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College of Science and Mathematics

It's all about our students

Now in 3rd Year, Cal Poly Plant Course Proves Succulent Experience

Up close photo of woman inspecting the needles of a round cactus More than a dozen Cal Poly students participated in a plant course held at the Huntington Botanical Gardens over winter break.
Contributed Photo // Kyle Nessen 


Nora Bales grew up in the desert landscape of Tuscon, Arizona. Cacti, she says, have always fascinated her. Her mother cultivated a diverse cactus garden in her childhood home. She even dug up and packed a few of the plants to take with her when her family relocated to California years ago.

So, the senior biology major jumped at the chance to spend three days in December at the Huntington Botanical Garden in Southern California learning about the various species of cacti through a crash course put on by Cal Poly biology professors Jenn Yost and Matt Ritter.

“Cacti have always been present in my life,” Bales said. “Despite this presence, I've never had much of an opportunity to learn more about their morphology, physiology, and taxonomy.

Photo of one woman and one man measuring a cactus.
Contributed Photo // Kyle Nessen

“The opportunity to participate in this class allowed me to finally learn more about something that I've always had in my life but never known much about,” she said.

The course brought together more than a dozen students who, like Bales, are passionate about botany and plant biology.

Over the three days, the students collected data, completed assignments and connected with experts in the field.

“It was magical to get to spend three days with some of the best botanists in the world,” said Kyle Nessen, a recent biological sciences graduate. “We were all lucky enough to be afforded this unique opportunity that not a lot of people get. It was great to have this hands-on experience.”

Since 2013, Yost and Ritter have put on the course at the Botanical Gardens. Each year, the focus of the course shifts to a different group of plants. In 2015, the course featured palms. 2014 featured aroids.

Photo of students looking on a professor points to cactus with an instrument.
Contributed Photo // Kyle Nessen

“For each class we assemble a group of experts on that type of plant,” said Yost. “This year we had the world’s best cacti anatomist, Dr. Jim Mauseth, from University of Texas, Austin, as well as many other experts. After getting an overview of the plant group from each instructor, the students design a research question, collect data on that question, and present their results at the end.”

For the students, the real-world learning experience proved invaluable.

“I learned a lot about cacti during the class, and most of what I learned was new, novel and exciting,” Bales said. “However, the largest take away for me was the sense of inspiration and wonder that the class gave me.”

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