Since coming to Bucknell University in 1973, Professor Emeritus of Biology Warren Abrahamson has striven to create a biology department that holds itself to the highest standards possible. He endorses these standards by embracing a healthy mix of teaching and research. “Science,” he says, “isn’t a body of facts that you learn by rote; it is a process by which we learn new information. The best way to teach science is to engage students, and it’s easier to engage students in labor-intensive research.”
During his 39 years in the classroom, he has focused on two labor-intensive areas of study that at first glance have little relation to each other. One area of Abrahamson’s work examines interspecies ecology and coevolution, exploring the complex and interdependent relationships developed by goldenrods, herbivorous insects, gall formation and natural enemies of herbivores including birds like the black-capped chickadee and the downy woodpecker. In the second, he engages in research at the Archbold Biological Station in Florida that explores ecosystems that develop in regions that regularly endure fire. His studies at Archbold demonstrate that initiating prescribed burns allow species that have adapted to fire-prone areas to thrive, help control invasive species and protect that environment overall. Both areas of study are ultimately related as they serve to broaden our knowledge of organic evolution. Says Abrahamson, “Evolution is the theme that unifies biology. Typically science examines a concept by exploring lower levels, but we also understand that as we look at minute mechanisms we also need to look at larger-picture, higher-level questions. Evolution provides this higher-level perspective.”
The holder of the David Burpee Chair in Plant Genetics since its establishment in 1983 and the first Bucknellian to be named a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Abrahamson is also the bridge that spans three generations of Bucknell professorship. When Professor Emeritus of Biology Wayne Manning (deceased) came to Bucknell in 1945, he took the 20-specimen strong herbarium on campus and turned it into one that boasts more than 20,000 specimens. Abrahamson found the herbarium languishing in Taylor Hall’s attic, rescued it and petitioned for its permanent housing and a dedication to Manning, saying, “It is atypical for a University herbarium to owe its existence so entirely to one individual.” Incoming Burpee Chair holder Chris Martine, an evolutionary plant biologist, is excited to have such a resource available. “Chris told me he can’t believe his luck with what’s waiting for him here,” says Abrahamson, “so it’s that much more satisfying we were able to restore the herbarium as successfully as we did.”
Abrahamson’s plans for his retirement include continuing his conservation work with local agencies like the Merrill W. Linn Land & Waterway Conservancy. He also intends to continue his fire-ecology research at the Archbold Biological Station where he is a Research Associate. “It’s pretty simple; I really love nature and being outside,” says Abrahamson. “That’s what started this whole career for me.”
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