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Chelsea Specht

Barbara McClintock Professor of Plant Biology; School of Integrative Plant Science, Plant Biology Section & the L.H. Bailey Hortorium (

Associate Dean for Diversity and Inclusion; College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (


Click here for my 2017 Meet the Faculty profile

Academic focus: Evolutionary biology of plants. My lab focuses on studies in plant form and function. We use traditional morphological and developmental techniques combined with molecular genetics, comparative genomics and evolutionary biology to study the natural diversity of plants and to help better understand the forces creating and sustaining this diversity. Our research incorporates elements of systematics, developmental genetics and molecular evolution to study the patterns and processes associated with plant speciation and diversification. We take advantage of living and preserved collections to advance our research in plant systematics, biogeography, and developmental evolution.

Previous positions: Professor, University of California (UC), Berkeley, 2016-17; associate/assistant professor, UC Berkeley 2005-11; curator of Monocots, the University Herbarium, UC Berkeley, 2005-17; postdoctoral Fellow, National Museum of Natural History, 2004-05

Academic background: B.A., biology and psychology, University of Delaware, 1993; M.S. biology, New York University (NYU), 1987; Ph.D. biology, NYU 2004

Last book(s) read: “Just Mercy” by Bryan Stevenson (a must read); “Homegoing” by Yaa Gyasi

What do you do when not working?: I enjoy gardening and landscaping with natives, which was a year-round sport in California. I also enjoy skiing with my daughter and sampling local beer and wine with my husband. As a family we really enjoying hiking and exploring new habitats, learning the local flora and fauna and hunting for interesting rocks.

What gets you out of bed in the morning?: I’m very motivated to develop academia in general, and plant biology in particular, as an inclusive community of networked biologists, working together to solve problems, to discover and explore, and to engage in the advancement of knowledge. I am strongly committed to achieving excellence through the diversity of systems we study and the diversity of the people engaged in the process. Every day I seem to become more aware of biases – both conscious and unconscious – that actively prevent us from moving our field forward in the most influential and progressive manner, and I am really passionate about seeking mechanisms to actively reduce the role of biases in my own decisions and in the decisions of colleagues and collaborators. I also want to work with our community to normalize these mechanisms so that reducing bias becomes a low hanging fruit, rather than something that has to be constantly fought for while equity and inclusion is overlooked in the role of an afterthought.

Current research project(s)? Most of my work research in the past has focused on the order Zingiberales, the tropical gingers that include bananas (Musa), cannas (Canna) and culinary ginger (Zingiber). However, I just submitted a grant to look at evolution of floral form in Calochortus, a genus of geophytes (plants with underground storage organs) found in the western U.S. and Mexico. I’m particularly interested in investigating the genetics underlying flower color and color patterning both within and between species, and in exploring the biogeographic patterns that have lead to the diversity of species and floral forms in these beautiful and charismatic plants. We’ll be using some of the same techniques that we’ve developing in Zingiberales and applying them to questions of speciation and diversification in Calochortus flowers. I’m also looking forward to developing a productive and invigorating collaboration with Dr. Matthew Willmann, Director of the Plant Transformation Facility, to transform and develop genome editing protocols for targeted Calochortus and Zingiberalesspecies.

Courses you’re most looking forward to teaching?: I’ve taught Plant Morphology for years prior to coming to Cornell, and I’d like to join forces with other faculty in plant biology, who have amazing expertise in Morphology and Anatomy, to develop a course that covers the principles of plant morphology together with evolution of plant form and function.  It would be interesting to have an optional second semester to the course that adds an element of developmental genetics and molecular evolution to the study of diversity in plant form.

What movie about your field gets it completely wrong?: Well, recently I think Botany got a very nice plug from The Martian, where Matt Damon’s character Mark Watney uses his “botany powers” to survive on Mars under circumstances that no non-botanist could ever have survived.  The quote from the movie is “Mars will come to fear my botany powers.” Of course, it’s more than just the botany that helps him persevere, but I like that he gives his deep and broad knowledge of botany and plant biology such credit for helping him live under extreme conditions.  I think botanists have the power and knowledge necessary to save this planet.  So perhaps the quote should be “Earth will come to revere my botany powers.”

What most excites you about Cornell CALS?: I’m really excited about the opportunities for collaboration, both for me and my students.  Everywhere I look someone is doing amazing research and contributing to fantastic and effective teaching, training, and outreach programs that further the mission of their research and of academia more broadly.  I’m also extremely excited to be part of a strong tradition in collections-based research in CALS; collections ranging from root stocks and breeding populations to Cornell University’s Insect Collection, the Plant Pathology Herbarium, and the L.H.Bailey Hortorium.

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