Q&A With Frank Almeda, Ph.D., Emeritus Chairman & Senior Curator of Botany, and Eastwood Associate
Q: You’ve been with the Academy since 1978. How has your work changed?
A: When I started, there were no computers. We used typewriters! Writing papers, communicating with colleagues, setting up research in developing countries, applying for grants—it all took weeks. Today there are so many new tools with impact on every aspect of research, we’re able to ask and answer more questions much faster.
Q: What difference have you seen in Academy visitors over time?
A: Every day, I see growing awareness of our planet’s fragility. Botanists have always appreciated the role plants play, and I get to share that message. The Academy’s rainforest and living roof, full of live specimens, are incredible teaching tools. People frequently say, “I love the living roof, but I can’t put one on my home. What can I do to start living a greener life?” I tell them to recycle, if they don’t already, and to think very carefully about the way they use water. It’s a precious resource.
Q: Tell us about your recent research.
A: With an international team, I studied plant life in Madagascar as a source of future medicines. We looked at what local healers used and at what lemurs ate, and often found they were the same plants.
Q: What does the future hold for botany at the Academy?
A: With a grant from the Mellon Foundation, we’re digitizing images of every “type” specimen in our botanical collection. These images will be stored on JSTOR, an electronic archive, and accessible instantly to researchers around the world—a big step toward repatriating information about plants that are extinct in their natural habitats and exist only in collections and cultivation.
Q: As senior curator of botany, you follow in the footsteps of Alice Eastwood. What can you tell us about her?
A: I call her the “Immortal Alice” because not a day passes that someone here doesn’t speak her name—not just because of the 1,500 specimens she saved after the 1906 earthquake, but because of what she discovered and documented. She was a person of indomitable spirit and optimism, deeply philanthropic, and she’s a fitting icon for the Eastwood Associates, whose generosity supports the Academy’s future.