Women in Science: Joan Walker

Joan examines goat's rue in experimental garden
Joan examines goat’s rue in the experimental garden at the Clemson University Sand Hills Research and Education Center. Photo by Lucy Rummler, USFS.

The new Women in Science series features women scientists from across the Southern Research Station (SRS) – their education, career paths, challenges, achievements, and inspirations.

Meet Joan Walker, a plant ecologist with the SRS Restoring Longleaf Pine Ecosystems unit in Clemson, S.C. As a plant ecologist, Walker has done extensive research on flowers and grasses in the understory of longleaf pine ecosystems.

Longleaf pine forests boast a unique understory that is home to many species of pollinators, birds, reptiles, amphibians and mammals. Some of these creatures – such as the red-cockaded woodpecker, gopher tortoise, flatwoods salamander, and Florida pine snake – are endangered or threatened.

There were once about 90 million acres of longleaf pine forests. However, by 2010 less than 3 million acres remained. Walker has worked with federal, state and non-governmental partners to restore declining longleaf pine savannas in Southeast Coastal Plain and Sandhill ecosystems.

Walker has studied longleaf pine forests since she was a student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she received her Ph.D. in biology. Her love of plants began long before – her grandfather started her down the path to becoming a plant ecologist.

Young longleaf pine trees grow in the understory
Young longleaf pine trees grow under a loblolly pine canopy. Joan and her colleagues are investigating ways to restore longleaf pine without clearcutting. Photo by Ralph Costa.

“My grandfather showed me the first real botanical thing I remember,” says Walker. “He showed me how remains of the apple blossom were still visible in the center of the apple. I was fascinated and I cut open a lot of fruit that summer.”

Undergraduate courses in botany and ecology added fuel to her curiosities and eventually led her to work as a research lab assistant for the summer. That summer, Walker’s professor inspired her to pursue a career in research. Walker was the first botanist on the National Forests in Florida and for the Southern Region before joining SRS.

She has collaborated with over 25 individuals and federal, state and nonprofit agencies on a common garden project. The project has been instrumental in providing information on native seed sources and guidelines for longleaf pine and groundcover restoration projects. Genetic testing is underway on plant species to conserve genetic diversity and ensure establishment of new populations.

Walker’s position allows her to reach out to communities, landowners and students to educate them on the intricacies of longleaf pine systems. Walker is also an adjunct professor at Clemson University, and especially enjoys mentoring students.

Read on to learn more about Joan Walker. Why does she like plants so much? Who inspires her? What does a typical work day look like for her? Visit Women in Science to learn more.

For more information, email Julia Kirschman at jekirschman@fs.fed.us.

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