Last summer, Tanisha M. Williams participated in #BlackBirdersWeek, the social media campaign to highlight Black birders that followed a racist incident in New York's Central Park involving Christian Cooper, an avid birdwatcher. Inspired by the success of the campaign, Williams, a botanist, took to Twitter to explore interest in starting a #BlackBotanistsWeek as a way to bring together Black people who love plants.
Eleven people responded to that initial tweet by Williams, the Burpee Postdoctoral Fellow in Botany at Bucknell. And with that, she founded a #BlackBotanistsWeek initiative that eventually reached over 200,000 people and received international media exposure from such outlets as NPR, Science, The Philadelphia Inquirer and USA Today, among others.
Williams is now targeting even more global participation in #BlackBotanistsWeek2021, which will take place July 26–31. She's already received interest from several international universities and botanical gardens, including two from South Africa.
"Last year we felt like we got a lot of amazing participation, but mainly on the U.S. side, and so we're really looking outward," Williams says. "We're going to have a Global Botany Day where we'll call on all of those botanists outside the U.S. to participate in our week, in addition to days about crops, house plants and other subjects. We're bringing in Black botanists from around the world to educate us about different plants, as well as to highlight some of the interesting plants where they are."
Peter Raven Award Recipient
Due in part to her #BlackBotanistsWeek efforts, the American Society of Plant Taxonomists (ASPT) selected Williams as its 2021 Peter Raven Award recipient. She will be presented the award virtually on Thursday, July 22, as part of the Annual Botany Conference this week.
Named for renowned botanist Peter Raven, president emeritus of the Missouri Botanical Garden, the award has been presented annually since 2000 to a plant scientist who has made exceptional outreach efforts to nonscientists. It is considered the society's most prestigious recognition of achievement in international science communication.
"The award is all about having this lifelong commitment and curiosity around botany and plants. But also, it's about not just keeping that to yourself or confining it to the classroom, but doing outreach where you're talking to the public and different outlets about how cool plants are," Williams says. "This award highlights people who take that message out to the public, so I definitely think #BlackBotanistsWeek helped in that regard, but I've also been doing this outreach work for a very long time."
Williams supports the lab and research of Professor Chris Martine, biology, the David Burpee Professor of Plant Genetics & Research, who was the 2018 Peter Raven Award recipient. Bucknell is now the first institution to have two individuals chosen for this honor.
Student Plant Sciences Success
Five Bucknell undergraduates will also be presented with a slate of highly selective research-related awards in the plant sciences during the Annual Botany Conference. The students are co-mentored by Martine and Williams.
The Botanical Society of America (BSA) has chosen Anais Barnes '22, Jeff Heim '21 and Claire Marino '23 as three of the 12 winners of the 2021 Undergraduate Student Research Award, a student grants program requiring a proposal and letter of support. The award to Heim helped him complete his senior project, while the awards to Barnes and Marino will support their work as Bucknell summer research fellows.
The selection of these students means that Bucknell undergraduates have now received this competitive award 19 times since 2013.
In addition to her research award, rising senior Barnes was also selected to receive a BSA PLANTS Grant. Funded by the National Science Foundation, the competitive award provides full support for Barnes to participate in the Annual Botany Conference this year.
The BSA has also selected Heim, cell biology/biochemistry; Jonathan Hayes '21, biology; and Heather Wetreich '21, biology; for its Young Botanist Awards, which recognize outstanding graduating seniors in the plant sciences. Nineteen students were selected this year from institutions across North America. Bucknell students have now been recognized with this honor 17 times.
From nearby Mifflinburg, Hayes was also selected for the Undergraduate Research Prize, the ASPT's annual recognition of an outstanding and independent research project in the field of plant systematics. Hayes' honors thesis on using population genetics to assess the conservation status of a rare Pennsylvania grass called river oats is being prepared for publication.
"What an incredible outcome for our students," says Martine. "It's been a really tough year for student research, with most of their work happening remotely or under strict COVID-19 safety protocols. But these awards are a clear indication of their persistence, talents and grit. Dr. Williams and I couldn't be more proud."