Home Alumni The ‘dirt’ on Nanci Ross: Q&A with a new ethnobotany professor

The ‘dirt’ on Nanci Ross: Q&A with a new ethnobotany professor

Drake’s Arts and Sciences faculty is growing. In the past two years the college has added six faculty lines, in addition to replacing lines vacated by retirement or resignation. Among the recent hires is Nanci Ross, assistant professor of ethnobotany, whose background includes research experience from the Missouri Botanical Garden to the tropics in Guatemala and the Alpine communities of the Himalayas.

Nanci Ross

Q: Odds aren’t “ethnobotanist” wasn’t always your career goal. How did you get here?

Ross: I started out as a history major as an undergrad (at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln). I got interested in plants by reading “herbals,” medieval writings listing plants and instructions for how to collect and use them. I liked how the natural history mixed with lore and legend. It was this fascinating mix of science and culture that led me to a botany class.

Q: Can you explain what an ethnobotanist does?

Ross: Ethnobotany is the study of the interrelationship between people and plants. I’m interested in plants in the natural world and how they are impacted by human culture. Also, how management of land affects plant communities. For my dissertation, I studied the impact of ancient Mayan forest gardens after the abandonment of urban centers in Belize and Guatemala. In the Himalayas, I am researching the effect of climate change on alpine communities (above the tree line). Management and mitigation strategies of those indigenous populations are something we can learn from as climate change effects continue moving down the mountains toward us.

Q: Are there any non-academic blogs or websites that you read regularly to stay in the loop in your field?

Ross: In the fall, I’m going to be teaching a class about food cultures of the world and how plant adaptations to ecosystems factor into the cuisine of the area. Lately I’ve been visiting tastingcultures.org, the website for the Tasting Cultures Foundation.

Q: Are there particular environments you feel compelled to travel and explore?

Ross: One of the best parts of my job is that it takes me everywhere. The science takes you around the world. I would love to go to Australia or New Zealand, which is part of the Alpine research network. I’d like to research tree gardening in the Philippines or go to South America, perhaps. I can think of something I’d like to do pretty much anywhere.

Q: Have you found a special place on campus yet, as someone who’s new to Drake?

Ross: I took over the (Pioneer Hi-bred International) Greenhouse when I got here. Now, we’ve got quite a collection of plants. I’m trying to create someplace where classes can go to see plant diversity. I’m being mailed a banana, and we already have a pomegranate I germinated from a seed with a student. I am also receiving a pineapple plant, a cinnamon tree (cinnamon comes from the bark) and some sugar cane. This month, we’ll be digging up the ground outside and planting a vegetable garden.