1906 Scholar Preserving the Coastal Plain

Undergraduate Tapped as
Acting Curator for Herbarium

In her freshman year, Andrea Appleton jumped at the chance to work as a curatorial assistant in the Statesboro Campus herbarium. Two years later when the curator’s position opened, she stepped into the role of acting curator of the third largest collection of dried plant specimens in Georgia. It’s rare for an undergraduate to be granted such an extraordinary opportunity.

“Herbaria are brilliant scientific tools, but they also house a lot of beauty and potential inspiration for art and for life, which is perhaps unexpected since they consist solely of nonliving plants,” Appleton said. “I am constantly overwhelmed by the beauty and sheer amount of biodiversity contained in the collections, but my absolute favorite part of working there is when visitors are equally excited. Plants are often overlooked, so it is really special when visitors come in for a tour or class assignment somewhat indifferent about them and leave with a new appreciation for plant diversity and prevalence.”

1906 Scholar

Raised in Brooklet, Georgia, the senior is a biology major, a University Honors Program student and a recipient of the 1906 Scholars Scholarship. The 1906 Scholarship, which is funded by several Georgia Southern donors, supports about 40 honors students each year and covers the full cost of tuition for four years. Receiving the scholarship allowed Appleton to remain home near friends and family.

“I am a first-generation student, and the 1906 Scholarship is the sole reason that I am able to attend college,” said Appleton. “I am so thankful to be part of such a supportive program and be trusted with such a wonderful opportunity.

Appleton is also a recipient of the Goldwater Scholarship, the most prestigious undergraduate award for STEM majors who demonstrate outstanding potential to do research. She studies the evolution and development of staminodes, which are stamens (the pollen-producing parts of flowers) that have lost the ability to produce pollen. The herbarium, housed in the Biological Sciences Building, contains nearly 50,000 processed plant specimens and a backlog of specimens that are in the herbarium’s possession but have not been incorporated into the collection. As the acting curator, Appleton handles a variety of tasks.

Her Responsibilities as Acting Curator

“Each day can be a bit different, but some of our big goals are to preserve the integrity of the collection and to process and integrate the rest of our backlogged specimens,” Appleton said. “The last couple of semesters have involved a lot of general maintenance (like freezing specimens to deter pests), identifying backlogged specimens and updating nomenclature – plant taxonomy is constantly updated as new systematic discoveries are made, and we aim to stay as current as possible.”

Established in 1955, the herbarium focuses mainly on plants from Georgia’s Coastal Plain region.

“There are approximately 400,000 total described species of plants on Earth.” Appleton said. “Not all of them are represented in our herbarium, but it does contain a considerable number of Georgia-native species across many families, including rare or endangered species, like pitcher plants and some orchids. All kinds of different plants, from the tiniest moss, to the most intricate flowering plant, are included.

The botanist-in-training said she will use her experience in the herbarium to continue her education after she graduates from Georgia Southern in May.

“Largely through working in the herbarium, I have fallen in love with floral diversity,” she said. “After graduating, I will pursue a Ph.D. with the intent to develop a research program that explores the causes and mechanisms of floral evolution and diversification as a university professor.”

The 1906 Scholar said she is grateful for the support of the Honors Program, the biology department and many professors and advisors. Steven Engel, Ph.D., director of the University Honors Program considers her a model student.

“Andrea has a reserved and quiet personality but that doesn’t make her any less of a leader,” Engel said. “Through her research and work with the Herbarium (and in dozens of other ways), she has made a lasting impact on the Georgia Southern community during her time here. I know she will continue to make us proud after she graduates this year.” — Sandra Bennett