Humanities major turned botanist rises to top of her field

Every time FIU botanist Jennifer Richards looks at a plant she sees something new that amazes her.

Nearly 40 years into her career, the FIU biological sciences professor speaks with an awe for flowers, ferns and grasses similar to a botanist launching her career. Richards was named this year’s Distinguished Fellow by the Botanical Society of America, one of the world’s largest societies devoted to the study of plants and wildlife that interact with it.

“It’s great to have my work recognized by the society,” Richards said. “Some of the people I have most looked up to in my career have been honored with this prestigious award, I feel humbled to be in their company.”

Richards studies plants in the Florida Everglades as part of the Florida Coastal Everglades Long Term Ecological Research Program. She turns to sawgrass, spikerushes and other plants for clues into how water, climate change and people affect the tropical wetlands. She is currently working with the GIS Center to map vegetation throughout Everglades National Park using remote sensing techniques. This will shed light on how large areas of vegetation respond to restoration efforts over time, Richards said.

Richards has also studied how invasive species, including ferns, reproduce and what methods are most effective for controlling them. She has conducted this research through the International Center for Tropical Botany at The Kampong, a collaboration between FIU and the National Tropical Botanical Garden. She also studied water lilies as indicators of Everglades ecosystem health in the Southeast Environmental Research Center in FIU’s Institute of Water and Environment.

Jennifer Richards

As a young undergraduate at Harvard University, Richards did not intend to pursue a career in botany or science at all. She started out as an English major. But the counterculture of the 1960s grew popular and she realized she had a calling for environmental stewardship, Richards said. She changed her major to biology and fell in love with the study of plants when she took her first botany course. Richards went on to earn a Ph.D. in botany from University of California, Berkeley.

Richards landed at FIU in 1982 joining the Department of Biological Sciences as an expert in plant morphology, development and ecology. Richards has served the Botanical Society of America in a number of roles, including secretary and associate editor of the American Journal of Botany, the society’s flagship journal.

Richards hopes her work will inspire and inform future generations of scientists working to solve some of the planet’s toughest challenges, from climate change to environmental restoration and conservation.