On January 3, 2017, I began my nine-month appointment as interim director of the School of Environmental and Forest Sciences. It has been a dizzying—and infinitely fascinating—first month settling into my new role and office here in Anderson Hall, and I’m gradually feeling my way through the complex world of our school after more than 30 years as a professor of biology at the University of Washington. My calendar has been packed as I’ve tried to connect with as many folks as possible, but until I get a chance to meet everyone face to face, I wanted to share a little more about my background and what brought me to SEFS.
My interest in biology began in high school. I remember two remarkable teachers, in chemistry and in biology, and learning to pith a frog. Forevermore I was a plant biologist, interested in physiology and biochemical function.
I went on to earn a bachelor’s in botany from Duke University and a Ph.D. in plant physiology from the University of Washington. Following postdoctoral appointments at the University of Illinois and as a NATO Fellow at Lancaster University in England, I returned to the UW Botany Department and began postdoctoral/research faculty work, including with the poplar research program led by Professor Emeritus Reinhard Stettler from the College of Forest Resources (now our school). I worked closely then with Tom Hinckley and Toby Bradshaw (then a member of CFR, now chair of Biology), and soon I was hired as an assistant professor in botany in 1987. I continued my collaboration with CFR by joining graduate supervisory committees and serving on the Center for Urban Horticulture Advisory Committee with Professor Emeritus Harold Tukey, and later David Mabberly and Sarah Reichard.
In my own career as a plant biologist, my research has focused on the physiological regulation of leaf expansion in crop plants, including beans, corn, poplar and tomato. I am most known for my work on leaf growth with respect to photobiology and drought stress, and I have explored how genetic variation in activity of growth control affects yield. One of these projects was funded by Pioneer Hi-Bred seed company, a collaboration with Professor Emeritus David Ford on corn canopies. With poplar, it became clear that the rate of leaf expansion predicted stem volume at the end of a one-year growth season. Recent experiments show that the rate of bean leaf expansion predicts yield of bean plants grown in greenhouse conditions. Students currently working in my Plant Growth Lab are exploring how blue light controls the growth mechanism, what influence leaf shape has on function, and how drought tolerance develops in growing bean plants.
From the beginning, I’ve been interested in how plants work, focusing on physiology and adaptation. A little more than 10 years ago, I was invited to join an international group of researchers forming the Society for Plant Neurobiology. It seemed a natural progression, especially since leaf growth physiology has many similarities to neurophysiology. I became president of this society, which later changed its name to Plant Signaling and Behavior (to match its journal), and I’m also a longstanding member of the American Society of Plant Biology, Sigma Xi and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, where I am a AAAS Fellow.
Which brings me to this new chapter as interim director of SEFS. When I first considered this opportunity—after the surprise of being asked—I saw a tremendous opportunity to work with old colleagues and new partners on a mission that’s vitally important to the health of our global environment. The complexity of leading a school is new to me, but also appealing. So I look forward to understanding better the whole of the SEFS community, and getting to know all of the people and projects that make it work!
Liz Van Volkenburgh
School of Environmental and Forest Sciences