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After 41-Year Penn State Career, Plant Scientist Brown Retires
Pennsylvania Ag Connection - 09/16/2021

Kathleen Brown, professor of plant stress biology in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences, recently retired after a 41-year career during which she helped break new ground in root biology, had a profound effect on many students and played an important role in the Department of Plant Science.

Hired in 1980 as an assistant professor with a focus on postharvest physiology, she made important contributions to that field before transitioning to work on various aspects of root biology. Over Brown's career at Penn State, she has been involved in publishing more than 100 peer-reviewed papers and helped garner funding exceeding $23 million from the U.S. departments of Energy and Agriculture, the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Agency for International Development, and other sources.

Brown has had an impressive career during which she was part of numerous discoveries that have had significant impacts on agriculture, according to Erin Connolly, professor and head of the Department of Plant Science.

"Without a doubt, research she has contributed to will continue to enable translational work that results in more sustainable and resilient agricultural systems in the future," Connolly said. "For example, some of her work includes the description of root architecture traits that underlie improved drought tolerance and growth of plants in low-nutrient soils."

Brown long has been one of the most respected instructors in plant science, Connolly pointed out, adding that in addition to teaching postharvest physiology for four decades, she has been very active in instructing graduate students. This included the development and instruction of courses for the horticulture graduate program and for the Intercollege Graduate Degree Program in Plant Biology.

In addition, she served as the coordinator for the graduate program in horticulture for 25 years, Connolly said. "She has been one of our most beloved graduate advisors and has mentored 17 Ph.D. students, many of whom have gone on to successful careers in science."

Brown served as interim department head in 2016 during a critical time for the Plant Science Department, Connolly noted, and she also served as interim assistant dean for graduate education. "In addition, she has been incredibly generous with her time and provided so much thoughtful administrative service over the years," she said. "This includes shepherding the department through a merger of two graduate programs to form the new Agricultural and Environmental Plant Sciences Ph.D. and master's degree program."

Brown's research focus changed when Jonathan Lynch, now distinguished professor of plant science, came to Penn State in 1991, bringing an interest in root traits that could help plants acquire more phosphorus from poor soils. That led to a long and productive collaboration with Brown on root responses to poor soils, later including other nutrient deficiencies and drought.

"I was keen to be involved in this research because it was relatively unexplored territory scientifically, and it had great potential to make an impact on people's livelihoods and the environmental sustainability of agriculture globally," Brown said. "In the early years, we worked mostly with common bean, which fortuitously has a root system that is easy to decipher. Later we began similar research with maize and rice."

Looking back, Brown also found her teaching to be extremely fulfilling, and she has a unique perspective.

"I love plants more and more the better I get to know them, and I appreciated having whole classes full of students with a passion for plants," she said. "I had 60 students in my postharvest physiology class the first time I taught it during winter term 1981, and 80 the second time. After that, the numbers declined gradually to stabilize at around 20-25 students per year."

Perhaps the most rewarding aspect of Brown's career has been the opportunity to work with many talented and motivated graduate students, she said. Each of them had their own unique strengths and way of approaching problems, she recalled, and many became dear to her over time.

"Jonathan Lynch and I joined our lab groups, so I knew all his students well and served on most of their advisory committees," she said. "We had collaborations or personal associations that led to several students coming for graduate work or research from each of these countries: Colombia, Mozambique, Denmark, Thailand and China. I came to feel that I knew a little about these cultures from interacting with those students."

She also has advised students or visiting scholars from Egypt, India, Korea, Sri Lanka, Greece and, of course, many from the U.S.

A major change Brown saw over her career was the increase in participation of women in STEM fields. When she arrived at Penn State 41 years ago, she was the only female tenure-track faculty member in what was then the Department of Horticulture, and there were very few women on the faculty of the college.

"That has changed in a major way, obviously," she said. "In the 1990s, we had parties for the faculty women in the college, but now there are too many of us to invite to most peoples' homes."


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