Getting into the Weeds: A Profile of Dr. Kristie Wendelberger

Dr. Kristie Wendelberger has deep roots in plant conservation and ecology, starting in a literal tale of where the sidewalk ends. Growing up, her dad enjoyed landscaping and gardening in their backyard. One day, he found a large maple seedling growing through a gap in the sidewalk. He intended to kill it, but she protested. Listening to his pint-sized savior, instead he planted it in the backyard. Today, that fortuitous seedling is taller than the house. “That was my first example of conservation biology and I really loved that I saved that tree. It got me interested in plants and caring about what happens to the environment,” Wendelberger said.

Today, Wendelberger works as a research scientist delving into topics such as conserving rare plants to improving organic farming techniques. What motivates her is being able to make a change for conservation and persuade people through science that protecting the environment is beneficial. It gives us places to recreate, clean air to breathe, and clean water to drink. It’s also good for the economy.

Seeing the Forest for the Trees

During her studies of biology, ecology, and botany, she migrated slowly south from her native Ohio. Her journey started at Ohio University for a Bachelor’s degree, then moved to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for a Master’s degree, and finally culminated at Florida International University for a Ph.D. However this path was hardly a straight shot, since in between these steps, she did jobs from the mountains of California and Bolivia to the lowlands of South Carolina.

Her decision to do research wasn’t straightforward either. After she graduated from college, she wasn’t sure if she wanted to be a biologist, do landscaping, or work in a plant nursery. But one job studying epiphytes (or air plants) in the rainforest of Costa Rica was a fork in this flora-filled path. She joined a graduate student studying the factors allowing epiphytes to grow in the rainforest canopy. They climbed trees, took measurements of the plants, and mapped them. “It was so interesting to see the change in habitats going from the bottom of the mountain to the top of the mountain. That’s what led me to pursue biology,” she recalled.

Thorns and Threats

That spark of inspiration in the rainforest canopy eventually led her to the steamy swamps of South Florida. There, for her doctoral work, she asked an important question, can plants engineer their own environment? Specifically, she tested whether certain types of plants could reduce competition with other plants by increasing salinity levels in soil. Turns out they could. While interesting, when you’re at ground zero for climate change, this may not be the best feat, since this salt-sequestering ability could worsen the impacts of sea level rise on plant communities along Florida’s southern coast. These impacts could be negative for the plant and animal species living there.

If the threat of global warming isn’t bad enough, there’s other thorns in the world of plant ecology. Wendelberger explained that it can be a depressing job at times, particularly when people don’t listen or improve their behavior after learning about conservation. “There was a time when I was working on a federally endangered plant, for example, and half of the population got developed. I’ve watched natural areas change and development come in and destroy habitats. It feels like there’s not enough success stories, and that battle is difficult sometimes,” she said.

New Paths in Plant Conservation

Despite the challenges, Wendelberger plans to continue her plant conservation work, and lately, has been studying the role of farming, which has an important role in environmental sustainability. For example, better organic farming techniques can reduce nutrient-laden runoff into watersheds, make crops more nutritious, and improve soil health at the same time.

What Can You do to Protect Plants?

From her humble start in the backyard, Wendelberger’s conservation journey continues to branch into new fields. She has her work cut out for her, but there are things we can all do to help.

  • First, you can vote for candidates who care about the environment and will help protect it.
  • Second, planting native plants and having as little grass as possible in your yard is beneficial. While some ornamental plants are okay, having a substantial part of your yard made of native plants is best.
  • Finally, plant a tree or two, you never know where it may lead!

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