Everyone in Purdue University’s Botany Department has one thing in common: A love for plants. The department is home to a growing research department, small class sizes and friendly faculty.
Everyone in Purdue University’s Botany Department has one thing in common: A love for plants. The department is home to a growing research department, small class sizes and friendly faculty.
WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — The Botany Department at Purdue University has deep roots in education. The first Purdue doctorate degree ever was given to a botany student, and the department has continued its growth since then.

Last September, Purdue President Mitch Daniels announced a $20 million initiative in funding for plant sciences research and education. Plant science is one of 10 areas that were chosen for development.

Because of the funding, the department is able to hire new faculty.

“We are a smaller department,” said Tyson McFall, academic adviser. “We have about 50 grad students and 44 undergraduate students and 23 faculty. We’ve hired two in the past year.”

Future new hires will be made possible by the president’s initiative, she said.

Students in the program have flexibility to choose what areas of plant sciences to focus on within their degree. Plant biology, pathology and weed sciences are common areas of concentration. Agronomic and horticultural classes can supplement the course load.

Research Emphasis

All undergraduates in the department spend at least one semester doing research in a lab, field or greenhouse. Many spend more time than that on research efforts.

“The first couple years they are learning, but by their junior or senior years they are doing their own experiments,” McFall said. “When our students graduate, they not only have classroom experience, but hands-on experiences from labs and research.”

Students also have the chance to work on the Purdue Student Farm, a five-acre plot just west of campus that is shared by horticulture, agronomy and botany students. The farm is managed and maintained by students.

“They decided what to plant, when to plant it and do all the work,” McFall said. “They take the produce they grow and sell them at the farmers markets and through a CSA program where people sign up to get fresh fruits and vegetables.”

Around half of botany students work toward a master’s or doctorate after they receive their bachelor’s degree. The other half goes on to work for nonprofits, government agencies, seed companies and other businesses.

Because of a movement toward organic foods, some recent graduates are working with small farmers who are interested in sustainability.

“The market for our students right now is very good,” McFall said. “As far as plant science jobs, the last statistic that I saw was that there were 50,000 plant science jobs last year, but only 30,000 graduates with plant science degrees. That’s including agronomy, horticulture and botany in the U.S.

“A lot of companies have had to hire students from other degrees and retrain them, which is really expensive. Our students don’t have trouble finding jobs.”

Close-Knit Group

The atmosphere of the department is comfortable and relaxed, she said.

Because it is a small department, professors and advisers know all their students by name. Class sizes are relatively small, as well, which leads to close connections among students.

“You’re not just a number,” McFall said. “We celebrate birthdays every month and always have food around to enjoy.”

Everyone in the department shares at least one thing in common — their love for plants.

“Some students love all plants and want to learn about all of them,” McFall said. “Some are concerned with sustainability and saving the world. Others want to increase food production to feed the world. Those are the three driving factors (for studying botany) that I hear over and over.”

“I love learning how plants grow -- how they grow in different environments, how they adapt to changes and how beautiful some of them are,” said Peter Goldsbrough, professor and department head.

Goldsbrough, who has worked with the department for 32 years, said technological changes have sparked new discoveries and fields of research.

“When I first came here, people were just beginning to isolate genes and figure out components that make genes work,” he said. “You could determine the DNA sequence of one or two genes. You may be able to move those genes to another plant.

“Now, you sequence whole genomes. There are whole new areas of science that we had no inkling of 30 years ago. There have been enormous discoveries in many different fields, from how genes get switched on and off to how plants protect themselves against diseases.”

For more information about Purdue’s Botany Department, visit www.ag.purdue.edu/btny.