr. Eisner is a Professor at Cornell University.

5. Why do you call him Dr. Eisner? Is he a medical doctor?

Many scientists go to graduate school for a a degree called a doctorate of philosophy or PhD for short. Anyone who gets a doctorate is called Dr.

6. Does he wear a laboratory coat?

I met him when I went to school at Cornell and he just wore regular clothes.

Do you have any other questions about Dr. Eisner? If so, let me know.

Here is information on two books by Dr. Eisner written for interested adults:

For Love of Insects by Thomas Eisner

Secret Weapons: Defenses of Insects, Spiders, Scorpions, and Other Many-Legged Creatures
by Thomas Eisner, Maria Eisner, and Melody Siegler