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Rhododendron Research Network


 

Rhododendron Research Network Objectives
Juliana S. Medeiros and Erik T. Nilsen
Rhododendron Research Network Committee Co-Chairs

Executive summary
The Rhododendron Research Network is a collaboration between the American Rhododendron Society (ARS) and an international group of Rhododendron researchers. ARS members are expected to benefit from better connection to state of the art research on Rhododendron, while researchers hope to benefit from scientific resources managed by the ARS, from the invaluable cultural experiences of ARS members, and by having a strong outreach connection. Three goals are proposed for this collaboration:
     1: the promotion of Rhododendron as a model woody system for research,
     2. the promotion of ARS and botanical garden as a resource for Rhododendron research and public engagement, and foster participation and membership of scientists in the ARS, and
     3. the creation of opportunities for collaboration and communication between the research community and ARS members.

To start toward these goals we have established the rhododendron research network website (www.rhodo-research.net), which will act as a point of communication for all network activities. Future planned activities include:
     1. publish an issue of Rhododendrons International concerning this collaborative effort,
     2. publish an article about rhodo-research.net in a scientific journal,
     3. seek out funding for network activities,
     4. organization of a conference focused on rhododendron research, and
     5. initiate citizen science projects to strengthen the collaboration between ARS members and researchers.

We envision a long-term collaboration between the ARS and the scientific community that will yield mutual advantages and promote Rhododendron awareness world-wide.

Why promote Rhododendron as a study system?
As one of the most speciose and diverse genera of plants, Rhododendron has already proven to be a rich study system for addressing a wide range of biological questions. The 1000+ species in the genus offer opportunities to investigate a range of ecological roles. Some rhododendron species form the predominant component of native floras, others are members of dwindling endangered populations, and some are even aggressively invasive alien species. These characteristics are associated with diversity in climate, plant habit, morphology and stress tolerance, with the result that Rhododendron has proven to be a fascinating choice for studies in evolutionary biology and plant physiology. This type of work is expected to be even more fruitful in coming years, when recent efforts to fully sequence the genome of Rhododendron are finalized. As there are relatively few woody plant genomes available for study, Rhododendron is now poised to become a preeminent study system in genetics as well. In addition, species within the genus can boast great value to human society, including a wide variety of local ethnobotanical uses, some of which are being explored for their potential in medicinal chemistry. As a result, the popularity of the genus Rhododendron as a study system has the potential to grow over time. A perceived problem is that the existing international nature of the Rhododendron research community, combined with the overwhelming amount of scientific information bombarding researchers today, has resulted in many small pockets of researchers working in relative isolation, with haphazard opportunities to engage others working with Rhododendron. Thus, a concerted international effort is needed now to realize the full research potential with this genus.

Why partner with ARS in this project?
As we show below, there is a great deal that the ARS has to offer to the Rhododendron research community in terms of scientific resources. As researchers, we would like to see this collaboration with the ARS continue to grow. Also, more than ever, researchers are being expected to reach out and engage the public in scientific conversations, as a way to improve scientific accountability to society and as an informal method of science education. By partnering with the ARS, we hope to build opportunities for researchers to communicate their findings to non-scientists, and to learn from ARS members who have invaluable expertise in Rhododendron. Furthermore, we expect ARS membership to benefit and increase through enhanced awareness of international research on Rhododendron, while in turn gaining opportunities to enrich research through citizen science efforts.

Besides being popular for studies in ecology and evolutionary biology, another interesting aspect of Rhododendron is its immense popularity in horticulture, with both species and hybrids strongly represented in botanical and home gardens throughout Europe, North America, Asia and Oceania. During the early part of the 20th century, the ARS grew out of both research and aesthetic interests in the genus. Today, ARS members contribute substantially to scientific research on Rhododendron, and the society's archives harbor a wealth of knowledge, with great value for research. Many members have made a lifetime of Rhododendron observations, ranging from maintaining detailed hybrid pedigrees, conducting genetics studies, documenting climate performance evaluations, and undertaking conservation-minded field collecting expeditions. The ARS archives include a long-standing publication, the Journal of American Rhododendron Society (JARS), and a large database on horticultural, ecological and morphological attributes of species and hybrids. This resource collection is rare in the scientific world, where immense efforts are currently being made to compile the scant information available for most plant genera. In addition, the ARS has a history of supporting research through grants, and provides opportunities for public engagement in research through JARS articles and annual conferences. Members of ARS have also been active in organizing annual scientific conferences on Rhododendron and compiling extensive bibliographies of the scientific literature. Lastly, the strong relationships between the ARS and botanical gardens, along with the ARS seed exchange, provide access to invaluable propagule resources that are unmatched in the scientific community. These rich assets are familiar to some researchers, but society engagement by scientists could be enhanced by directed efforts to foster communication and collaboration between ARS members and the international Rhododendron research community.

Action items in support of our objectives
These action items are presented somewhat in chronological order, although some activities may take place concurrently.

Action Item #1:  Develop content for rhodo-research.net
This action item is currently being led by Dr. Juliana Medeiros and Dr. Robert Weissman.

As one of the primary avenues of communication today, internet searches are now the first ways most people investigate a new topic, and this is true in the scientific community as well. Thus, we have created rhodo-research.net, which will serve as the central point of communication between members and dissemination of network activities. As a long-term goal, an example worthy of emulation is TAIR, or The Arabidopsis Information Resource, which can be found at https://www.arabidopsis.org/index.jsp. TAIR's webpage has been a critical feature in the rise of Arabidopsis as one of the most productive model systems in biology to date. Though the TAIR webpage is focused more closely on genetics than we anticipate for rhodo-research.net, it certainly sets a gold standard in the establishment of internet research resources.

Currently, content includes a homepage, this goals page, and a network participant directory. Other potential content items we expect to develop include: a collaborative projects page, a citizen science page, a rhododendron bibliography, a discussion forum, a data portal that provides links to existing online, open access data, and potentially a database where participants can share data. One challenge for a website is content development and maintenance, as ARS leadership and members are already working at full capacity to maintain the current ARS website content. Thus, we will identify researchers who will lead content development and maintenance for each area. We will also work with ARS staff and other researchers to seek funding, as well as develop and maintain up to date content in accordance with ARS and rhodo-research.net needs. Additionally, volunteers will be recruited through The Holden Arboretum to compile resources for the webpage. These resources will undergo peer review by those knowledgeable in Rhododendron, and we will recruit volunteer scientific reviewers from within the rhododendron research network.

Action Item #2:  Publish an issue of Rhododendrons International detailing the objectives of the rhododendron research network and some different types of research currently taking place using the genus.
This action item is currently being led by Dr. Juliana Medeiros and Dr. Glen Jamieson.

We have requested that abstracts be submitted by October 15, 2017, and full papers be returned by March 1, 2018. Note that we have already identified a number of individuals who have volunteered to participate in this action item. If you have not already been contacted about this, but would like to participate, please contact Juliana with your abstract.

Recently, the ARS rolled out the first edition of Rhododendrons International, an occasional publication aimed at building international communication and collaboration among Rhododendron societies. It is an excellent venue to begin a conversation about the rhododendron research network within the international research community, and to introduce the objectives of the network to ARS members. As a multi-society publication, Rhododendrons International is aimed at a broad audience with a range of scientific acumen. Thus, this initial offering of Rhododendrons International will focus on lay summaries of research accessible to a non-scientific audience, with more technical information referenced and traceable back to the peer reviewed scientific literature. This format is also in many ways ideal for communication among scientists in diverse fields. The high specificity of terminology and concepts within modern sub-disciplines of biology makes reading peer reviewed scientific literature in other fields a daunting challenge. The importance of lay summaries, which focus closely on relating big picture conclusions and broader impacts of research, is being increasingly recognized as a way to foster interdisciplinary communication and collaboration, and to promote societal engagement in science (for example, see http://www.pnas.org/content/112/12/3585.extract).

Action Item #3:  Publish one or more review papers on Rhododendron and introduce the rhododendron research network to the broader scientific community in a peer reviewed scientific journal.
As a parallel to publishing an edition of Rhododendrons International, we will communicate the rhododendron research network objectives to the broader scientific community through at least one review article published in a peer-reviewed journal. The tentative topic for one article will be: "Genus Rhododendron: an emerging model system for woody plant physiology, ecology and evolutionary biology." This article would provide a technical summary of past work in Rhododendron, and also suggest pressing questions and future directions in Rhododendron research. We plan to pursue publication in one of the following journals: the Botanical Journal of the Linnaean Society or the New Phytologist Tansley Reviews.

Action Item #4  Seek funding for the rhododendron research network activities.
We will seek funding for these efforts from a variety of sources. Potential targets could include a National Science Foundation (NSF) conference grant (info here: https://www.nsf.gov/bio/ios/confworkshopguidance.jsp) to support action item #5, a scientific research conference on Rhododendron. Based on the outcomes of this meeting a Research Coordination Network grant will be sought (information can be found here: https://www.nsf.gov/funding/pgm_summ.jsp?pims_id=11691). This grant would focus on supporting action items #2 and #6.

Action Item #5   Organize an International Rhododendron Research conference in conjunction with an ARS conference.
At the heart of scientific discovery is the opportunity to learn from others by engaging in face-to-face discussion. We propose that a research conference be held in conjunction with a national meeting of the ARS to facilitate planning the activities of the rhododendron research network, and to stimulate the interaction between research scientists and ARS membership. The scientific meeting could take place before, or overlap with the ARS meeting. ARS members could benefit from hearing about cutting edge research on Rhododendron and research scientists could benefit from learning about resources and applied opportunities available in the larger ARS community. In addition, we would like to recruit interested ARS members as representatives in the rhododendron research network (both scientist and non-scientist ARS members). A joint meeting would be the best venue to enhance the interaction between research scientist and the ARS membership community and to develop the foundation for the rhododendron research network.

Action Item #6  Establish collaborative experiments and citizen science experiments.
Collaborative experiments are the hallmark of a robust research network, and they provide opportunities for scientists to engage in interdisciplinary projects that would otherwise be out of reach. A long-term goal of the rhododendron research network will be to support development of such projects. As an example, Erik Nilsen has proposed a common tropical garden site, where species could be grown outside to study how Rhododendron diversity is shaped by genetics versus the environment. Nilsen has also involved ARS members in research on leaf rolling in temperate Rhododendron by requesting leaves and data from ARS member gardens, the results of which were included in a JARS article (Nilsen and Tolbert 1993). This also highlights another great opportunity afforded to the rhododendron research network by partnering with the ARS, namely the potential to engage ARS members in citizen science projects. A wonderfully successful example of this type of work is Project BudBurst (see http://budburst.org/). Led by researchers at the Chicago Botanic Garden, this project compiles phenology data collected by K12 classrooms and enthusiastic plant hobbyists, and these data have been included in a number of scientific publications. Citizen science experiments are a challenge to design, but they can also provide unique scientific insight and a depth of public engagement in science that cannot be matched by other types of outreach. Dr. Robbie Hart (Missouri Botanical Garden) has suggested a phenology monitoring project, and given the enthusiasm of ARS members, we expect that they will welcome the opportunity to participate in this type of activity.

Reference
Nilsen, E. T. and A. Tolbert. 1993. Does winter leaf curling confer cold stress tolerance in Rhododendrons. J. American Rhododendron Soc. 47 (2): 98-104.

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