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A Symbiotic Relationship
- Major: Plant Science
- Class Of: 2015
“ What other schools lack is the capability of doing hands-on interaction. I’m working in the greenhouse, but I actually got to drive on the fields in a tractor. Will I ever drive a tractor again? Probably not. But it was definitely the experience that I wanted. A lot of the knowledge that you get at Cal Poly Pomona, you’re not going to get on the job. ”
As the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens’ orchid specialist, Brandon Tam is busy. He cares for close to 16,000 award-winning orchids, manages the institution’s renowned orchid conservation efforts, breeds new hybrids, and travels the world for competitions, talks and orchid hunting.
By the way, he’s only 21. He graduated from Cal Poly Pomona in December with a plant science degree. And he’s sprouting a long and fruitful career in the plant world.
“The great thing about plant science is that it’s between botany, which is full-on in the classroom and under the microscope, and also agriculture, where you’re always using your hands and digging,” he says. “Plant science was right in the middle, and had the aspects of in-class and practical, hands-on experience.”
His career at the education and research institution in San Marino is rooted in his childhood. As a young boy, Tam and his grandmother would garden on Sundays, her only day off from owning and operating a small store. When he was 7, a white cymbidium orchid in the garden caught Tam’s eye.
“I thought it was the most impressive, beautiful flower I’d ever seen in my life,” he says. “My grandmother saw that I enjoyed it so much that she gave it to me, and that’s when I started my own collection. It got me started in the orchid world.”
By 14, Tam was already volunteering at the Huntington, logging 900 hours guiding tours, working in the conservatory and gardening. In high school, he had the opportunity to intern in the orchid collection.
He graduated from West Covina High School at 16, and spent two years at Mt. San Antonio College. The Huntington’s botanical garden director offered him the task of curating and overseeing its orchid collection, and by 17, Tam had become the institution’s orchid specialist.
But he knew there was only one place to go if he wanted to get his plant science degree.
“Cal Poly Pomona had such a great reputation for agriculture,” he says. “I was determined to get in. It had always been a dream of mine, and a goal of mine. And in my opinion, it’s the only school out there that’s qualified to teach plant science and agriculture.”
Like many students, Tam attended college while working full-time. Some days, he would have to make multiple trips between San Marino and Pomona. In the morning he would work on cataloging a huge donation of orchids, and by the afternoon he would be laboring in Cal Poly Pomona’s Spadra Ranch field. But for him, juggling the hectic schedule was worth it.
“What other schools lack is the capability of doing hands-on interaction,” Tam says. “I’m working in the greenhouse, but I actually got to drive on the fields in a tractor. Will I ever drive a tractor again? Probably not. But it was definitely the experience that I wanted. A lot of the knowledge that you get at Cal Poly Pomona, you’re not going to get on the job.”
Much of the knowledge Tam gained from his plant science classes benefits the day-to-day operation at the Huntington. The fertilizer mixture and concentration in the Huntington orchid pots is a combination he learned in soil science lab, attuned for the sensitive tropical plants. Propagating new orchid hybrids using sterilized tools is a procedure he learned in the classroom.
“It was something I was very impressed with the first day I stepped on campus,” Tam says. “I said, ‘Wow, this isn’t just a sit-behind-the-desk kind of lecture class.’ It’s really impressive.”
The time he’s invested in the institution shows. On a quick jaunt through the property, he points out where the Huntingtons are buried and mentions some trivia about the Chinese Garden’s renovations.
“Volunteering was a way of helping out the community, which I really did enjoy,” he says. “I wanted to know what working at a research institution would be like. It really opened my eyes, and gave me an idea of what I wanted to do. It was definitely a symbiotic relationship.”