Pioneer Spotlight: Dr. Sharon Klavins

Sharon Klavins

After growing up in south Florida and spending summers at her grandparents' North Carolina farm, Dr. Sharon Klavins, professor of biology at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville, was drawn to the natural world.

“I spent a lot of time outside exploring,” said Klavins. “I was the kid who would bring home a half-pint milk carton full of frogs from the school playground. I would sit in the backyard with a tack hammer and crack open rocks for hours to look for fossils. I have always been interested in the natural world.”

Klavins’ passion led her to the field of paleobotany, where her specialty is plant structure and evolution. She began her career teaching high school. Klavins then earned her doctorate degree in plant biology from Southern Illinois University-Carbondale. She started at UW-Platteville in 2005.

As the fall semester is set to begin next week, Klavins is looking forward to the new academic year and seeing students once again. “I really enjoy meeting a whole new group of students every semester,” she said, “and getting to see students I had in a previous class when they take another class with me. It’s so good to see them again and keep developing those relationships.”

You teach a variety of classes from general education courses to advanced botany topics. What do you hope students take away from your classes?

What I hope is to spark curiosity and a sense of wonder about the natural world around us. Especially in introductory classes, it’s easy for students to get the impression that biology is just facts and memorization, but there’s still so much we don’t know. I hope to show them scientists are people who never stopped asking “Why?” or “How?” and are able to provide evidence-based answers to these questions.

How are you able to inspire students and community members to explore the green world around them and help prevent “plant blindness”?

People tend to be attracted to cute furry things with faces and they take the green world around them for granted. I think one way to counter plant blindness is to get hands-on experience with plants and their communities. I teach one of my favorite classes, Plant Communities of Wisconsin, every fall with Dr. Beth Frieders [UW-Platteville professor of biology]. Nearly every week for the first half of the semester we take students to different natural communities, such as dry prairies or floodplain forests, to experience them first-hand. Students learn to identify plants and combinations of species that distinguish these different communities. They start to recognize you can go from an upland dry pine forest to a shrub community to a sedge meadow within 30 feet, if you are in the right place in the state. Then we can start to answer the question of why? Why do we have all of these different communities in Wisconsin? We talk about geological, geographical and historical factors that affect where they occur, as well as how our landscape has changed and continues to change. It is also fun that we can teach them to do “botany at 65 mph” and recognize different species of trees as we are driving to new locations.

How is climate change affecting the environment and what can plants reveal about the warming trend?

One of the things we are seeing is that plants are shifting the timing of major events in their life cycles. For example, in some species, leaf-out is occurring earlier in the year, with flowering and fruiting happening at different times than they historically have. This leads to a mismatch between the plants and the animal species that depend on them. Plants are the base of terrestrial food chains, so this could lead to major changes extremely quickly.

Wisconsin is fascinating because you have the southern part of the state that was historically prairie, savanna and some forest, and the Northwoods of northern Wisconsin, for the past 6,000 years or so. There is a transition zone of the middle of the state where northern and southern species overlap. We are going to see shifts in where plants can continue to survive. There will be some species that thrive in a warmer climate and some that migrate north, but we will also lose some species that just can’t tolerate the new climate conditions. This is what occurred after the glaciers retreated from Wisconsin, based on what we can document in the pollen records, but it is complicated now. Human impacts on plant communities are going to have far-reaching effects on what will survive.

The problem with climate change is that it’s happening so fast. We’re working on very short time scales, rather than 1,000 to 5,000-years. It is just not enough time for the natural world to respond. Frankly, it’s scary.

What can people do to help slow climate change?

We have become used to convenience and that is killing us. In some ways I think the changes we have had to make because of the pandemic have shown us some of the choices we could be making: not eating out as much, not traveling unnecessarily and using fewer resources overall. We know the right things to do, but it’s hard to change.

We need to plant trees, as well as conserve and restore natural areas at large scale. All plants use complex biochemical reactions that remove carbon from the atmosphere and use it to build their bodies. Forests and grasslands are vast reservoirs that can store carbon, keeping it out of the atmosphere. We are now doing twice the harm. We’re destroying huge numbers of organisms capable of storing carbon, while also releasing all of what was stored in their bodies back into the atmosphere. Of course, there are communities, like prairies, that require fire for their continued existence, but they also responded, historically, with more lush growth in response. That’s not what’s happening now, because we have thrown those ecosystems wildly out of balance.

What is the most rewarding part of your job?

I love working with and interacting with students. It’s such a pleasure to help them learn and see them succeed. We [professors] love learning. This job gives us all an excuse to keep learning for the rest of our lives, because science keeps changing. We have to keep stretching and figuring out what our students need to know.