Fordham Professor Collects Pollen Data Used Nationwide


Published: November 15, 2007

Allergy sufferers can thank Guy Robinson, Fordham College at Lincoln Center (FCLC) biology professor, for his helping hand during the sneeze-inducing seasons. Robinson gathers daily pollen counts during the spring, summer and fall seasons from all around the Hudson Valley area, which is then used nationally and checked on the Weather Channel.

THE OBSERVER: Why is the information provided by pollen counts important for us?

Guy Robinson: Allergy sufferers are the main reason. There is a demand for this information in order to understand when things are flowering, how much they’re flowering, or, in other words, how much pollen is getting put out into the air. I think the average person doesn’t realize that the pollen that is actually causing troubles is not from plants whose flowers are really visible; rather, they are usually from trees, weeds or grasses, which actually have flowers that are very inconspicuous. This is the reason we submit our data to the National Allergy Bureau.

The Observer: How is the pollen collected?

GR: It’s collected with an air sampler. It’s a gadget that has a weather vane so it will direct itself to where the wind is blowing from, and it has a little aperture in front of it that draws in a very narrow stream of air. This air inside the device gets directed onto a little microscope slide, which has a sticky substance on it, and the pollen sticks to that kind of grease. Furthermore, [the pollen] moves from one end to the other of the slide over the course of 24 hours. What you get is a register of what’s happening over this course, because some plants may flower at one time of day, and then be gone by the evening and vice versa. It changes with the weather as well, so there is a night-day cycle and a weather cycle. For example, the immediate effect of rain is that it will wash the pollen out of the air, but in its aftermath more flowers come out.

The Observer: Where do you collect pollen and why there?

GR: It is located in Central Westchester in the town of Armonk, because Fordham has a research station there. There, you can get the typical sample of the kind of pollen you will find in Central Westchester, but it turns out that it’s very similar to what you find in northern New Jersey, western Connecticut, as well as in Manhattan and Queens.

The Observer: How did you get involved in compiling pollen information?

GR: Because I researched fossil pollen for my Ph.D. I looked at pollen that is taken out of lake floors that may be tens of thousands of years old. Fossil pollen is very similar to modern pollen; the only difference is that it’s not vital anymore. Pollen grains have many shapes and sizes, but they are often quite distinctive, so you can recognize what plant it comes from when you look at it under a microscope. The outer cover of pollen grains is very resilient. While they are in the air, over time, they descend to the ground, where they deteriorate. But if they fall into a lake or other surfaces, they will get preserved, and they just build up over time so you may get thousands of years of built-up pollen. With this information, you can reconstruct what the landscapes looked like and how they changed over that time, because you are dealing with huge amounts of pollen that give quite a detailed picture.

The Observer: How did you become such an important figure in pollen collection data?

GR: It’s hard to find people who have any interest in looking through a microscope for hours at a time, especially looking at pollen grains, but I took to it.

The Observer: Have there been any recent significant changes in pollen counts, and why?

GR: The spring of last year we got the biggest counts we ever had. This year was kind of normal, but in that springtime, we had counts that exceeded previous records by three -fold. We’ve gone through some extraordinary times, but what it has to do with climate change, we don’t know yet. But global warming will probably be reflected in the pollen records. Fordham has kept pollen records for more than 10 years now, so we could actually start going back through our data and see if we’re starting to see any trends.

The Observer: You took undergraduate courses as an adult at Fordham College of Liberal Studies (FCLS), and at Fordham’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences for your graduate work. Tell us a little bit of your experience as a student at Fordham during these two stages.

GR: I was a carpenter for many years before I got my bachelor’s degree, but now I pretty much have given that up. I got my bachelor’s degree in the night program that they now call Liberal Studies. So that’s where I actually took my very first biology courses. When I got my degree in 1997, I decided to go to graduate school and that’s when I became a full time student and got my Ph.D. in 2003. I learned all of my biology really at Fordham.

The Observer: Currently, you are also a professor at the Department of Natural Sciences at Fordham. What do you teach?

GR: This semester I teach three of the general biology courses and the labs, and one of the core courses. I mainly teach core science, both a course that is called Perspective Biology and Perspective Chemistry. It’s good to teach this stuff, because it keeps you in mind with a lot of the general concepts and knowledge about biology, which, if you specialize a lot, you forget.

The Observer: Winter is the only time you have off from your work in collecting pollen. How do you like to spend your time then?

GR: Research. Normally, it takes an hour every morning to do all the work involved in pollen collecting and reporting it. I do it every weekday if I’m not teaching morning classes, so there will be no pollen reports on days when I have a 9 a.m. class. I’ve had people help out once and again, but by the time they learn it enough to do it on their own, they tend to graduate.