Lecture Series

HF&G and Black Botanists Week Committee Present Present a Lecture series called Growing Black Roots

Co-organized by Juliana Medeiros, Holden Arboretum and Maya Allen, University of New Mexico

This lecture series will take place entirely online, with a new speaker on the second Wednesday of the month from October 2020 to September 2021. 

Our Scientist Lecture Series this year was inspired by Black Botanists Week, a Twitter campaign that took place in July 2020, “to promote, encourage, create a safe space for, and find more Black people who love plants.” This campaign went viral, reaching thousands of viewers and attracting Black Botanists from around the globe. The participants received an outpouring of support and requests for collaboration through their newly created #BlackBotanistsWeek Twitter account and website Media coverage of this movement included such outlets as WNYC news, Cape Talk Radio, Newzroom Afrika and The Daily Item. The organizing committee strives to leverage these collaborations to fund a Black Botanists Week Scholarship to support underrepresented groups in pursuing botanical fields.  

This 11-part lecture series will cover a broad range of botanical disciplines, delve into the historical legacy of formally trained and self-taught Black Botanists who inspired others to pursue a career in plants, and highlight pathways toward diversity and inclusion in botanical sciences. With this series, the organizers and contributors seek to shine a light on the Black roots within botanyfoster a community of Black Botanists, show that diversity is found within this community, and inspire others who may not have considered Botany as a career choice. 

Talk registration and virtual venue: The talks will take place on Zoom with a livestream to YouTubeThe talks are free to view, but guests must register in order to view the live talks

Free Educational Materials: HF&G will provide short lesson plans based on each talk, for use by teachers and parents. The videos, along with the educational materials, will be made permanently available on YouTube for public viewing after the live event has ended. The YouTube video description will contain a link to a Holden webpage describing and hosting the Educational Materials. These materials will be aimed at grades 7-12, focusing on the comprehension and connection to the biological concepts and lived experiences of the speakers as presented in the talks.  

This program series is generously sponsored by

Cleveland Foundation Logo

About Our Sponsor

The Cleveland Foundation works to enhance the lives of all residents of Greater Cleveland, now and for generations to come, by working together with donors to build community endowment, address needs through grantmaking, and provide leadership on key community issues. Learn more at clevelandfoundation.org.

Speaker Roster & Brief Biographies

Floodplain Forest, Farmland, Public Park: The Human and Non-human Lives of Washington Square Park

May 12, 2021 , 7PM EST

Georgia Silvera Seamans, PhD

Georgia Silvera Seamans, PhD

Director and co-founder of Washington Square Park Eco Projects

BIO Working in the field of urban forestry, Ms. Silvera Seamans’ work takes place at the intersection between the natural and built environment. The mission of her Washington Square Park Eco Projects is to monitor wild animal and plant populations found within a highly urbanized environment of New York City, and from this platform offer educational programs and plant biodiversity advocacy. This project includes monitoring the phenology of trees in Washington Square park, which began in 2019, contributing critical urban data to regional and national phenology efforts and providing experiential science learning for community members. Ms. Silvera Seamans work speaks to academics and practitioners, with publications in journals such as Urban Forestry & Urban Greening, and she is active in science writing for the general public, including publications in Urban Omnibus and Audubon Magazine. 

SUMMARY Washington Square Park is a 9.75-acre public park in New York City but this is only one iteration of the life of this land. The park sits on unceded Lenape land. Ms. Silvera Seamans will begin her talk by presenting the Lenape interaction with this hardwood landscape which was watered by Minetta Brook. She will then discuss the transformation of the land into farm grants to African freedmen. This network of farms was taken away from the African community when New Amsterdam became New York in 1665. Under British rule, this land remained farmland. In 1797, the Common Council of New York purchased parcels east of the stream to create a burial ground. In 1826, the city purchased parcels west of the stream to complete the 9.75 acre “square” for a military parade ground. The parade ground was declared a public park in 1827. Ms. Silvera Seamans will conclude the lecture with her biodiversity monitoring projects in the park.


The Deadly Messengers: How plants harness highly reactive products of stress

June 9, 2021 , 7PM EST

Jade Bleau

Jade Bleau

University of Edinburgh, Institute of Molecular Plant Sciences

BIO Ms. Bleau’s research focuses on understanding how plants respond to environmental stress, particularly how they respond to pathogen infection. She has a diverse background in different aspects of Botany, including investigating palm tree morphology at Kew Gardens, examining the molecular biology of pathogens that attack vegetables, and most recently, elucidating the role of oxidants and antioxidants as signaling systems in responses to environmental stresses. She takes a special interest in research that has direct application to real-world problems, working with non-profit organizations such as CABI (Centre for Agriculture and Bioscience International) to affect data-driven decision making. Her doctoral research as part of the EASTBIO program (the East of Scotland Bioscience Doctoral Training Partnership) in the Spoel Research Group focuses on the mechanisms of redox signaling in the plant immune response. 

SUMMARY  We need to grow a lot more food, but we are running out of space to grow it in. Environmental stresses such as diseases are one of the largest causes of crop loss. If we can learn how plants respond to stress, then we should be able to apply this knowledge to increase the amount of food we produce on the land we already have. This talk will introduce you to a common plant response to a stress, the rapid accumulation of highly reactive oxidative radicals e.g. hydrogen peroxide, which can result in oxidative stress. Ms. Bleau will discuss evolved mechanisms to make use of these radicals as signaling tools,  how unregulated radicals can cause severe damage to the plant and provide an insight into how plants selectively regulate their response to environmentally induced oxidative stress. 

From fynbos to Savanna (and everything in between): Plant conservation in South Africa

July 14, 2021 , 7PM EST

Rupert Koopman

Rupert Koopman

Conservation Manager at the Botanical Society of South Africa, Chair Fynbos Forum Committee.

BIO  Mr. Koopman leads the implementation of plant conservation work in key conservation regions across South Africa, containing approximately 3000 threatened species, and including 12 years working specifically with threatened species in the Fynbos, a renowned and beloved biodiversity hotspot of the Cape region. Mr. Koopman’s work addresses the complexity of conservation, for example screening proposed developments for threatened species, contributing information to the long-term outcomes of reintroductions of plant species and building public engagement in conservation working with organizations such as CREW, the Custodians of Rare and Endangered Wildflowers. This work with community science volunteers addresses both the ecological and human sides of conservation, fostering an appreciation for threatened and endangered South African plants while providing important data for conservation managers. 

SUMMARY  This talk will provide an introduction to a mega-diverse corner of the world, South Africa, and describe the South African plant conservation strategy Version 2, which will begin in 2021. Mr. Koopman will also highlight the role of civil society in providing eyes on the ground to work in partnership with the state conservation agencies.  

Seeing Red: How plants influence coloration in birds

August 11, 2021, 7PM EST 

Natasza Fontaine

Natasza Fontaine

Florida State University, Curator R.K. Godfrey Herbarium

BIO Currently a biology graduate student at Florida State University, Ms. Fontaine’s research is focused on elucidating the symbiotic relationships between plants and birds, and how understanding patterns of plant diversity across the landscape combined with bioacoustics monitoring can inform the conservation and management of bird diversity. Her experiences working at the New York Botanical Garden which now translates into her work at the FSU herbarium, has ignited her passion for collections. In addition, she brings a diversity of other skills to her research program that speak directly to her interest of public engagement, as she holds a visual arts degree from Norfolk State University (B.A.), a communication degree in television production from the New York Institute of Technology (M.A.) and she participated in the inaugural Cultivo Field Artist Residency Art+Bio Collaborative in 2019, where she combined her herbarium and artistic skills in an exploration of New Mexico landscapes. These interdisciplinary skills in science and visual art communication are also combined in her work volunteering as a Shorebird Steward for Florida Audubon and as a board member of the Apalachee Audubon chapter.  

SUMMARY  Since the 1950’s, many non-native honeysuckle species (Lonicera spp.) have spread throughout Northeast America and eastern Canada.  Producing attractive berries, the seeds of honeysuckles are spread by birds and other wildlife giving them an advantage of early establishment and in some cases, allowing them to outcompete native plants.  This talk will describe how Rhodoxanthin, a xanthophyll pigment found in nonnative honeysuckle species, has been shown to produce deep reds and was pinned as the culprit of unusual plumage coloration found in Cedar Waxwings, Baltimore Orioles, Northern Flickers, and many other fruit loving birds.  Ms. Fontaine will discuss the importance of dietary carotenoids in avian biology, and show how the presence of alien pigments introduced to the landscapes of Northeast America and eastern Canada present an interesting potential problem for bird conservation.  

Past Lectures

Planting Seeds of Freedom in the Pecos Valley of New Mexico: How Blackdom Grew Its Roots through Dry-Farming


Maya L Allen

Maya L Allen

University of New Mexico Department of Biology

BIO  With a background in systematics of algae as an undergraduate researcher, Ms. Allen has since gone on to work in marine, fresh-water and terrestrial systems.  Ms. Allen also was a participant in the National Science Foundation’s Advancing Digitization of Biodiversity Collections Project as an undergraduate, where she contributed to this important effort to make academic collections more accessible to the global research community and the public. She conducted her MS thesis work on resolving the phylogeny of Glossopetalon, a small genus of flowering shrubs native to SW North America using restriction site associated DNA sequencing (RAD-seq). Ms. Allen has transitioned to exploring research questions focused on the phenotypic plasticity’s role in evolution and patterns of plasticity throughout species ranges. As a graduate student at UNM she is a mentor to students from underrepresented groups through the Project for New Mexico Graduate Students of Color program and as a Research Coaching Fellow. 

SUMMARY In the early twentieth century, Frank Boyer and Daniel Keys undertook a 2,000-mile journey by foot from Pelham, Georgia to Roswell, New Mexico. Motivated to produce a sovereign community and elevate their economic status without the persecution of the US’ Jim Crows Laws, Blackdom was incorporated in 1903 as first Black settlement of the New Mexico Territory. The recruitment of Southern Black families brought a wealth of Southern and African agricultural knowledge to the Pecos Valley, where they would be challenged by calcareous soils and drought. Despite these challenges, this community cultivated Alfalfa, apples, Sorghum, beans, potatoes, cotton, cantaloupe, onions, and sugar beets. In fact, Boyer boasted the largest hay harvest business in Dexter, NM. Today, Blackdom is a ghost town and the desert grasslands have been replaced by Chihuahuan Desert scrub. But the legacy lives on through their descendants and in the survival of Vado, NM – a second community founded farther south from Blackdom. Learn more about this subject.

Rethinking Nontraditional: Navigating a Biology Career While Black

Morgan Halane, PhD.

Morgan Halane, PhD.

National Parks Service

BIO Dr. Halane’s research has investigated aspects of plant immunity in legumes and the model plant Arabidopsis, and the molecular biology of citrus greening disease. This work focuses on understanding how plant immune responses are triggered by exposure to pathogenic proteins. He continued his research on plant immunity as a POSTECH Korea Research Fellowship from the National Research Foundation of Korea (NRF), eventually bringing his research skills to the biotech industry at Aanika Biosciences. Beyond his research, Dr. Halane’s diverse skill set also speaks to his interest in outreach, including a BA in English literature with a thesis focused on depictions of adaptation in film When “Loosely Based On” Becomes “New”: Defining the Limits of Adaptation in the Film Blade Runner and Philip K. Dick’s Novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? 

SUMMARY  Scientists often face career hurdles when they take what some see as a “nontraditional path.” The traditional scientific career, however, has been defined primarily by white scientists. In this talk, Dr. Halane will discuss his career as a Black botanist and highlight the fact that everyone faces their own unique path in life. The belief that non-conformity to the traditional scientific path is a weakness disproportionately harms Black scientists, and this talk will present ways to rethink this stance. 

Of plants and people: From the past to the present

Nokwanda P. Makunga

Nokwanda P. Makunga

PhD. Associate Professor at Stellenbosch University, Department of Botany and Zoology

BIO Dr. Makunga’s research in the field of medicinal plant biology focuses plants of South Africa, using an interdisciplinary approach that combines medicinal chemistry approaches investigating the genetics and molecular biology of secondary metabolites, with ethnobotanical studies investigating local plant knowledge and practices, with a goal to better understand potential medicinal value of South African native plants. Dr. Makunga’s research investigates some well-known horticultural species such as pomegranate but is also actively uncovering the wealth of traditional uses for South African plant species. Her work documenting traditional uses combined with laboratory and clinical assessments of the active compounds and their effects has been foundational in bringing African medicinal floral to the forefront of medicinal chemistry. Dr Makunga was a Fulbright Research Scholar (2017/2018) at the University of Minnesota.  

SUMMARY : South Africa is world renowned for its biodiversity and many have recognized that its botanical wealth presents with unique opportunities for conservation and commercialization which can drive economic development. It is a country with many varied indigenous knowledge systems. Having developed within a hyper-diverse floral region, the various practices for utilization of medicinal plants have led to a wide range of ethnic pharmacopeias which are uniquely South African in character. There is certainly enormous scope for this indigenous knowledge combined with the many medicinal plants to contribute both to human health at both locally and at the global level. Through a historical account, this talk will relate how the different cultural practices of the exploitation of plants for health likely arose in southern Africa.  Thereafter, by using various examples of indigenous and endemic plant species, Dr. Makunga will explore how biotechnologies are integral to our better understanding of these plants and their unique phytochemistry.  Finally, the ways in which such approaches can add a new value to traditional plant knowledge and its custodians will be discussed. 

Toxic Soils & Special Plants: Serpentine Endemism in California

Tatyana Soto

Tatyana Soto

Purdue University

BIO Ms. Soto’s research focuses on population genetics, investigating how plant mating systems influence population dynamics and distributions, ultimately determining the genetic structure of populations. Her work at Purdue University aims to understand the negative impacts of inbreeding in self-pollinating wild petunias, and how outcrossing is maintained within the group. 

SUMMARY California’s is home to both a majority of North America’s serpentine soil as well as a biodiversity hotspot that includes countless adaptive radiations. Serpentine rock is derived from volcanic rock that is created at the place where two of Earth’s tectonic plates collide, this rock is then eroded into serpentine soil. Serpentine soil is extremely high in heavy metals such as Nickel and Iron & low essential nutrients such as Calcium and Potassium. This makes serpentine soil inhospitable to plant species that have not specially evolved to tolerate these stressful conditions. However, serpentine tolerance has evolved independently multiple times in a number of plant genera. While most serpentine endemics are very poor competitors, they are able to thrive in these desolate pockets of toxic soil. These populations may have low genetic diversity due to their isolation, and current human activities may be reducing their genetic diversity even more, potentially putting them at increased risk of extinction. In this talk, Ms. Soto will present her work on the population genetics of three rare serpentine endemics; specifically a comparison between historic and contemporary genetic diversity. 

Identification & Discovery: A Botanical Love Story

Brandi Cannon

Brandi Cannon

Middle School Science Teacher & Science Curriculum Coordinator

BIO   Ms. Cannon’s research focused on the biology of parasitic plants, understanding the host cues that lead to germination and successful establishment, as well as the role of disturbances like fire in determining plant rooting patterns and genetic diversity, with an eye toward conserving populations of endangered parasitic plants. She brings her experience and excitement for research directly into her classroom teaching, and is also active in school-based and non-profit activities that support diverse communities, including: leading the Kids of Color affinity group and the middle school WISE (Women in STEM Education) club, Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Coordinator for the United States Quidditch, and the DEI consultant for the International Quidditch Association. 

SUMMARY What’s in a name? Is it who you are? Do your traits make you small or tall, bud or blossom, bright or uniquely subtle? Is it your deep roots, tucked safely into the earth, grounded in your heritage? Perhaps its in your DNA, ingrained in a system that was deemed you an integral part of the community: to heal, protect, or nurture. In this talk I will discuss how love is about growing to know yourself., and much like plants you may find that you were misidentified the entire time.

From Seeds of Inspiration to a Harvest of Discovery

Beronda Montgomery, PhD

Beronda Montgomery, PhD

Foundation Professor at Michigan State University

BIO  Dr. Montgomery’s research seeks to understand how organisms perceive and respond to their environment, especially focused on the complex way in which photosynthetic organisms respond to light. Her work uses cyanobacteria, Arabidopsis and other plants, to elucidate the complex molecular mechanisms that underlie plant utilization and responses to light, including the role of signaling mechanisms in stress responses. Her work on plant pigments such as biliprotein phytochrome seeks to uncover the molecular mechanisms that operate in different organs of the plant, revealing the processes by which the light environment where plants grow shapes their growth processes and stress-responses. Dr. Montgomery has an equal depth of research on cultural aspects of science, with a focus on revealing the factors that promote recruitment and retention of a diverse STEM workforce in Higher Education. As part of her commitment to research mentorship, she served as a Research and Scholarship Node Leader in the Michigan State University’s Academic Advancement Network for four years, which seeks to support academic advancement for academics at any career stage. She continues contributing to these efforts as the current interim Assistant Vice President for Research and Innovation at MSU. 

SUMMARY  The cultivation of an integrated career in plant biology, education and service requires planning, strategic and intentional engagement of mentors, and career envisioning. In this talk, Dr. Montgomery will describe her path to date, which has included key branch points that have advanced her core research in photobiology of plants, while providing complementary opportunities to acquire new skills and integrate engagement in scholarship on mentoring and leadership. 

Uncovering the Black Botanical Legacy

Tanisha Williams, PhD

Tanisha Williams, PhD

Burpee Post-Doctoral Fellow in Botany Bucknell University, Lead Organizer of #BlackBotanistsWeek

BIO Dr. William’s research seeks to understand how plant functional traits and genetic diversity intersect to influence plant responses to climate change, with a focus on the genus Pelargonium, which displays high diversity in South Africa. Her work has included investigating herbarium records, conducting species distribution modeling and using common garden approaches to elucidate genotype-by-environment interactions as a way to understand plasticity and adaptation, with an eye towards informing the conservation of biodiversity in the face of changing climate. In addition, Dr. Williams has extensive outreach experience, including as a Fulbright US student in South Africa and a Graduate Student Mentor in the Botanical Society of America PLANTS program, among others.  

SUMMARY  We have a deep connection to plants. Even if we are not actively aware of it, we are interacting with plants in almost every aspect of our lives. From breathing and eating, to medicines and clothing, we are connected to plants. Botanical knowledge, and cultures and traditions involving plants and the environment is not new. But have you ever heard of Black botanical legacy? This talk will describe Dr. Williams’ quest to get to know more Black people who love plants, and the online campaign she started that created a movement to highlight and promote Black botanists. Dr. Williams will take you on a journey to discover a forgotten Black history, Black botanical legacy. She will highlight the Black botanists that have paved the way for her to study the impacts of climate change on plants from around the world.