I grew up in a Swedish family obsessed with the outdoors. We were not like our neighbors at all. My dad worked as a physician before he retired. My mom is an artist who was home with us until we were school age, and then she went on and got a chemistry degree and worked for a pharmaceutical company. But it was not my parents’ careers that defined our family. I have two younger siblings, a brother and sister, and an extended Swedish family that was equally outdoorsy. Today my dad has an entomological inventory-company, and my mom has art exhibits and makes nature movies. My sister is a chemist and my brother a computer programmer, and both are excellent photographers. My sister can identify lots of spider species, and my brother knows music inside and out (especially obscure, old, and weird songs).
Before any of us could walk, we were dragged out in nature, regardless of season, weather, and age. In the summers the entire family and two large Labradors crammed into a tiny 18-foot sailing boat with no facilities. We sailed for weeks in the Swedish archipelago, burning our noses in the bright sun, being afraid of lightning hitting the mast, and getting annoyed when Lego pieces disappeared into the centerboard trunk when the boat leaned over.
Other times we drove north in our equally tiny (16-foot) camper pulled by a small SAAB into the wilderness of the Swedish-Norwegian mountains. In the winter we skated on long-distance skates on frozen lakes or went cross-country skiing. I think someone in our family, at one point or another, c
L. Struwe taking a photograph of a lily, 1986
ollected almost all possible groups of natural items–breast bones and skulls from birds; minerals and fossils; butterflies, flies, and mosquitoes; pressed plants; various kinds of wood; and twigs with mysterious holes. We kept lists of observed bird and plant species, and took pictures of sand dunes, sunsets, and strange rocks. It was all interesting and exciting, despite my and my siblings’ complaints when we were wet, bitten, or cold (at least that is how I remember it).
As a result of this rather unusual upbringing, I have been to at least half of the natural preserves in Sweden and a third of its abandoned mines, and I have walked on century-old pilgrim trails in virgin forests with eagle nests in the pine trees. Tent poles broke over us because of heavy snow in July, canoes tipped over, and I got to hug a semi-wild wolf. Life was interesting.
After I was 13, I got involved in a national organization for teenagers interested in nature and the environment that arranged camps, courses, and field trips. Eventually I ended up on their board as secretary of field biology working against acid rain, the clear-cutting of forests, and nuclear waste storage while educating people about biodiversity and nature. This group was also a great source for good boyfriends. There were summer camps and bird-watching trips to France, and I arranged courses in edible plants and marine biology, among other things.
I always loved plants but when I was young I did not know one could have a career as a botanist. I never envisioned myself a
s a professor or a researcher, so I settled for becoming a city planner—a person who makes management plans for natural and urban areas to conserve nature and open space. This career track required a three-year college degree, but after 2 1/2 years in college I had a revelation. I could not imagine myself spending the rest of my life in a career trying to save the world. I realized that that would totally depress me and that I would rather try to save the world in my free time. I did not know what to do, so I skipped the natural resource management semester and instead signed up for biological statistics (which I failed) and advanced botany, which included a field course in northernmost Sweden. I have been stuck in botany ever since.
Along the way, teachers encouraged me in my botanical studies, and I was offered a part-time position at the Swedish Museum of Natural History’s herbarium. After finishing my B.Sc. in Biology and Earth Sciences, I was offered a graduate student position in Uppsala (Sweden) and moved there. To make a long story short, while a graduate student in Sweden I had two children, but then moved to New York with the father of my children and got a job at the New York Botanical Garden. Eight years after I started as a graduate student I got my Ph.D. from Stockholm University in Sweden. I stayed on at the New York Botanical Garden as a postdoctoral researcher and came to Rutgers in 2001.
Sweden is one of the most gender-equal countries in the world, and the United States is not. This has been very obvious from my own experiences. When I grew up, it was just assumed that I would go to college, and it was 100 percent up to me what to study, at least I got that impression from my parents. They might have had some secret way of guiding me to a reasonable decision, but I never noticed. I worked my way through college with some help from my parents, but generally I was on my own after I was 18, financially and in all other ways. I am lucky in that I have had extremely supportive parents. There was never an issue that a woman could or could not do specific things–all options were open.
Without the support of the teachers of the botany department in Stockholm (both male and female) and researchers at the Swedish Museum of Natural History, I would not be a botany researcher today. Because of these people, and my own persistence, part of my job now is to travel across the world looking for new species; teach students about poisonous, medical, and edible plants; and save the flora of New Jersey. My research specialty is the historical evolution of a group of plants called gentians, especially Latin American ones. I love that I am allowed to be obsessed with plants as part of my career. I think we are all best at what we love to do, and this is what I love to do. I never thought it would be achievable until I one day found myself here at Rutgers. When my children were born, I knew that they would follow me while they were young, that I would not “follow them” and stay at home–so I have worked full-time since the youngest was a few months old.