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The Northerner

Professor with a passion for plants

Maggie Pund

Maggie Whitson examined a viral culture in her microbiology class.

Maggie Pund, Staff writer

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Hidden away in a corner of the first floor of NKU’s Science Center, unknown to most students, is a professor surrounded each day by about 40,000 preserved biological specimens. Many students might not know the herbarium director and many might not be aware of the work she does to keep the university from closing this place of preservation, which seems to be the current trend of universities across the country.

Continuously working to preserve the pieces of a field in decline, Maggie Whitson has been fighting for a decade to support a continued interest in botany and to make sure the herbarium stays relevant to the university. In 2003, Whitson landed what she described as her dream job as a professor and employer of the herbarium at NKU. Very unique to a university the size of NKU, the John W. Thieret Herbarium has been a part of NKU’s campus for 40 years.

“[One of my goals] is to make sure the herbarium stays a relevant part of the university and not be phased out as has happened at so many other schools,” Whitson said.

Botanists are currently fighting an uphill battle at universities. In order to protect this place full of “lasting contributions to science,” Whitson has been working for 10 years to help modernize and demonstrate the significance of this rare university resource. She describes plants as her “first love.”

Plants seem to invade her life from all angles. After a while, it is easy to understand that she is truly always surrounded by plants and it is not by accident. Whitson is what her friends and coworkers might describe as a “plant nut” or “tree geek.” Though, as she would say with a smile, that label is “most cool.”

“There are not too many people out there that are crazy about trees and plants and botany,” said D.J. Scully, Campbell County Extension Agent for Agriculture and Natural Resources and coworker of Whitson for about ten years. “It’s obvious from being around her that she loves what she does. That comes through when you talk to her and that comes through when she teaches.”

It is also obvious when you walk into Whitson’s office. Carrying on the tradition of botanists around the world, Whitson decorated her office with a plant theme; this decor plasters the walls and doors inside and outside of her office. Next to the stacks of botany books on her shelves are samples of Costa Rican plants she fought with airport security to be allowed to bring into the United States.

 

Background

With a “double whammy” botanical background from birth, Whitson was taught to understand the value of plants and botany from the start. She was raised by a botanist mother accustomed to quizzing her about local plants from a young age and a forester father adept at teaching her how to study the wild.

Now she teaches her own classes for the Campbell County Cooperative Extension out in the wild like her father and in the classroom at NKU like her mother. At the Environmental Education Center, Whitson teaches groups about how to plant to attract pollinators to help the local environment in addition to helping people explore the biodiversity of the local area. As expected, she teaches biology and botany related courses at NKU.

“She is very passionate about what she does, and she does not really care about what other people think of her,” Diannea Wilson, an environmental science senior who recently worked with Whitson on a research project, said. “Botany is her life.”

Although the major is now unavailable, Whitson studied botany and earned a bachelor’s degree at the University of Florida. She developed her interest in teaching while attending graduate school at Duke University.

When searching for a job, Whitson carefully selected NKU from a short list of schools that she applied to for work. She wanted a school with a teaching emphasis as well as a herbarium. Now a part of the school for ten years, she considers NKU perfect. She plans to stay at the school to continue to grow and develop in the biology department

 

Personality

What you see with Whitson is what you get. Her love of botany is described by her coworkers as contagious. Her love for the subject and all it involves sucks people in.

She is not the type of person to care if she is seen in unfashionable field gear, according to Wilson. She is there to do her job. She is the type of person that is always “botanically prepared.” With a plant press in the back of her car and with her wherever she goes, she is prepared to collect and preserve at a moment’s notice.

“Her long hair, her fanny pack and her Harry Potter glasses, I mean she is the real deal,” Scully said. “[She is] kind of what you’d expect to see in a book describing a botanist.”

Whitson does not make a point to limit herself only to things that are in style at the time. Just like botany and her fanny pack, when she finds something that works for her she sticks with it and does not look back.

“Botany is out of style, and I could be teaching a lab full of human anatomy and physiology students in here if all the plants weren’t here,” Whitson said. “So we are very lucky to have this nice modern facility and active herbarium, and we have got a lot of support for the herbarium from the school.”

One of the first things that comes to mind when people think about Whitson is her sheer intelligence and commitment to being a scholar, according to Scully. She is dedicated to finding answers and solving problems.

“If she doesn’t know something, she will find out the answer,” Scully said. “She will go to all ends to make sure she can get the answer. That points to just how thorough she is and her commitment to her field.”

 

Accomplishments

Her determination and dedication led to a discovery that placed a plant from the southwestern United States into a new genus. Before Whitson’s research, people assumed the physalis plant she found was a “slightly strange but otherwise unexciting physalis.” Supported by molecular, phylogenetic, morphological and chromosomal data, her work showed that the species was quite different, and she was given the honor to name a new genus.

Similar to the plants she works to preserve and study every day in the herbarium, Whitson’s work is now preserved in scientific history. Physalis carpenteri (Solanaceae) was placed in a new, monotypic genus called Caliphyalis. Whitson’s name will always be associated with the discovery and new genus. Not every scientist receives such an honor in their career.

Her discovery was first published in 2012 in a botany journal titled Rhodora. Since her find, she has also been visiting schools all around the midwestern United States to look for the plant that she named and discuss her findings with other universities.

“You can’t just name a plant and not say anything,” Whitson said.

 

An ‘Old-Fashioned’ Interest?

Although a once valued scientific study, botany majors are continually being eliminated as a major option at colleges around the country. Most schools are starting to only offer a botany concentration. Locally, only Miami University offers a botany major.

The national trend is to merge the botany major with biology. The emphasis at most universities is to educate pre-med students, and those students would rather have a biology degree, according to Whitson.

On a mission to gain support for botany and keep the herbarium relevant, her visits and interactions with universities around the country demonstrate her passion for preservation. With the economy down, budgets are tight and states are cutting money to schools. In response, schools have to find ways to tighten their belts.

When the current herbarium curator retires at a small university these days, most schools do not hire someone else. Instead, all the work and research is put into storage and the space is used for something else. The trend nationally is that people tend to look at these collections as “crusty” and “very old-fashioned” and question why they are not using DNA to phase them out, according to Whitson. One of Whitson’s main goals at NKU is to keep that from happening.

“I’d like us to stay relevant enough that sometime in the far future when I retire that [NKU is] going to be excited about hiring another botanist to replace me and run the herbarium.”

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Professor with a passion for plants