By: Joshua Lenahan, Practicum Reporter
A classroom full of students learning about plant taxonomy is normally the last place one would expect to find enthusiasm and laughter, but in Introduction to Botany, taught by Catherine Kleier, Ph.D., it’s just another Tuesday morning. As a National Geographic Explorer, and 2015 Colorado Professor of the Year, Kleier’s enthusiasm and infectious love for nature stretches far beyond the classroom.
Kleier’s achievements during her 12 years teaching at Regis include being named the 2015 Colorado Professor of the Year by the Council for Advancement and Support of Education and the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. However, one of her proudest achievements was receiving a National Geographic Waitt Foundation grant in 2011, which allowed her to travel to Chile to explore a rare alpine cushion plant called Yareta.
Botany was not a priority for Kleier during her undergraduate years. She studied Biology and also enjoyed taking humanities courses such as Classics and Film Studies. Her interest in botany wasn’t sparked until she took a plant class her senior year at the University of Colorado Boulder. She then took a few additional botany classes after she graduated before returning to Boulder for more classes, and then headed to the University of Oregon in Eugene for graduate studies in plant taxonomy. Kleier later attended the University of California, Los Angeles, where she earned her Ph.D. in Evolutionary Biology and Ecology.
Research has taken her across the globe. Her dissertation work in the Andes mountains of Chile was inspired by her love of alpine cushion plants, which she became acquainted with during her time in Colorado. She’s now one of the leading researchers of the Yareta plant.
“Good teaching is supported by good research,” Kleier said.
During her time in Colorado after college, Kleier was a trip leader for an outdoor adventure company, where she led teenagers on hiking and backpacking trips in the mountains. It was during these summers —hiking and backpacking in the Colorado wilderness— that she realized she wanted to become an alpine ecologist.
Kleier believes students can learn from her own late introduction to botany. Her journey to graduate school began with curiosity, but she lacked a clear path toward what she wanted to do or be. She followed her newfound love for botany to see where it would take her, and it led to more academic schooling. Never did she expect her interest in botany to lead her to where she is today – a professor at Regis. Her interest in teaching began as a teacher’s assistant at the University of Oregon. She combined her desire to teach with her appreciation for research, and that’s when she decided to pursue her doctorate at UCLA.
“It’s important to me that students understand that you don’t always know what it is you’re going to do,” Kleier said.
Discovering your career in this organic manner, rather than setting on a path before understanding it well, is what Kleier brings into the classroom. She recommends being open to learning and changing one’s mind.
Her students appreciate Kleier’s teaching style.
“She introduced me to a side of nature that I take with me everywhere I go,” said Noah Garcia, a student in her botany class. “She opened me up to a new appreciation of my surroundings that I never thought I would see before.”
Kleier’s extensive work in botany evolved alongside her passion for the outdoors. As an avid hiker, her love for the outdoors finds its way into her classrooms.
“I find when we give attention to nature, it’s very fulfilling. You’re celebrating it and it can be a hobby that is not consumptive,” said Kleier.
She believes that students introduced to botany learn to appreciate nature wherever they are. Beyond that, it’s a healthy hobby that anyone can enjoy.
“To be more familiar with your surroundings makes you feel at home wherever you go,” Kleier said.
Kleier’s love of nature and the outdoors resonates with her students.
“Dr. Kleier has deepened my interest in my already existing passion for the outdoors,” said Nicole Linkowski.
Other students shared similar sentiments. And many could quote a Kleier motto: “Botany isn’t rocket science; it’s much more complicated.”
Botany is an endless and joyful pursuit, Kleier believes, and one worth sharing with the world. It’ll always be needed and relevant.
"You can’t climb mountains forever, and you can’t ski black diamonds forever, but you can botanize forever," said Kleier, who, incidentally, does all three.
So, what’s next for Kleier?
She wants to learn more about genetics, molecular biology, astronomy, and basically all things outdoors. She’s working on another course, in addition to her book/video course, “Plant Science: an Introduction to Botany.”In 2020, she plans to visit New Zealand on sabbatical to research plants.
A mom, botanist, mentor, and inspiration to many, Kleier proves that botany is much more than a science class; it’s a class about life. She exemplifies how passion can stick with someone for the rest of her life and blossom into a relationship with nature worthy of sharing with the world.