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Teaching is like planting seeds. Lessons take root, understanding grows and knowledge branches out to new ground.
Professor of Biology Chris Martine has been planting seeds at Bucknell for two years, and was recently honored for his efforts in disseminating knowledge of the plant sciences far and wide. The budding scientists he has nurtured here too have garnered recognition for their own research.
In May, Martine was honored by the American Society of Plant Taxonomists with its Innovations in Plant Systematics Education prize. The society lauded Martine not only for his "contagiously positive and fact-based way of enhancing botanical learning especially among college undergraduates," but also for his efforts to reach a broader audience through new and social media. Martine has more than 1,200 Twitter followers (@MartineBotany); blogs about plants, science and teaching for the Huffington Post; and writes, produces and stars in an educational YouTube series, "Plants are Cool, Too!"
"People are using social media; people are watching things on YouTube; people are reading the Huffington Post," Martine said. "I try to place content where people are already spending time watching things and reading things."
Martine, the David Burpee Chair in Plant Genetics and Research, said there's a serious motive underlying the entertaining, sometimes playful content he posts.
"I'm really concerned about people recognizing not only that biodiversity is declining on Earth, but also that there is a lot of unknown biodiversity on Earth that we still have a chance to discover," he said. "As a botanist, I try to use plants to help people develop a greater appreciation for biodiversity, nature and this sense of discovery that we still can embrace. One of the things that makes plants an ideal model for that sort of outreach is that they're everywhere — they're really easy to find and they don't move."
He also incorporates his online persona in the classroom, whether by assigning his videos or blog posts as homework, or casually suggesting his students check out what he's done next time they're hanging out in one of those virtual spaces.
The seeds of curiosity Martine has planted in the minds of his students have clearly taken root. For the second year in a row, three of Martine's students: Alice Butler '16, Ian Gilman '15 and Morgan Roche '15 were selected to receive Undergraduate Research Awards by the Botanical Society of America (BSA), the foremost group promoting plant sciences in the United States. Last year the society parsed out only six such grants to undergraduates, with Bucknellians receiving half; this year it awarded seven, with Bucknell students again earning three grants. Three members of the Class of 2014 — Gemma Dugan, Anna Freundlich and Vince Fasanello — were also honored with Young Botanist of the Year awards, which recognize the cumulative accomplishments made by undergraduates during their collegiate years.
Martine's lab will offer 11 presentations at BSA's annual conference in Boise, Idaho, and six will be made by students. Only six universities — all Ph.D.-granting institutions with student bodies four to 12 times larger than Bucknell's — will offer more. The three undergraduates and Dugan, all of whom are spending their summer as research interns in Martine's lab, attributed their success in part to their professor's consistent encouragement.
"I get emails from him all the time saying, 'I heard about this; you should apply,' and it's always something specific to my interests," Dugan said. "He pays a lot of attention to helping us as individuals get what we want from our careers; he doesn't just forward everyone the same email. To have someone who pushes you to apply for grants and scholarships has been super helpful, and I think that's why this lab has been so successful."
Martine is quick to note, however, that the students wrote their own grant and scholarship applications, and deserve final credit for their accomplishments. He marked two additional accolades garnered this year by his students as particularly impressive. Gilman received an Undergraduate and Graduate Student Training Fellowship from the Torrey Botanical Society, which he will use to attend a field course in the Rocky Mountains through the University of Idaho.
"It's an award that both graduate students and undergraduates are eligible for," Martine said. "It's hard to know what the pool was, but he likely went up against graduate students as well as undergraduates, and was chosen."
"I'll be taking a two-week course prepping me to do the fieldwork that a professional botanist would do," Gilman said. "I'll be learning to map out populations, find specimens, press them and then take them back and handle them."
Dugan received a PLANTS (Preparing Leaders and Nurturing Tomorrow's Scientists) Grant from BSA, which will fund her registration, travel, accommodation and food costs during the BSA conference. It is the first time a Bucknellian has earned such a grant, which aims to increase diversity of plant scientists.
"When I'm at the conference they'll pair me up with a mentor who knows more about the specific fields that I'm interested in, and I'll go to professional development workshops and get information about how to apply to grad schools," Dugan said. "I want to do a Ph.D. so I think it's going to be good for me to meet potential Ph.D. advisers and figure out the next steps to move forward."
Martine hopes his students and those he inspires online will continue to nurture an interest in botany as they move on. As they do, Martine will keep on planting seeds, wherever he can.
"Everybody can find a plant," he said. "Everybody can learn something about one plant. That's such an easy jumping off point to help people develop an understanding about nature, biodiversity and non-human organisms."