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  • Mr. President

    Botany's Rob Wallace assumes leadership role in international organization

  • While most boys his age were collecting baseball cards, Rob Wallace collected cacti.

    "I started raising cactus as a hobby when I was 10 years old," Wallace remembers. "I became involved with amateur horticulture groups in north New Jersey."

    By the time he went away to Wilkes College in Pennsylvania as a freshman, he had a personal collection of 600 different species of cacti and other succulent plants.

    While in college Wallace actually maintained his living plant collection on the Wilkes College campus. His research collection has grown and diversified throughout his academic career, including his Ph.D. studies at Rutgers University and three months in South Africa studying succulent plants in the field, and now at Iowa State, specifically in the greenhouse on top of Bessey Hall.

    "I feel fortunate that I have been able to pursue my original hobby as a career," he said. "This isn't really work for me. It's a part of me.

    "I always want to know more and more about cacti."

    These days Wallace, associate professor of botany, studies evolutionary relationships in diverse plant groups using comparative DNA sequencing techniques with the goals of constructing phylogenies for them, and using this new information for taxonomic re-evaluation and improved classification of the plant group being investigated.

    "In particular I'm interested in the utilization of data derived from biochemical and molecular investigations in concert with morphological, cytological and biogeographic data to examine plant evolution in a multidisciplinary fashion," he said.

    In conjunction with his research activities, Wallace has become an active member of the International Organization for Succulent Plant Study (IOS), an organization based in Zurich, Switzerland with over 340 members from 14 countries.

    Succulent plants, which include cacti and other desert dwellers, occur in seasonally dry and other arid zones of the world, and are adapted to tolerate the harsh environmental conditions within these habitats.

    This past April Wallace was named to a two-year term as president of that international organization. He says presidents typically serve two two-year terms. He communicates regularly with the main office in Zurich, where a full-time researcher and a treasurer are employed.

    In his new role, Wallace will also coordinate the group's next international congress in 2004 at the Botanical Institute in Hamburg, Germany.

    "The IOS' main emphasis is to coordinate research and conservation efforts for succulent plants," Wallace says.

    Conservation is an important component of IOS' charge.

    "We investigate how succulent plants relate to the environment and evaluate these conditions for their survival," Wallace said. "Human encroachment and over grazing, particularly by goats and sheep, are wiping these plants out throughout the world.

    "We have international efforts to study these groups of plants."

    Wallace is actively involved in some of those efforts. He has joined a British colleague in coordinating an effort to bring 22 cactus specialists together to conduct research on different aspects of the cactus family.

    The IOS has also completed two volumes of a four volume series on all the succulent plants of the world. Wallace is among a group of cactus experts who are working on a third volume in the series, dealing specifically with cacti.

    "Organizations like the IOS are the best way to do research in a collaborative effort, allowing us to approach all sorts of questions from different research directions," he said.

    The IOS and its membership have also encouraged Wallace throughout the years.
    That's why he decided to become active in the group's governance.

    "The IOS has played a big part by assisting me throughout my professional academic career," he said. "I hope that by becoming president of the organization I can pay back the group that has helped me so much in my career.

    “This is not only a research group, but a fellowship as well. I have developed close personal relationships with colleagues throughout the world that extend well beyond our research activities."

Rob Wallace among cactus

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December 2-31, 2002