Dr. Peter Crane is the Carl W. Knobloch Jr. Dean of the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies and Professor of Botany at Yale University. Peter received his B.Sc. and Ph.D. in Botany from the University of Reading in the United Kingdom. Afterward, he conducted postdoctoral research at Indiana University and worked for about 17 years at the Field Museum in Chicago, rising from Assistant Curator in Paleobotany to Museum Director. Peter then served as Director and Chief Executive of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. He also served as the John and Marion Sullivan University Professor at the University of Chicago before joining the faculty at Yale where he is today. Peter has received many prestigious awards and honors during his career. First and foremost, he was knighted in the United Kingdom in 2004 for his contributions to horticulture and conservation. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society, a Foreign Associate of the National Academy of Sciences, a Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In addition, Peter has received multiple honorary degrees and fellowships, including an honorary doctoral degree from the University of Cambridge. He was also the recipient of the International Prize for Biology, as well as many other national and international awards. In this interview, Peter shares more about his life and science.
People Behind the Science Podcast Show Notes
Life Outside of Science (02:41)
Peter loves to travel and often gets to explore different places in the world as part of his scientific and other professional responsibilities. He enjoys spending time outside and is delighted to be able to work outdoors in the field for his research. When he has time to relax and pick up a book, Peter gravitates towards reading biographies of interesting people.
The Scientific Side (05:45)
Much of Peter’s work has involved studying fossil plants, particularly plants from about 130 million years ago, to find out what they tell us about plant evolution and the evolution of flowering plants. Peter also compares fossil plants to those alive today to understand the relationships between historic and present day plants.
A Dose of Motivation (07:10)
“I view science as successive approximations to the truth.”
What Got You Hooked on Science? (09:25)
As a kid, Peter spent a lot of his time outdoors, and his love of plants developed naturally. During high school, his interest in plants and the natural world was further stimulated by wonderful teachers. Peter remembers being inspired by observing plants in the field and also thinking about plants in an archeological context. In university, he continued to receive guidance from fantastic mentors, and many people along his journey have helped Peter become the scientist he is today.
The Low Points: Failures and Challenges (16:25)
There are times when scientists feel like they are not making any progress and also many times when they feel like they have gone off in the wrong direction. In his early days, Peter took on a massive project trying to synthesize seed plant relationships, and he thought he would never finish. Tenacity and perseverance were key to getting him through difficult times like these.
A Shining Success! (19:17)
When Peter was a postdoc, he studied a 100 million year old fossil plant, and they had difficulty determining the identity of this plant. As he and his colleagues put the pieces together, it became clear that they had solved the puzzle. The ancient plant was closely related to modern plants such as magnolias, and this was a very satisfying discovery. He has had other exciting successes in discovering surprisingly well-preserved flower and plant material from 100-125 million years ago in unexpected places. Peter was recognized with knighthood for his scientific accomplishments, public service, and leadership at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and he describes this honor and the phenomenal experience of attending the ceremony.
Book Recommendations (03:30)
Believer: My Forty Years in Politics by David Axelrod, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell, Gingko: The Tree That Time Forgot by Peter Crane
Most Treasured Travel (24:05)
The most memorable travel experience for Peter was a trip he took with his family to the island of Borneo. There was a wonderful array of plants and animals there. In particular, he was fascinated by the plant life which included pitcher plants, giant rafflesia flowers, many enormous tropical trees. No matter where he has traveled though, there have always been interesting plants. Peter still has a short list of plants, such as the beautiful bristlecone pine and the carnivorous cobra lily, that he has yet to see in the wild during his travels.
Quirky Traditions and Funny Memories (27:34)
Peter and his colleagues always manage to have a lot of fun together. A particularly memorable experience for him was acquiring a huge Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton for the Field Museum. He and others from the museum participated in the exhilarating auction and were thrilled to have emerged as the proud owners of this magnificent specimen. Then they had to figure out what to do with it. They engaged a group of scientists to study the skeleton, reconstructed the dinosaur, and were excited to put it on display at the Field Museum.
Advice For Us All (35:00)
There is great enjoyment in being able to do different things, and sometimes a change can be as good as a rest. A career in science provides a lot of variety and is so much fun. Despite the fact that we’ve been studying the natural world for hundreds of years, there are still so many unanswered questions and many things left to be discovered. It is really inspiring to think that you could be one of the people who makes these discoveries.
Peter’s work focuses on the diversity of plant life – its origin, fossil history, current status, conservation and use. From 1982 to 1999 he was at the Field Museum in Chicago, and from 1992 to 1999 served as Director with overall responsibility for the Museum’s scientific programmes. From 1999 to 2006 he was Director of The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, one of the largest, most prestigious and influential botanical gardens in the world. Peter returned to Chicago in 2006 as the John and Marion Sullivan University Professor at The University of Chicago, before being appointed at Yale in 2009. Peter was elected to the Royal Society – the UK academy of sciences in 1998 and was knighted in the UK for services to horticulture and conservation in 2004. He currently serves on the Boards of the Global Crop Diversity Trust, the Field Museum, The Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies, Yale-NUS College, the Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley Foundation and Wellesley College.
This episode was originally published on September 21, 2015.