It is the bigger picture that matters to Barbara Schaal, dean of Arts & Sciences and the Mary-Dell Chilton Distinguished Professor in Arts & Sciences. “It’s very satisfying to take basic scientific principles and use them for applied problems,” says Schaal, who was among the first to use molecular biology based approaches to understand evolutionary processes in plants.
Her unassuming office, in the corner of McDonnell Hall, stands in stark contrast to her prestigious titles and scientific accomplishments. She became the first woman to be elected vice president of the National Academy of Sciences and has served as one of the 20 leading scientists and engineers on the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology since 2009. Schaal also has served as president of the Society for the Study of Evolution and the Botanical Society of America.
Schaal’s early work measured how genes moved through a population of plants, which has direct application for genetically modified crops. With her students she has addressed the origins of several staple food crops including rice and cassava. In the area of conservation, her research group has identified naturally occurring genetic mutations that have enabled crops to withstand flooding and insect attack, spanning the divide between basic lab science and practical field applications.
Schaal is encouraged by the creative initiative of her students, encouraging them to make their projects their own. “When they start their careers, they will already have an ongoing research program,” Schaal explains.
With global climate change and extreme events putting stress on the world’s agriculture and natural ecosystems, Schaal is making sure good science is used to make policy that will improve the quality of life for future generations.