Missouri Botanical Garden Bulletin

Volume LXXXV Number Four July/August 1997


Communicating With Computers

SCIENTIFIC RESEARCH has always relied on gathering and sharing huge amounts of information. Botanists working on enormous projects need to collaborate and share data with colleagues located all over the world Managing these asks efficiently keeps costs down and produces more rapid results. To meet the challenge of updating botanical research methods, in 1995 the Garden created the Center for Botanical Informatics (CBI), directed by Dr. John Schnase. The Center develops new ways of combining computers and communications to support scientific research; it also creates new sources of revenue for the Garden from the information products and software tools it develops.

A Five-Year Plan
CBI has three immediate goals .Over the next five years it will provide practical support for research projects at The Garden, train students in applied bioinformatics, and introduce information products and services for commercial development and use by the global scientific community.

Results for the Real World
CBI develops innovative communication strategies and software by finding solutions for actual research projects based at the Garden, including the Flora of North America, Flora of China, and Flora Mesoamericana "Botanical research provides an ideal laboratory for testing new technology, and our work benefits the Garden at the same time," said Dr. Schnase.

Changing the Way Science Is Done
CBI is developing ways to utilize the Internet to allow projects to proceed much faster than is possible with traditional methods. Manuscripts and other documents can be submitted, edited, discussed, and reviewed electronically, without the need to mail paper copies. This is critically important for the Flora of North America, for example, which has nearly 800 contributors who live and work throughout North America.

People and Computers
Social informatics" studies the way people and computers interact in a work setting. Dr Kay Tomlinson, assistant director of CBI, and Mark Spasser, bioinformatics coordinator, develop projects in this area, including a collaboration with the School of Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In January the Garden and CBI initiated a cooperative research agreement with the Laboratory of Interactive and Cooperative Technologies of the Universidad de las Américas Puebla, Mexico (UDLA). The partnership will allow both institutions to explore technological solutions to current problems in managing large-scale information projects. The group in Mexico is headed by Dr. Alfredo Sanchez, an assistant professor at the Department of Computer Systems Engineering at UDLA.

Training and Technology
Education is an important part of CBl's mission. This June and July, the Center is sponsoring its first Summer Training Program in Biological Informatics. The program includes lectures in systematics, taxonomy, and biodiversity information management, presented by researchers working at the Garden and other institutions. In addition to Dr. Sanchez, four members of the research team from UDLA are in St. Louis for the summer program. The participants are Maricarmen Amezquita, assistant researcher; Cesar Flores, a master's level graduate student; and Cristina Lopez and Jorge Cabrera, advanced undergraduate students. Students in the Summer Training Program are working on specific informatics problems for the Flora of North America and flora of China projects. Continuing research projects begun last semester at UDLA, the students are developing prototype software tools for the flora projects.
From left to right: Jorge Cabrera, Mark Spasser, César Flores, Dr. Kay Tomlinson, and Dr. Alfredo Sánchez

interactive and coopreative technologies lab