By Lauren Hines | Bond LSC
It seems most people grow out of bombarding their parents with millions of questions. However, plant biologist Morgan Halane never could shake the habit.
Such boundless curiosity could not be contained to just one man. Halane has reached out to other Black students and botanists through cofounding the social media initiative #BlackBotanistsWeek.
However, his path didn’t begin until he was an undergraduate at the University of Missouri when he found a subject that had more questions than he could ask.
“I was really close to joining an HIV lab, actually,” Halane said. “Then, Walter Gassmann at the Bond Life Sciences Center sent me an email, and we were talking about plant immunity and plant immune systems. It was something that I hadn’t really thought about, and I wanted to learn more… I was thinking more about the human immune systems like cold, flu, HIV and those diseases, but wasn’t really thinking that much about a plant getting sick.”
While Halane left Mizzou after receiving his Ph.D. in 2017, he’s recently spent time spreading his curiosity and the gospel of botany. Shortly after a confrontation in Central Park in New York between Christian Cooper and Amy Cooper in May 2020, a social media initiative called #BlackBirdersWeek emerged.
Halane’s friend Tanisha Williams and he decided to adapt the idea to highlight their passion.
Williams and Halane cofounded their own initiative called #BlackBotanistsWeek. From July 6 to July 11, the initiative encouraged people of color in botany to post about their work and stories about needing diversity in the field.
“It was basically a way to make Black botanists more visible to the world,” Halane said. “I got a lot of emails and messages, and we were really happy to get that support.”
However, Halane’s outreach work didn’t stop in July. In November, he hosted an online lecture in partnership with the Ohio Holden Gardens, which touched on topics from navigating nontraditional scientific careers to being Black in the field of science and the systemic racism and unconscious bias that comes with it.
Halane started in botany at Mizzou when he joined the Walter Gassmann lab as a freshman in 2012. During that time, he analyzed how the immune system of the model plant Arabidopsis functions and is regulated.
“That’s where he really excelled, and he is just very conscientious and precise and meticulous in how he does things,” said Gassmann, interim director of Bond LSC. “He had a whole project to himself that ended up being in a paper in Science fairly quickly, so that’s a huge success by our standards. He stood out as being just really a good student and quick learner.”
After Bond LSC, Halane took a more nontraditional career track, opting to follow wherever his curiosity took him. After working in labs in Korea and California, he worked in the public and private sectors of science with the National Parks Service and a non-profit called Aanika Biosciences.
In the Holden lecture, Halane discussed how the traditional scientific career path is defined by white scientists and the belief that non-conformity to the traditional path disproportionally harms Black scientists.
Halane encourages white scientists in leadership positions to help solve systemic racism in academia instead of appointing Black scientists to do the work. Halane also says these leaders should amplify Black scientists’ concerns and not minimize them. White leaders in science should also understand that a single Black scientist is not representative of Black people as a whole.
“A lot of things that are happening with systemic racism and unconscious biases in the scientific community are also happening in our society in general,” Halane said. “If we can focus on solving those problems in our bubble, I think that will positively affect the other bubbles out there in society also. Doing what we can here will then hopefully ripple out.”
After finishing his most recent project with the National Parks Service, Halane is unsure of what his next steps are. His next position though, whether it’s in academia or the non-profit sector, will have to be challenging enough to keep him asking questions.
“Sometimes just being a Black person doing science in a visible way is actually [outreach] even though you’re not actively focused on outreach,” Halane said.
Contributors to #BlackBotanistsWeek include Tanisha M. Williams, Nokwanda P. Makunga, Georgia Silvera Seamans, Rupert Koopman, Maya Allen, Morgan Halane, Brandi Cannon, Jade Bleau, Natasza Fontaine, Beronda L. Montgomery, Tatyana Soto and Itumeleng Moroenyane.
Morgan Halane is just one alumnus from Bond LSC. If you want to highlight other alumni, email Roger Meissen at firstname.lastname@example.org.