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  • School of Integrative Plant Science
  • Plant Biology Section
  • Plants
  • Evolution
  • Environment
  • Nature
  • Ecosystems
Joyce G. Chery, assistant professor, Plant Biology Section in the School of Integrative Plant Science

Academic focus: My lab focuses on the evolutionary developmental biology (evo-devo) of plants. We integrate classical plant anatomical and developmental techniques with systematics, phylogenetic comparative methods, and cell and molecular biology to address the patterns and processes which shape the diversity of plants. We leverage living and archival plant collections and engage in fieldwork to contribute to scholarship in plant evo-devo.

Research summary: Woody vines — or lianas — are the boa constrictors of the plant kingdom. By virtue of their unique ability to twist and turn, lianas can wrap around their host, slowly suffocating trees, while they migrate towards the light at the top of the canopy. How did plants evolve to do this? My lab seeks to address this question through bridging fine-scale processes afforded by investigations in developmental, cell and molecular biology to large-scale macroevolutionary patterns understood through phylogenetic modeling.

What do you like to do when you’re not working?

I love to take long, long walks! I have never earned a driver’s license (I always say “this is the year!”), so my main mode of transportation my entire life has been to walk. The longer the walk, the better!

What are three adjectives people might use to describe you?

I just texted my family group chat to get a proper answer. The verdict is in: resilient, dynamic, fearless.

What brought you to Cornell CALS?

I have two answers. First, the School of Integrative Plant Sciences (SIPS) provides an unprecedented opportunity to learn from and work with world-class leaders in all fields of the plant sciences. I look forward to engaging in collaborations across SIPS. That’s the research reason. Secondly, the emotional reason is that CALS is home. I am a proud alumni of the plant sciences major (BS 2013). I am thrilled to contribute to botanical research in my home state (New York) and at my alma mater.

What do you think is important for people to understand about your field?

Plant anatomy teaches us the fundamental building blocks that are used to construct flowers, leaves, fruits, wood, everything! Understanding plant anatomy is a foundational tool to describe the natural world.

Why did you feel inspired to pursue a career in this field?

I grew up right outside of New York City (Baldwin, New York). I was not raised to hike, camp or awe at the natural world, so how did I randomly become inspired to study plant diversity? Both of my lovely parents are from Haiti, so one year we went on a vacation there. For some reason, I was stunned by the diversity of plants I observed, and for the first time in my life I asked myself “Why are these plants here, so different than the maples back home?”

I didn’t know it at the time, but in retrospect this was my first lightbulb moment, and the first time I truly appreciated the diversity of plant life. With this newly discovered curiosity, I began to intern at the New York Botanical Garden, while majoring in chemistry at the State University of New York, then eventually transferred to CALS where I was exposed to the exciting world of research. I never looked back!

What’s the most surprising thing you’ve discovered about Cornell so far?

I have been pleasantly surprised by the abundant resource support in CALS — from faculty development workshops to grant writing support staff.

If you had unlimited grant funding, what major problem in your field would you want to solve?

Lianas are increasing in size and abundance in numerous forests worldwide. They are serious competitors with trees. Why is this bad? Because if they continue to harm trees, either through direct contact and suffocation or resource competition, the global carbon stock will be at risk. If I had unlimited money, I would figure out how to make lianas into shrubs or trees, as to reduce their competitive nature and save our trees!

Learn more about Joyce's research on The Chery Lab website or visit her profile page.

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