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Plant Biology Program Takes Root

Northwestern and the Chicago Botanic Garden will offer a one-of-a-kind doctoral degree in plant biology and conservation.

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September 23, 2008 | by Megan Fellman
EVANSTON, Ill. --- Northwestern University and the Chicago Botanic Garden will offer a one-of-a-kind doctoral degree in plant biology and conservation.

The doctoral program, which will begin in fall 2009, grew out of the successful master's degree program in plant biology and conservation started by the two institutions in 2005.

The new program was created by University and Chicago Botanic Garden leaders in response to an urgent need to train scientists to address pressing plant conservation needs worldwide. The program has a plant-specific focus not found in other conservation doctoral programs.

"The resources of Northwestern University and the Chicago Botanic Garden complement one another to create a learning environment that could not be duplicated by either one alone," said Northwestern University Provost Daniel Linzer.

Native plant species are increasingly endangered around the world. According to the World Conservation Union, 30 percent of the world's plants are threatened with extinction by 2050. The Midwest has some of the most highly endangered habitats in the country, including grasslands, tallgrass prairies, bluff prairies and wetlands. Not enough scientists are trained to understand the biology behind saving specific plant species and reestablishing endangered habitats.

Students in the interdisciplinary program will have the opportunity to gain the experience, skills and knowledge needed to become critical scholars, leaders and practitioners in the fields of botanical science and plant conservation.

"We will offer students a real depth of subject matter and plenty of opportunities to get their hands dirty doing work in the field," said Nyree Zerega, director of the plant biology and conservation program and a lecturer in the program. "This practical experience, combined with the curriculum, will equip graduates to do 'big-picture' conservation projects -- see the problem, figure out how to address it and then translate the knowledge into application."

Students will receive advanced training in plant ecology, evolution and biology and in applied plant conservation theory and methods. This foundation will prepare them for careers in academia, botanical gardens, governmental and non-governmental agencies, and other organizations.

"I believe no other city in the United States has the diversity of plant people that the Chicago metropolitan area does," said Patrick Herendeen, adjunct professor at Northwestern and senior scientist at the Chicago Botanic Garden, who will teach in the program. "Plant biology professionals work at the Chicago Botanic Garden, the Field Museum, the Morton Arboretum and our many universities and municipalities, to name just a few."

These area institutions and scientists will be resources for student researchers and their projects, says Herendeen.

The doctoral program, along with the master's degree program, will be housed in the Daniel F. and Ada L. Rice Plant Conservation Science Center at the Chicago Botanic Garden. Classes also will be taught on Northwestern's Evanston campus.

Ground was broken on the Rice Science Center in June. When completed in fall 2009, the 38,000-square-foot building will serve as an international center for plant conservation research, providing a world-class teaching and laboratory facility. The center also will have a public space, where students can discuss their work with visitors.

The doctoral program will include more than 15 teaching and research faculty from Northwestern and the Chicago Botanic Garden in fields such as ecology, population genetics, restoration ecology, invasive plant biology, pollination biology, plant evolution, taxonomy, paleontology and climate change.

Other Northwestern students, including upper-level undergraduates, will be able to take courses offered by the program.

Applications are now being accepted for the doctoral program; the deadline for fall 2009 admission is Dec. 31, 2008. More information can be found online.
Topics: University