Halfway to Establishing the New Primarily Undergraduate Institution Section

University of Puget Sound

For as long as I can remember, I wanted to be a teacher. I wanted to focus my career on working with students; designing curricula, lesson plans, and lab activities; and passing on my excitement about living things to anyone who might share this interest. While in graduate school, my research adviser took me to my first ASPB conference. Since then, I have felt that this conference and this Society are the places where I can expand my horizon and learn about the latest in plant research, and also where I can meet plant biologists who share my passion for teaching.

The primarily undergraduate institution (PUI) networking group’s annual gathering was always on my agenda when I went to an ASPB conference. There, I heard about what it was like to work at a small teaching institution and connected with veteran teachers from PUIs across the country. The enthusiasm for teaching was always palpable at these meetings. Attendees were equally eager to exchange tips and ideas on how to create and maintain a vigorous research program suitable for undergraduates in institutions with fewer resources than typical for larger research universities.

When I finally landed my own position at a small liberal arts college, I felt I had achieved what I had worked for so hard during my graduate and postdoc years. But soon, I also started to feel the constraints and frustrations that came with being the only plant geneticist at my institution. Although the PUI networking group gatherings were still a highlight for me at ASPB meetings, back at my home institution I felt academically isolated. The feeling of being part of a large network of PUI plant biologists that seemed so vibrant during the annual meetings was hard to maintain once I was back at home.

As it turns out, I was never alone in feeling this way. In 2017, a group of dedicated scientists from both private and public PUIs decided to take the networking group to the next level. A proposal was written to the ASPB Council to create a full-fledged PUI section with the intent to grow the network of colleagues working at smaller institutions and, importantly, to work on ways to extend the network’s activities beyond the annual meeting. The proposal recommended that the section intensify its efforts to develop workshops for the annual meetings including career counseling for students and postdocs interested in a PUI career, the creation of a PUI database, a program to provide mentorship for PUI faculty at all stages of their career, and leveraging of Plantae.org for more efficient communication and information sharing among PUI plant scientists.

Now, 18 months into the three-year probationary phase of becoming a recognized ASPB section, PUI Section membership stands at 111 dues-paying members (of a total of roughly 2,900 ASPB members). In August we completed another successful ASPB conference workshop with a panel discussion on publishing research done at PUIs. The separate PUI career panel drew another 70 participants. We had a lively business meeting with excellent ideas and questions about the efforts of our section. We discussed both short-term goals and long-term initiatives to promote the integration of PUI plant biologists into the broader ASPB community. The section was also successful in procuring an NSF-funded conference grant that provided travel funds for Plant Biology 2019 to 27 PUI faculty who otherwise might not have been able to attend.

The PUI Section is already hard at work organizing and designing a workshop for Plant Biology 2020 in Washington, DC, applying for conference funding to be able to provide travel grants, and making progress on our ideas to create a mentoring and networking platform through Plantae.org. But there is more to be done before we can become a full ASPB section. Over the next 18 months, we will complete work on a section constitution and finalize a permanent leadership structure.

There are plenty of opportunities to get involved in growing and establishing our new section. We are working on the development and dissemination of plant-centered teaching tools and plant growth information and on greenhouse or growth chamber management tips. We are also seeking to integrate the section with the aims of ASPB in general, coordinate goals with other societies that foster undergraduate research, and work with regional sections to encourage greater PUI faculty participation in broader ASPB activities. There is more on our plates than the PUI steering committee can do. If you are interested in getting involved, please contact section chair Maryann Herman (mherman@sjfc.edu). We appreciate all contributions to our effort to expand support for PUI plant scientists through ASPB.

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