Story in the College of Arts & Sciences
Biology professor examines how the rarest plant species evolve over time in the coldest corners of Alaska.
Justen Whittall '96 is an expert on West Coast plants, particularly the ones that are hardest to find. The SCU biology professor, a native of the South Bay, studies the federally endangered Metcalf Jewelflower and California's Torrey Pines, one of the rarest pines in the world.
His early work at SCU set him on this path. "As an undergraduate, I took a course in field botany and discovered I could take what I was learning in the classroom and lab and put it to use in the field," Whittall says. "From that moment, I was hooked."
As an assistant professor in SCU's biology department, he also studies plants in the Arctic Circle; last summer, he traveled to Alaska to better understand the adaptability of plants in cold climates—an unknown factor in understanding global climate change. He and his assistants are researching the genetic basis for Arctic mustard plant adaptations. Next summer, he'll return with several undergraduates.
By putting together a genetic map of plant species, Whittall can track how plants have evolved over time. Students help in his rooftop greenhouse, making hybridizations; in the lab, isolating gene sequences; and out in the field, collecting specimens.
"I see students' eyes just light up when—instead of doing the cookbook labs taught in high school or at other institutions—at Santa Clara they get to take that information directly into a personal experience," Whittall says. "This is real science being done by Santa Clara undergraduates."
Watch a video about research in SCU's biology labs below.