Speaking with characteristic clarity and good humor, Karl Niklas presented an overview of his 45 years modeling plant evolution to a standing room audience during the Plant Biology Seminar on Friday, March 23. Niklas, a Liberty Hyde Bailey Professor in the SIPS Plant Biology Section, is an esteemed researcher and veritable celebrity in the fields of paleobotany and plant biomechanics. As a teacher, he has left a deep imprint on the countless Cornell students who have taken his classes in botany, plant biomechanics, and plant evolution.
Niklas described how fundamental questions about plant morphology have driven his research, beginning with modeling the development of fossil algae as part of his graduate work at the University of Illionois, to investigation of the aerodynamics of pollination, optimization of leaf arrangement, land plant evolution, and forest dynamics since his arrival at Cornell in 1978. A recurring theme throughout Niklas’s research has been his embrace of new technologies, whether scanning electron microscopy for examination of fossils or developments in computer technology for his increasingly complex simulations of plant development and evolution.
Though Niklas referred several times to research details that were “excruciatingly boring” or books of his as cures for insomnia, the procession of eminent journals in which his findings were published belie such modesty. Niklas has published over 400 papers and five books over the course of his career and has received many awards including Humboldt Stiftung Prize, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and is a Weiss Presidential Fellow in honor of his teaching. He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and past president of the Botanical Society of America.
Doubtless there were many in the audience who, after hearing his passionate and engaged search for new understanding and skill at conveying complex ideas, are wondering if there might be one last opportunity to take a class before his rumored retirement at the end of 2018. When asked by an audience member what questions he would address with the computational power now available, Niklas replied that our research directions must be guided not by the tools available but by the biological questions that inspire us.