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Degree Programs for Nature Lovers

Plant biology grad program helps Evanston residents hone their green skills

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June 10, 2010 | by Matt Paolelli

After spending 25 years in the business world, Evanston resident Glen Madeja needed a change of pace and decided to return to his roots -- in more ways than one. 

Madeja studied biology and anthropology as an undergrad at Northwestern and later earned a master's degree from the Kellogg School of Management. After reading an article in the Evanston Review about the University's launch of a plant biology and conservation graduate program, Madeja -- a self-proclaimed "nature boy" -- decided to return to the classroom yet again. 

Channeling his love for gardening into a degree, he is finishing a master' degree in an area of study that stimulates his passions as well as his intellect.  

In 2004, two of the area's premier institutions, Northwestern and the Chicago Botanic Garden, teamed up to form the nation's first master's degree program in plant biology and conservation. The first class of students began in the fall of 2005. The success of that program led to the launch of a doctoral degree program in fall 2009.  

During his studies, Madeja discovered that helping the environment began in his own backyard, where several invasive plant species were lurking in his garden.  He is now considering the launch of a pilot program to label invasive plants sold in stores, so consumers better understand the environmental risks of placing such plants in their gardens. 

For his master's thesis on invasive plant species in backyard gardens, Madeja also was able to conduct extensive fieldwork at the Chicago Botanic Garden, giving him a new perspective on the facility. 

Classes are held on the Evanston campus and at the Chicago Botanic Garden's new Daniel F. and Ada L. Rice Plant Conservation Science Center, a 38,000-square-foot facility containing laboratories, classroom space, a visitor gallery and a library.  

"It's kind of neat for me as someone who was a member of the garden for more than 20 years," Madeja said. "So that was another bit of a bonus for me to get behind the scenes at an organization I'd been involved with as a visitor for years." 

With support from academic departments at Northwestern including biology, anthropology, economics, civil and environmental engineering, and Earth and planetary sciences, the interdisciplinary program is applicable to a variety of scientific career paths, said Karen Taira, who entered the part-time master's program in fall 2009.  

Taira is a lifelong Evanston resident who works as coordinator of the Evanston Ecology