Inspiring Professors (continued)

“Reed is a very intellectually satisfying place to be.” Photo by Matt D'Annunzio

Keith Karoly [biology 1994–] Ruben Chair

By Romel Hernandez

The Laurens N. Ruben Professorship in Biology honors the legendary Prof. Ruben, who taught biology from 1955 to 1992.

In a Nutshell:Prof. Karoly spent his youth hiking and camping in the California redwoods, developing a keen appreciation and awareness of the natural world. He attended Whitman College to pursue environmental studies, starting out focused on environmental policy before finding himself drawn toward science and biology. A sophomore-year botany course piqued his interest in plants, and a summer spent as a research assistant in a genetics lab sent him on the path to studying evolutionary biology at the University of Chicago. After earning his PhD, he did postdoctoral work studying the reproductive biology of wildflowers at the State University of New York–Stony Brook and the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory. But he could not resist the lure of the natural splendor of the Northwest, landing a position at Reed in 1994.

“I also knew Reed had a strong reputation as a place where it was possible to stay active in research and interact with quality students,” he says.  “It’s a very intellectually satisfying place to be.”

He teaches a wide range of plant biology courses, from Bio 101 to advanced seminars in “Ecology and Evolution of Plant-Human Interactions.”

Colonel Mustard in the Library: An ordinary yellow wildflower reveals an extraordinary story of evolution to Karoly. By studying something as specific and minute as the presentation of stamens (the male reproductive organs) in a mustard blossom, he gains insights into why plants change—or don’t change—over time.

Most biologists tend to focus on change, but they aren’t exactly sure why some organism traits evolve while others stay the same. When studying evolution and natural selection, however, it can be as important to understand stasis as change. The 3,000 species and varieties of mustard plants vary in many ways, but Karoly is studying why they maintain identical stamen structures—four tall and two short.

“The fundamental question we’re asking about evolution is how some organisms stay relatively constant in particular features, such as stamens, but have diversified in many other ways,” he says. “You could do the same thing with mammals, and why you only have species with either two or four legs.”

Planting Ideas:Karoly involves his Reed students in primary research, taking them into the field to study natural selection of plant morphology and working with them in the lab to take measurements and conduct experiments.

One of the most rewarding parts of teaching at Reed, he said, is the opportunity to engage students in research, taking them on daylong field trips to misty old-growth forests on the edge of the Cascade Mountains or into the Reed canyon to collect plant specimens.

“Many students haven’t given much consideration to the plants growing right around them,” he says. “Getting to introduce them to plant diversity in our own backyard is fun.”

Karoly finds that teaching has made him a better researcher. “The work involved in preparing courses and working with thesis students is always giving me new insights,” he says.