Plants and Passion: Jackie Schnurr, associate professor of biology and environmental studies
One thing Professor Jackie Schnurr’s students don’t expect at the beginning of each semester is that they’ll become parents—of the green and leafy variety of children. “These plants are their babies,” says Schnurr, associate professor of biology and environmental studies.
Not only do her students take care of the plants they study, but they also take ownership of the studies themselves. “I ask them, ‘what would you like to learn about?’ and they shape their educational experience,” says Schnurr. “If you don’t want to take an active part in your education, you shouldn’t come to Wells,” she advises prospective students. “It’s such an important part of the experience here.”
Because the students “own” each project—whether its evaluating seedling growth or soil composition—the students care more about it, according to Schnurr. The experiential nature of her courses also engages students. “We’re outside as much as possible, doing hands-on projects and research,” she says. Her students are in the field testing hypotheses that address issues such as why trees don’t grow in certain areas, what light conditions encourage plant growth, and why deer are attracted to some plants more than others.
Kassandra Stepniak ’11 recently worked with Professor Schnurr on a research project comparing Australia and New York State in terms of the rate of wood decay and its relationship to global warming. She presented that work at the National Council for Undergraduate Research and received the Distinguished Student Researcher Award by the School for Field Studies, where Stepniak spent a semester in Australia.
Professor Schnurr’s students go on to medical school, pharmacy school, and veterinary school, as well as a range of other graduate programs and professions. Some change course after taking a class with Schnurr, arriving as aspiring doctors, but leaving as aspiring ecologists and botanists.
“I was shocked when I first got here because I’d start the semester thinking that all the students want is to get into medical school, but at the end of the semester they’re often asking me about a potential senior thesis topic in plant biology or courses in ecology they can take at Cornell,” she says. “When students here learn about something, they take it and run with it.”