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February 28, 2005

New Paleobotany Professorship at the Burke Museum Established

Seattle— The Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture recently announced a new endowment in support of plant fossil research: The Estella B. Leopold professorship and curator of paleobotany. The new endowment will promote the study of biological and geological sciences at the museum.

Burke museum curators will seek an expert experienced in plant organisms and their natural histories to fill the new position. In addition, the new endowment will increase the biodiversity collecting at the Burke and also support graduate student training at the University of Washington.

The Burke Museum’s excellent Cenozoic era collection of fossil plants and pollen represent earlier forms of plants we know today, making it possible to reconstruct land histories. The museum appointee will focus research on this era. “It’s not the fossil leaves and pollen alone that are exciting—it’s their geologic and topographic context.” comments Dr. Leopold.

Dr. Leopold is the daughter of Aldo Leopold, an internationally respected scientist and conservationist, best known as the author of Sand County Almanac. An enduring classic about humanity’s relationship to the land, Sand County Almanac is the first work to document the environment in Sand County, Wisconsin. Aldo worked for the U.S. Forest Service for many years, also helping to found both the Wilderness Society and the Wildlife Society. An active advocate of wildlife conservation, he is considered to be the founding father of wildlife ecology.

All five of Aldo Leopold’s children went on to distinguished careers in science and land conservation. Estella in particular followed her father’s lead. She earned a Ph.D. in plant sciences from Yale and has worked at the U.S. Geological Survey, Denver. She has strong ties to the University of Washington, having spent six years as Director of the Quaternary Research Center at the University. Her UW research has focused on paleobotany, forest history, restoration ecology, fire ecology, and environmental quality, and she has used both fossil pollen and seeds to reconstruct Cenozoic vegetation and climates in the western United States, Alaska, and in China. She has also donated her extensive paleobotanical and spore/pollen (palynological) collections to the Burke Museum. These collections are significant because they formed the foundation for Estella’s research career investigating ancient environments.

Her elder brother, Dr. Luna Leopold matched Estella’s gift to the museum. He is the former chief hydrologist for the U.S. Geological Survey and is a renowned leading hydrologist. He spent 22 years in the Water Resources Division of the U.S. Geological Survey and went on to serve as a professor in the Department of Geology and Geophysics and the Department of Landscape Architecture at the University of California, Berkeley. He holds a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering, a master’s in physics and meteorology, and a Ph.D. in geology from Harvard.

This position will broaden the work begun by former Associate Curator of Paleobotany, Wes Wehr. The new curator will be charged with creating a program of distinction in research, for both graduate and undergraduates while expanding the plant fossil collections at the Burke.

The position has been vacant since the death of Wehr, who amassed a remarkable collection of fossil plants and wood and was the 2003 recipient of the Paleontological Society’s Harrell L. Strimple Award. “With this endowment the Burke will continue the work that Wes Wehr and I pursued on the ancient history of the western United States and Pacific Northwest,” Estella said.

The Burke Museum is honored to receive the endowment supporting the professorship and curatorial position and shares the Leopold’s excitement. The position will support and inspire new generations of paleobotanists through the Burke Museum.


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The Burke Museum is located at the corner of NE 45th St and 17th Ave NE, on the University of Washington campus. Hours are 10 am to 5 pm daily, and until 8 pm Thursday. Admission is $8 general, $6.50 senior, $5 student/ youth. Admission is free to children 4 and under, Burke members, UW students, faculty, and staff. Admission is free to the public on the first Thursday of each month. Call 206-543-5590 or visit www.burkemuseum,org.

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