Q & A with Chris Martine, passionate botanist

Elizabeth Bacharach
Senior Writer

Associate Professor of Biology, Chris Martine, has been named the David Burpee Chair in Plant Genetics and Research at the University. Martine, a professor of botany at SUNY Plattsburgh for six years, aided in the creation of the first student chapter of the Botanical Society of America. Martine is the author of two books, many peer-reviewed publications and is in the process of creating the third episode of his series “Plants Are Cool, Too!” which teaches the public about botany in a light-hearted way. The Bucknellian sat down with him recently to find out more about his interest in botany.

As a child, how did you know you wanted to focus on botany when you grew up? What intrigued you about the topic?

“Like a lot of children interested in nature, my first love was animals. I can remember being asked in third grade what I wanted to be, and I said ‘Jane Goodall, the famous primatologist.’ Even though I spent a lot time in my mother’s gardens as a child, I didn’t really see how special plants were until I got to college. That’s when I took courses that helped me to realize that I was not only surrounded by interesting plants full of cool stories, but that my existence as a living organism on this planet owes a lot to their presence.”

What is a typical day like as Professor/Dr. Martine?

“I have a family, so every day begins and ends with them. And I also ride my bike to work each day. Outside of that, nearly every day is different–which is one of the wonderful things about being a college professor and scientist.”

What do you hope to accomplish as a professor here at the University?

“My main goal is to work with Dr. Mark Spiro to establish Bucknell University as having one of the most well-regarded undergraduate botany programs in the country. When someone says, ‘Who is doing great plant-related things with undergrads?’, I want Bucknell to be part of the answer.”

What does it mean to you to be the next David Burpee Chair in Plant Genetics and Research here at the University?

“I am honored to have been chosen for this position for a host of reasons, including the impressive career achievements of the previous Burpee Chair, Dr. Warren Abrahamson. I left a job I really liked (at SUNY Plattsurgh) in large part because this position offers me the potential to make a greater impact in my field than was possible there.”

What was your inspiration for the show “Plants Are Cool, Too!”?

“Seven or eight years ago, I started thinking that one of the reasons why biologically-inclined young people don’t find much interest in plants is that there are no TV shows about them. One can find shows about animals on multiple channels at any time on most days. But, outside of the occasional gardening show, nothing about plants. Certainly nothing that compares to shows like ‘Crocodile Hunter’ or things like that. It seemed to me that there had to be room for a fun and smart show about the cool plants of the world. So I started telling people I wanted to make that show … and be the host of that show.”

Why do you think the world needs to know that plants are cool, too?

“I mentioned in class earlier in the semester the concept of ‘plant blindness,’ the idea that many people don’t really see the plants around them. We all see the green, but it doesn’t look like much else to us. You can walk around this campus over the course of a summer day and find literally hundreds of species of plants, but only if you know how to see them and are willing to look. This is my goal, to help people to see the green stuff that is all around them every minute of every day, because there is an amazing world just beyond our cell phone screens that is worth knowing about.”

What is some advice you would give to University students, those studying botany/biology and those not?

“It’s not just about the grades. It’s about learning new things and becoming knowledgeable. This is a time in your life, maybe the last time, when your number one job is to learn–and our number one job, as your professors, is to help you do that! That is a sweet deal, if you ask me. So use this time to really learn some things, not just check off the boxes and get your degree.”

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

“My broad research area is the ecology and evolution of plant reproduction, so I spend a lot of time thinking about things like flowers, pollination and the movement of seeds. I am also interested in invasive species biology. In recent years, I have used DNA tools to track the evolutionary history of a group of wild Australian eggplant species that exhibit a rare  pollination system, and I am in the process of setting up a study in collaboration with Dr. Beth Capaldi Evans to try and figure out what effect the system has on the bees who visit the flowers. The project includes a field trip to the Outback, of course.”

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