Thursday, March 23, 2017

In Memoriam: Martha Christensen (1932-2017)

---by Dennis H. Knight

Former students, colleagues, conservationists, and many friends were saddened to learn that UW Professor Emerita Martha Christensen passed away on March 19th in Madison, Wisconsin. She was 85 and fully enjoying her retirement years, driving her elderly friends to their appointments in her solar-powered Chevrolet Volt, entertaining visitors with her easy laugh and warm interest in their activities, joining friends on frequent bird-watching trips, and serving on an advisory board for the University of Wisconsin Arboretum. Martha retired from our department in 1989, but she continued to study her incomparable collection of soil micro-fungi with the support of the Pfizer Corporation and the National Science Foundation. Her last publication, in 2011, was titled, Soil fungi: a new perspective. In 2013 she received the prestigious Johanna Westerdijk Award from the Westerdijk Fungal Biodiversity Institute of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Martha came to the University of Wyoming in 1963 after receiving her Ph.D. in fungal ecology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She was the first woman to join the Botany Department faculty. In the first year she taught mycology, dendrology, plant morphology, and general botany. There was essentially no time for research during those early years, but Martha’s persistence and abilities led to her being elected president of the Mycological Society of America in 1988. Other honors included “Woman of the Year” from the University of Wyoming Student Association (1971), the William A. Weston Award for Teaching Excellence from the Mycological Society of America (1991), and the Outstanding Former Faculty Award from the UW College of Arts and Sciences (1997). She was a generous supporter of our department, initiating endowments for the H.T. Northen Summer Fellowship and the C.L. Porter Summer Fellowship.

A world-renowned expert on Penicillium and Aspergillus, Martha examined soil micro-fungi in different types of soils and in different kinds of plant communities, finding many new species. She also studied mycorrhizal fungi, the fungal diseases of honey bees and bats, microbial sources of ice nuclei in clouds, fungi as indicators of past environments, and the fungal component of soil crusts in deserts. Supported by numerous grants, she published over 60 research papers and served as a mentor for 22 graduate students. Her students (listed below) were employed by Humboldt State University, Northern Arizona University, San Diego State University, University of California-Riverside, University of Colorado, University of South Florida, University of Wyoming, Coors Brewing Company, Scotts Lawn Care, and various community colleges, public schools, businesses and consulting firms.

Martha had a way with words. In an essay published in 2011, she described an experience that occurred when she delivered her collection of fungal isolates to a world-class depository in the Netherlands (Centraalbureau voor Schimelcultures). For the first two sentences she wrote, “New habitats create new species, I declared—as though it was a newly discovered phenomenon. My host remained quiet for a moment, and that in part may explain why I remember the occasion so well.”

As another example: “I was hired [at UW] after Dr. Bill Solheim [her predecessor in mycology] heard me give a talk on Mortierella vinacea—a beautiful little fungus that lives and works in forest soils. Perhaps I had an edge over the other applicants because I played the viola. The Solheims and Northens liked classical music and apparently there were only three other violists in Laramie at the time!  At the first orchestra rehearsal, I was seated in the first chair!  Music at UW was fun for me during the next 30 years.”

Martha had a deep interest in classical music, playing in orchestras wherever she lived. And, to the delight of everyone, she played tunes on an ordinary saw at Botany Department parties.

Aside from fungi and music, Martha was an avid outdoors person, backpacking into wilderness areas and taking bird-watching trips to Africa, South America, Australia and Europe. She was also a bold watchdog of how Wyoming public lands were being managed. With frequent letters to the editor and reviews of National Forest management plans, she was admired for her tenacity in keeping land managers honest about their management decisions. In one of her letters about forest management she quoted Goethe (1749-1832), who wrote, “Nothing is more terrible than ignorance in action.” In another she urged readers to ask for the protection of all remaining roadless and wilderness areas in our national forests.

Martha was a generous member and leader of numerous conservation organizations, and she was featured in the book, Ahead of Their Time: Wyoming Voices for Wilderness.

Her family suggests that memorials be sent to The Nature Conservancy or the Wyoming Outdoor Council.

Martha is survived by her twin brother, Dr. James Christensen, and his wife Carol of North Liberty, Iowa, and two nieces and a nephew and their families.  An obituary can be found at Laramie Boomerang.

Students receiving their M.S. or Ph.D. degrees with Martha:  Jack States, Kum Hung Lee, Daniel Dolenc, Darwin Davidson, Maron Davis, Anthony Panalsek, Arla Scarborough, Andra Cassidy, James Halfpenny, William Shelby, Richard Fresh, Celeste Lupi, Dennis Clarke, Phoebe Holzinger, Robert Brown, Michael Allen, Beverly DeVore, Joan Rose, Terry Henkel, Peter Stahl, Julie Hicks, and Dorothy Tuthill.

Memorial Service for
Dr. Martha Christensen
A memorial service for Dr. Martha Christensen will be held on Saturday afternoon, April 1, 2017, at the Heritage Congregational Church, 3102 Prairie Road in Madison, Wisconsin. Family members will greet her friends at 1:00. A service of remembrance will begin at 2:00. Her friends are encouraged to bring photographs of Martha. Planning for a memorial service in Laramie is underway. Condolences may be sent to the family at

Monday, February 20, 2017

Rocky Mountain Herbarium Ranks Highly in Nation, World

Source: UW Institutional Communications

The University of Wyoming’s Rocky Mountain Herbarium (RM) ranks in the top 2 percent of herbaria in the U.S. and in the world, according to a recent report.  Founded in 1893, the RM, housed within the Department of Botany, contains 1.3 million specimens from around the world.

Friends of the RM was formed in October 2015 to raise awareness of the RM through public events and activities, and to establish a volunteer program to increase the rate of specimen processing.

Since the volunteer program’s start in January 2016, volunteers have logged more than 5,000 hours to help process a backlog of more than 300,000 specimens, says Charmaine Delmatier, volunteer program director. She says more help would be welcomed. “You don’t have to be a botanist to volunteer,” she says. “We train you, and you get to pick your own hours.”

To volunteer, go to the RM on the third floor of the Aven Nelson Building, or call Delmatier or Curator Ernie Nelson at (307) 766-2236.

Entire press release can be access from: UW Herbarium Ranks Highly in Nation, World | News | University of Wyoming

Monday, February 13, 2017

Botany Professor Katie Wagner's work on fish evolution highlighted by UW

Dr. Katie Wagner "and fellow researchers from Switzerland’s University of Bern and the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology have demonstrated for the first time that the rapid evolution of Lake Victoria cichlids -- brightly colored, perch-like fish -- was facilitated by earlier hybridization between two distantly related cichlid species from the Upper Nile and Congo drainage systems."

Different species of fish, called cichlids, swim in East Africa’s Lake Victoria.
More than 700 cichlid species have evolved in the Lake Victoria region
over the past 150,000 years. (Florian Moser Photo)
This research was published in the journal Nature Communications
DOI: 10.1038/ncomms14363

Read the complete story at:

UW Researcher Helps Solve Fish Evolution Mystery | News | University of Wyoming

Friday, November 11, 2016

UW Botany Professor's work on restoring sweet apple to air on Wyoming PBS on Nov 14, 2016 at 9:00am

The sweet apple was a critical resource during settlement of the central Rocky Mountain States. Highly adaptable, the apple was a convenient food source of great nutritional value, even when dried, and provided numerous other critical products for the pioneers and homesteaders. The diversity of apple cultivars in Wyoming during these years was quite high. A number of apple varieties were even developed specifically for the cold drought-prone, high elevation climate of Wyoming.

Alarmingly, the last remnants of 19th and early 20th century plantings struggle to survive in isolated nearly forgotten or abandoned orchards. These apples have survived in many cases for over a century unattended under harsh conditions and are still producing fruit. That makes each of these trees and cultivars extremely valuable. Unfortunately, the identification of individual trees in orchards to specific cultivars has been mostly lost.

Dr. Miller is holding the newly grafted
tree from the 130+ year old one
that is producing sweet apples
Dr. Steve Miller (Professor, Botany) has been on a quest to find and save these 100+ year old apple trees in Wyoming by grafting them onto new rootstock.  These vigorously growing trees will be planted into a germplasm repository orchard at the Sheridan Research and Extension Center (ShREC) and used to restore historic orchards such as the one at the Central Wyoming College Field Station in Lander.

His team is using molecular techniques to identify trees to specific cultivars. There is currently great interest in restoring old trees to productivity, and establishing new orchards in Wyoming for sweet apple fruit production for sale at local farmers markets and for hard cider production. The Wyoming Apple Project is providing critical information on which cultivars are best to grow in various regions of Wyoming. This information will allow nurseries to sell cultivars that are best suited to specific regions.

Dr. Miller’s research on Wyoming apples is funded by the Wyoming Department of Agriculture Specialty Crops Program and the UW Agricultural Experiment Station.

Additional information about this work can be found in the article published by the Wyoming Livestock Roundup.


Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Botany faculty Ken Driese, Chris North, and Ramesh Sivanpillai represented the Botany Department in the 2016 Campus Pass event.

Ken Driese and Chris North (right) interacting with potential students
Botany faculty members Ken Driese, Chris North, and Ramesh Sivanpillai described the Botany and Biology degree programs to prospective UW students and their parents during the 2016 Campus Pass event on September 17, 2016 in the UW Student Union.

Campus Pass gives students an opportunity to check out academic programs, talk to faculty and staff members, and learn about other UW services. High school and transfer students inquired about degree programs offered by our department, and we answered their questions on specializations within degree programs, minors, and career opportunities. Campus Pass is an important event for recruiting undergraduate students to Botany and Biology programs.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Botany faculty Ellen Currano’s research accomplishments highlighted by UW President in the State of the University Address

Dr. Currano at an early Eocene site near Dubois, Wyoming

Botany faculty Dr. Ellen Currano’s impressive research accomplishments were recognized by UW President Nichols in her State of the University Address on September 16, 2016.

President Nichols selected one faculty member from each of the eight colleges and described them while highlighting the importance of research and scholarship at UW.

It was a proud moment for the Botany Department and its faculty, staff and students when Ellen was selected to represent the College of Arts & Sciences and her grant funding and peer-reviewed publication records were mentioned in this annual important.

Friday, March 11, 2016

Botany faculy member Currano wins A&S extraordinary merit in Research award

Botany faculty member Dr. Ellen Currano has won the College of A & S extraordinary merit in research award for spring 2016. Dr. Currano studies how ancient forests responded to environmental disturbances. Better understanding of these past changes will help in predicting how present ecosystems could respond to environmental disturbances.

To learn more about her research and other accomplishments, please visit her website at:

Dr. Currano has previously won the Promoting intellectual engagement (PIE) award for inspiring students in first-year courses, and she is also the co-founder of the Bearded Lady Project: Challenging the face of science.
More information about this project can be found at:

Monday, March 7, 2016

Visit UW Williams Conservatory to see plants from different parts of the world

--- Contributed by Meredith Pratt

Tired of the Wyoming wind and cold? Come escape to the tropics in the Williams Conservatory! Plants native to South Africa, Madagascar, Brazil, India, etc. fill the rooms of the conservatory to provide you with an experience foreign to Laramie.

Throughout the year, you will see the beautiful plants like the Bird of Paradise (Strelitzia reginae) flowering in the Williams Conservatory. Native to South Africa, this exotic plant grows up to 6 feet fall with large green leaves resembling that of banana plants.


The flower, famous for favoring the crest of a bird, is comprised of three orange and three blue tepals, structures that contain both the sepal and petals. A pollinator in search of nectar, usually a bird, lands on one of the tepals forcing the anthers to emerge from the petals and disperse pollen onto the pollinator’s feet. This pollen is transported to another flower aiding in the reproduction of this beautiful plant. With the design of the flower trapping the pollen, the bird of paradise is given an OPALS (Ogren Plant Allergy Scale) rating of 1, “very low potential to cause allergies.”

Visit Williams Conservatory's Instagram page for other amazing pictures:

Visit Williams Conservatory's webpage for additional details:

Monday, January 25, 2016

Plant Sale - 2016

Saturday Jan 30, 2016
Sale will run from 10 AM - 3 PM or until the plants are gone.
Williams Conservatory, UW

For additional information, contact:

Meredith Pratt
Coordinator, Greenhouse Operations
Williams Conservatory, 
Department of Botany
University of Wyoming

Thursday, November 5, 2015

UW Botany researchers’ share the artistic side of science

Using images acquired from landscape photography to electron microscopy, UW Botany researchers Dr. Marc Brock and Dr. Robert Baker share their perspectives on plant diversity and beauty.

Silene acaulis pollen grain
These stunning images range from the natural aesthetics of the Snowy Range and Medicine Bow mountains to abstract displays that are the products of scientific investigation.

Using Black & White photos and scanning electron microscopy, Brock explores the intricate architecture of pollen grains harvested from plants growing within his landscape images.  

Collections created by Baker include amazing confocal laser scanning micrographs of Brassica rapa, leaf epidermal tissue visualized with compound light microscopy, and whole plant imaging of Arabidopsis thaliana.

Cross section of Brassica rapa root
The exhibit is free and open to the public and will be on display at the Berry Center (10th & Lewis) on the University of Wyoming Campus in Laramie, Wyoming until December 11, 2015. 

More info on UW Berry Biodiversity Center website.

These images are also available for viewing at this website.