New greenhouse enhances research and teaching

The 9,200 square foot greenhouse is subdivided into eleven different rooms and compartments, and each can host a distinct environment with controls for light, temperature, humidity, and carbon dioxide.

The Department of Biological Sciences celebrated the opening of their new greenhouse this in December, a facility that stands toe-to-toe with those at leading research institutions across the country. The rooftop location above the Northwest Quadrant (NWQ) replaces greenhouses formerly attached to Lapham Hall and the Great Lakes WATER Institute and comes with updates that outclass what had previously been available.

“This is really phenomenal. … I’m overwhelmed by the opportunities this will provide our faculty and staff, and our campus,” said Chancellor Michael Lovell at the ribbon-cutting on December 4, 2013.

Dean of the College of Letters and Science, Rodney Swain, shared similar sentiments. “It’s a jewel for our campus. We’re very excited about the groundbreaking research that will occur in this space.”

The excitement centers mainly on the expanded size of the space and the state-of-the-art environmental controls. The 9,200 square foot greenhouse is subdivided into eleven different rooms and compartments, and each can host a distinct environment with controls for light, temperature, humidity, and carbon dioxide. There is also 1,200 square feet of outdoor planting beds.

The set up of UWM’s greenhouse is fairly rare. Many greenhouses, even at major universities, keep their entire collection in a single open space under the same conditions, compromising the needs of a huge variety of plant life with a middle-of-the-road approach.

In contrast, said Paul Engevold, greenhouse manager, “We can design an environment that the faculty want versus the faculty needing to design their research around the environmental conditions.”

Jeffrey Karron, Professor of Biological Sciences, is making full use of the greenhouse’s features in his study on the long-term effects of self-pollination in monkey flowers. With the new controls, he can simulate the change of seasons indoors and raise three generations of plants in the time he could previously only raise one. And, he can do so without affecting the other plants in the facility.

Neither of the former greenhouses had air conditioning, humidity control, or up-to-date lighting fixtures. These limitations meant that some plants thrived while others struggled and required constant attention.

Engevold said that many of the plants look healthier and more natural than they ever have since moving into the NWQ in late September.

That’s good news for Kasey Fowler-Finn, a biological sciences postdoctoral fellow whose research depends on growing healthy plants. “It takes so much effort to keep the plants happy. I usually have three or four undergraduates working with me just to keep these plants alive,” she said.

Fowler-Finn studies the mating songs of treehoppers, a type of insect that communicates through vibrations in the stem of the plant it lives on. She is trying to determine why the insects sing at different pitches, but her data is only reliable if her plants are uniformly healthy.

To support her bugs, Fowler-Finn raises hundreds of plants at a time which had led to some difficulties arising from a lack of space. All her plants fit in the previous Lapham Hall greenhouse, but the tight quarters were overcrowded and led to outbreaks of pests and disease, causing substantial delays in Fowler-

Finn’s research. Now, because airflow is controlled independently in each room and filtered through a fine mesh, neither Fowler-Finn nor any of the other researchers have to worry about cross-contamination. Overcrowding is an issue of the past, too, since the new greenhouse is the size of both former greenhouses combined. Fowler-Finn said that with healthier plants she hopes to be able to collect in one year the same volume of data that she gathered over the previous three. That efficiency, she added, reflects positively on the university and its faculty when they apply for grants. She believes the greenhouse will make UWM more competitive for those awards in the future.

As an instructional space, the greenhouse will host approximately 1,700 students throughout the year. Abundant examples of plant physiology, biodiversity, and evolution provide an ideal learning space for classes at all levels.

“What we’re able to provide now is this living environment” for student learning, said Karron. He explained that without the greenhouse “you have specimens on a bench, but they’re not living specimens – you have the skeleton of a rabbit or something preserved in a jar. It makes biology into this very sterile discipline, and it’s not the same experience. Biology should be the study of life and its living organisms.”

This new environment, he hopes, will resonate with individuals and inspire them.

And it seems to be off to a good start. Chancellor Lovell, when he visited the completed greenhouse for the first time remarked, “I want to make this a tour stop for when people come to campus to visit because I think it’s so impressive.”