Science & Tech

Photographing Sumatroscirpus rupestris for the first time on Mount Phan Xi Păng, Vietnam. Image: Julian Starr/Provided
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On Oct. 4 2021, University of Ottawa professor Julian Starr interviewed with the Fulcrum to discuss his research, the discovery of a new plant species, and fieldwork. 

Starr completed both his undergraduate and master’s degree at the University of Manitoba. Afterwards he received his DPhil from the University of Oxford in England. After finishing his postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Montréal, he split his time halfway between the Canadian Nature Museum and the University of Ottawa. 

Starr mainly studies plant systematics, which is the science that names, discovers and determines evolutionary relationships of organisms. The U of O professor’s particular focus is on the sedge family, specifically on the cyperaceae. He says most people are familiar with the cypress papayas species as Egyptians, Romans and Greeks used it to make paper.

“The ideal way to classify plants is to create groups that are what we call natural, which means they’re the result of evolution, and there are methodologies for doing that.”

“So, if you presume, for instance, that the reason why things look alike is because they share a common ancestor, you can use a methodology called cladistics. Then if you presume that evolution occurs by bifurcating tree as the main pattern, you can then seek out characters that suggest two things have a common ancestor, because they have a character that’s similar.”

The reason Starr began research in systematics was because he was curious as to “what is a species?.” He later learned that this is a very complicated question with dozens of answers. Nevertheless, he was excited by the idea of systematics since the second year of his undergraduate degree, where he luckily found a systematics professor to shadow and work with. 

In the past, Starr has traveled across North America, Europe and South America to collect many different plant species. In 2015, his research on Mount Phan Xi Păng, Vietnam led him and a colleague Étienne Léveillé-Bourret to discover a new plant species, which they named Sumatroscirpus rupestris. What surprised the researchers the most was that this species was found 2,400 km north of where it was presumed to only be found in Sumatra, Indonesia. 

Starr described his discovery further, detailing that “the amazing thing was when we first found the plant, they were making a cable car that would take people to the top of Mount Phan Xi Păng, and they were literally blowing the whole place up. I mean, this is one of the most important botanical mountains on earth, and they’re destroying it.”

He continued, “and then somebody came along, and they were yelling at us, of course, we don’t speak Vietnamese, but our colleagues do and we were right at the moment where they were going to dynamite the whole place. One of my golden rules of fieldwork is to never, you know, go faster than you want to, but they were hustling us up to hide under a wooden structure. Then we heard this whistle and beeping going on, and a huge kaboom sound. Immediately after, all this rock came raining down.”  

In terms of the realities of university research, Starr added that “there’s that element of discovery at least for what I do, and it’s not all lab-based. There’s literally an Indiana Jones element to it where I’ll be clamoring up mountains in Vietnam, hunting down long lost plants. Sometimes it can be really long, it’s hard work. I mean, there are pleasures to it, but it’s also tiring and sometimes dangerous. I’ve had my moments when I’ve gotten a little worried about what’s gonna happen next.”

When asked if he could provide any insight to students looking to pursue a career in science research, Starr responded, “I would say try to figure out what it is you truly enjoy. Then once you can figure that out, which is really the hardest challenge in life, then it’s almost like the rest is easy from then on. Find that person that does that thing and contact them and tell them how enthusiastic you are for the kind of research they do, more likely than not that person is probably going to help to achieve the goals that you have. Then you just sort of do what you do because you love it and it’s not about money, it’s just about enjoying yourself.”

Currently, Starr is teaching the majority of his courses for the year in hopes of being able to continue his research in Vietnam this April. For more information about professor Julian Starr, you can visit his website here.